Janice Poon talks Feeding Hannibal, cannibals and Fannibals

Hannibal’s genius food stylist on her (not) cannibal cookbook and what made the show special

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Hannibal was very special. We’re still not over the loss of it, quite frankly, but for Fannibals who are looking for a way to continue their love affair with the world that Bryan Fuller created, there’s a delicious stroke of luck. The show’s brilliant food stylist Janice Poon has written Feeding Hannibal, a book of recipes that will help you recreate the meals that Dr Lecter dished up over the fine dining of the three glorious seasons (with socially acceptable human flesh substitutes, of course!)

“Every time I go into the office, somebody takes me aside and says, ‘Oh, I miss Hannibal!'” she tells us. “It was a unique experience. We really were a family and we worked so hard together, it was really great. The other day I was on a location for a film, and I said ‘Oh, I’ve been in this location before, it’s where Will’s cabin was for Hannibal!’ And this woman said ‘Oh, Hannibal! Oh, I loved that show,’ and she couldn’t stop talking about Mads Mikkelsen!”

Mads Mikkelsen will obviously come up again in our conversation, but we also talked about the joys of working on the series, the power of the Fannibals, and why thinking about dead giraffes is a sign that you should take a break.

So how did the cookbook come about?

It really wasn’t my idea; it was really the Fannibals’ idea. I was writing this blog, which I was only writing initially because I wanted to copyright my sketches. I thought, “I’m just going to use this internet thing I’ve heard about!” We were so stunned that people found it! It’s that Hannibal pull! Can you imagine my amazement? And once you start writing and people say “Oh, that’s wonderful,” I’m like a trained monkey, I think, “Oh, could I have another peanut?” So I write another one!

And that’s how the Fannibals began a dialogue in the comments section about how it would make a wonderful cookbook. Of course, my job is actually getting stuff in front of the camera, but around the second season I started to think “Oh this is a really good idea,” and a couple of publishers approached me about it. It’s so complicated because the properties are owned by so many different parties and I didn’t want to do something unauthorised because that didn’t seem right. Hannibal itself, the show, is my main concern and I certainly didn’t want to do anything that was going to compromise that.

I had cobbled together a kind of proposal and I showed it to Loretta Ramos, who is a fantastic person, and said “I don’t want to step on any toes or compromise my work with the show, but it’s just so interesting and the people that come to my blog have been kind of clamouring for it and a couple of publishers have approached me…” and she said “Just wait a second.” And really it was a matter of an hour and she had the licensing person from NBC and Gaumont. And Martha De Laurentiis jumped in immediately and said “If there’s anything I can do to smooth the way with Thomas Harris, if there’s any rights that need to be cleared there just let me know.”

The doors just flew open, I was shocked, actually. It was a train that just pulled out of the station so fast I barely had time to pack.

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Janice Poon and handsome friend

There’s a funny little disclaimer on the back of the book that states that these recipes aren’t actually made with people! Were there ever any real nerves about how people would react to a cookbook based on a cannibal’s cuisine?

Well, they wanted to be very clear about that, both NBC and Gaumont and I guess I understand it. I guess there are tender minds out there but I think you’re either a cannibal or a can’t-ibal, I don’t think people can become cannibals, although the interest in cannibals has certainly ratcheted up. At the Toronto film festival there were something like five films about cannibals!

I don’t think it’s because of Hannibal, I think Hannibal is part of that phenomenon, that thing of wanting to eat the rich. We’re starting to think that it’s a world of oligarchs and serfs, so we the serfs like to read about eating the rich, that’s all! Just a daydream, not a real dinner plan!

There’s a wonderful moment in the book in which you talk about realising that you might be going a bit too far…

When I read that now, I think I really need to be checked out! Bryan wanted to do a close up of Hannibal cutting a body apart, cutting the leg, and it had to be to scale. Obviously, I’m not going to source a person! So I’m thinking “Maybe the front of a horse, because there’s a horsemeat industry in Ontario, how hard can it be to get a horse?” Quite hard, actually! I’m on the phone and I’m trying to be persuasive. “It’s for art! Don’t you want to be part of a TV show?”

And I was thinking of all these things that might be the same size. “Venison? No, they have such chunky thighs…” And then I actually thought, “Maybe there’s a giraffe’s just died, maybe a zoo somewhere lost a giraffe.” And I started to move the cursor over to Google…and I said “No. No, Janice. Just no. OK? No.” [laughs]

But you get to a zone where you think “I can make this happen.” You do find yourself going down dark alleys that you might otherwise not, just to see the smile on Bryan’s face, that’s all! When our leader smiles, it all makes it worthwhile! He’s marvellous; I can’t overstate how fantastic it is to work with somebody like Bryan Fuller. His mind works on so many levels that it’s always surprising and yet he’s so open to other people’s ideas, and I think that’s why his work is so fantastic. He can still have all these original amazing ideas and be thinking of six things at once and still have that free hand to play with other people’s ideas. It’s just an amazing thing to be a part of and it just makes you want to try harder, leap higher, be stronger. All those things. Stay up later!

Roasted leg, wrapped in clay. Mmmm.
Roasted leg, wrapped in clay. Mmmm.

And on top of that, you’ve had such an amazing reaction from the fans, which must prompt a similar response!

Oh, very much so. I’ve not had that experience with my work before. Normally the thing about food is that it’s usually on a table, or just a teensy bit of it is on the fork and all the action is on the actor’s face. So the food has to be really sensational to draw the director’s attention, otherwise you just see it in the establishing shot or the long shot. You get no feedback whatsoever, you’re lucky if you get a credit.

I like to put meaning in things so it’s meaningful to me, because otherwise it’s just work. If I can layer things in, it starts to be a little game with myself that I’m playing. Like when the director said to me “Why is there ice in this barbeque?” I said “That’s the lake of ice in the seventh ring of hell!” “Oh. OK!” If you have an answer they have to say OK!

But when you see that the Fannibals are so interested and they’re looking at everything and wanting to know the meaning of things, it’s very gratifying and it does make you try harder. I always liken it to writing, because every word has to contribute to the piece or you get rid of it. It either gives information or atmosphere or it moves the plot ahead, it has to do something, and that’s the approach that I was taking to food. It came across as very elaborate because there are a lot of metaphors in food. Food has a great deal of meaning, and eating a home cooked meal with somebody is really an exercise in faith, because you’re saying this could be mother’s milk or it could be polonium tea!

It must feel great to see the fans recreating your recipes and your creations at home, too.

It does feel pretty great. There were some pink chocolate mice in one of the Noddy books and I spent half my childhood trying to recreate those pink candy mice. And that’s sort of what I’m going for. The interest surprises me in a way, but it speaks to me in another way. I know what that means, it makes it more real.

You love the story so much you could eat it! And being able to reproduce something in a story that you love just brings it that much closer to you, makes it that much more real. I think that’s what our stories are for us in culture, they’re wishes we dream might come true one day or antidotes to our real life.

Laurence Fishburne and Mads Mikkelsen prepare to tackle the famous Moebius strip jelly
Laurence Fishburne and Mads Mikkelsen prepare to tackle the famous Moebius strip jelly

It is incredible that the love for and discussion of Hannibal hasn’t died down at all.

I mean, I know I live in a bit of a Hannibal world, but it’s stunning to me. TV and movie crews, we go from project to project, production to production. “Oh that was fun.” But Hannibal was really different, there was something about it that was really different, and that something about it, was everything about it. It was the scripts, it was Bryan, it was Mads and Hugh and Laurence, they were so great to work with. Normally, I’m working with starlets who have very particular needs, and that’s their absolute right to say, “I’m not going to eat that” but as an actor, if you play a vampire, there’s going to be blood!

It’s always nice to see that everyone involved always brings it up on at appearances or in interviews. Mads Mikkelsen mentions it while talking about Star Wars!

I love that, and Hugh always mentions Hannibal too. They’re all so very very fond of it, and Mads always asks about the Fannibals and he loves them!

There’s a great foreword from Mads in the book where he talks about meeting you and briefly worrying that he was about to be cooked and eaten…

[laughs] Honestly! But that’s what we loved about him; he had such an evil sense of humour! He was so much fun on set. They were so relaxed, some actors would want to stay in character all the time and you don’t want to speak to them because you don’t want to snap their concentration, but Mads and Hugh were not like that. They just flipped into their roles the second the camera was rolling, and up to that it was joking and juggling strawberries until it was time to go to camera. They were wonderful, and intelligent, lovely funny people!

Is there a recipe in the book that you’d recommend for nervous starters?

Well I would say the protein scramble, which is the very first recipe in the book.

Can I tell you a story about that? I got a note from one of my readers of the blog and she was telling me that she has a son who has Asperger’s. She said one of the hardest things was getting him to eat because he’s so very particular about everything, and he never showed an interest in food until he saw Hannibal make the protein scramble, and then he suddenly became mesmerised by the food that Hannibal was making.

He made the protein scramble and she was thrilled because he was showing an interest in food and an interest in cooking, and she started to get everything she could with recipes that looked like the show, so she was so relieved to find the blog. He’s got this interest in cooking and recipes now, he cooks for the family, he goes shopping with her, and you think “Oh my god, here we thought we were just goofing around, but it has really touched people.”

Sausage and Eggs Highlife, as prepared for Abigail Hobbs.
Sausage and Eggs High Life, as prepared for Abigail Hobbs.

Finally, which Hannibal recipe is the most requested?

The most requested recipe is probably the Eggs High Life that Mads made for Abigail, and it is so simple. You take a big thick piece of brioche or any dense white bread, and you use a glass that’s smaller than the bread and you make a hole in it, but not all the way through. You make an indentation with the open side of the glass and then you cut almost all the way through, and you peel out the bread. And then you heat up about a half an inch of olive oil in a frying pan and you put the bread in, and as soon as you put it in you drop an egg into the hole. Like toad in the hole, but egg in the hole. The difference is: this is shallow-fried. Deep fried tips everything into the “Tastier than anything I’ve ever had in my life!” category.

You fry that up and you just lift it out of the oil once the bread has transmitted the heat enough to the egg that the white’s cooked and the yolk is still a bit runny. You can put salt and pepper and salsa on it if you want, and it’s delicious! You have to drain it on a paper towel. You should. Or you can just let it cool and drink it out of the pan!

Feeding Hannibal by Janice Poon is available now from Titan Books. You can buy it at Amazon.co.uk. Follow Janice on Twitter at @FeedingHannibal and keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.