Hannibal Food Stylist Janice Poon Picks The Show’s 5 Most Iconic Dishes, Film Companion
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When you’re a food stylist, a cut bell pepper may look like a screaming face, a meatloaf in closeup might be lunar terrain and a lowly Brussels sprout may open out to look like a beautiful rose. At least, that’s how they appear to the creative eye of Janice Poon, Toronto-based food stylist, who has been serving up a visual feast onscreen since 2002. The bright green key lime pies that fill Richard Jenkins’ fridge in The Shape of Water (2017) – made by Poon. The delicate pastel sandwiches in The Handmaid’s Tale baby shower scene in season 1 – also her. Mrs. Fadil’s last meal of chicken lemon stew, kibbeh and saffron rice in American Gods season 1 – her again.

“I came to food styling somewhat serendipitously. Growing up in restaurants will cure anyone of wanting a career in food – it’s such hard work and long hours. So I chose a career in graphic art. I became an art director at a big ad agency and, as fate would have it, most of my accounts were food – McDonalds, Kraft, Quaker Oats. So my shoots were always attended by a food stylist and that’s how I became familiar with their work,” says Poon.

Two years of food styling for the 2001 TV series A Nero Wolfe Mystery followed, after which her colleagues recommended her for NBC’s Hannibal seriesbased on Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels. By then, Poon had food styling down to a fine art. “I never use spinach or shopped parsley that might stick in an actor’s teeth nor anything tough or noisy to chew. And of course, you want to respect their dietary restrictions – so if a vegan actor is playing a vampire who eats raw meat, I have to make mock meat. And of course, everything must be food-safe since the main thing is to not kill the actors,” she says.

Hannibal Food Stylist Janice Poon Picks The Show’s 5 Most Iconic Dishes, Film Companion
From left: Janice Poon and Hannibal director Bryan Fuller on set. Photo credit: Loretta Ramos

The final season of Hannibal aired in 2015, but the show still has a special place in Poon’s heart – just look at her Twitter handle, @FeedingHannibal. One of the show’s greatest triumphs, a testament to its stellar food design, was its ability to make you salivate each time Hannibal, played by Mads Mikkelsen, pulled a roast out of the oven, cut into a tender piece of meat with his knife or flambéed a pan full of juicy morsels – despite your knowledge of his cannibalistic tendencies.

Poon had to get creative with the elaborate and varied meals Hannibal prepped on the show, substituting marzipan for snail shells and using a mixture of dough, white chocolate and cranberry jelly to create bone marrow.

“Sometimes, the script would name a specific dish or sometimes it would just say “Hannibal enters with a delicious platter” and I would design a dish that went with the characters and the storyline. But the most fun were the times when (director) Bryan Fuller would send an all-caps email saying “I’VE GOT A LEG” and José Andrès (the show’s culinary consultant) and I would reply with various gastronomic possibilities, batting ideas around until Bryan chose something he liked. Then I would design the dish and send back sketches for approval. I ultimately had final say because I was the one actually making the food and arranging it on set,” says Poon.

Over the course of the show’s three seasons, Poon cooked a wide range of cuisines, from Russian to South Indian to Japanese. She also started a blog documenting the process. It grew immensely popular, with fans asking her for recipes and sharing photos of their own takes on the show’s food.

“I published a blog, Feeding Hannibal, as a quick way of copyrighting my sketches. When fans of the show started viewing them, I thought I’d better explain what they were about and began to tell behind-the-scenes stories. The blog became popular and a publisher approached me,” she said. The result: Feeding Hannibal: A Connoisseur’s Cookbook was published two years later.

Now, five years after the show premiered, Poon tells us about the ingredients of some of the show’s most iconic dishes, the thought processes that brought them to fruition and how they reflected the characters’ personalities.

1. Roasted ortolans (Season 2, episode 11)

Ortolans are legendary in French cuisine as a forbidden delicacy made by capturing wild songbirds, blinding them so they, thinking it is night, eat continuously. When they are so fat they can no longer stand, they are drowned in cognac, seared in a hot oven and eaten whole — traditionally with a napkin over your head so God cannot see your cruel gluttony. These birds were a recurring motif in Robert Harris’ book, Hannibal Rising. “They’re just like us…they can smell the others cooking and still they try to sing,” Hannibal says as he murders a cook and frees the ortolans.  In our episode, the ortolans are not released. They are cruelly cooked and eaten without guilt – a foreshadowing of (criminal profiler) Will Graham’s complicity in Hannibal’s questionable lifestyle and the exquisite enjoyment of their shared amoral act.

Of course I couldn’t use real ortolans for this scene so I sculpted fake ones out of marzipan which I hollowed and stuffed with cognac-infused fruit. I made their legs out of spaghetti so when Mads and Hugh ate them, they would feel the tiny legs crunch and experience the squish of fruit and the squirt of cognac when they bit down on them.

Hannibal Food Stylist Janice Poon Picks The Show’s 5 Most Iconic Dishes, Film Companion2. Kidney pie (Season 2, episode 5)

Beverly Katz was a character everyone had really grown to love by Season 2, so we were shocked when she was murdered. When the script called for Hannibal to cook her kidneys, I wanted to pay homage to The Pie Hole from Bryan’s (2007 series) Pushing Daisies, so I suggested Kidney pie.

You or I might save our best culinary efforts for when we have important guests. But when Hannibal dines alone, he puts all the more care and drama into the food – after all, Hannibal is his own best guest. So I made the top crust of the pie to resemble the prison mask – a fearsome and iconic design instantly recognizable no matter the material,  foreshadowing his and Will’s impending imprisonment.

Hannibal Food Stylist Janice Poon Picks The Show’s 5 Most Iconic Dishes, Film Companion

3. Kudal (Season 1, episode 11)

Hannibal is a well-traveled gourmand and in the first season, had cooked dishes from around the world. So naturally, as we neared the end of the season, I felt we needed to show his experience included South Asian cooking.  He was serving a dish made from sheep gut so I suggested the Tamil dish, Kudal Kalambu.  This would give me the opportunity of using serving dishes made of banana leaves and tropical fruits and flowers to decorate the food that would also include my personal favorites, pani puri, samosas and crisp-fried okra.

Hannibal Food Stylist Janice Poon Picks The Show’s 5 Most Iconic Dishes, Film Companion

4. Salad (Season 1, episode 9)

It is rude to come to a cannibal’s house for Roast Tenderloin dinner, then announce at the table you’re a vegetarian. If you are snoopy reporter Freddie Lounds, it’s not the rudest thing you’ve ever done. Hannibal greets this news enthusiastically. He wants to show off his skill at vegetarian cooking so he modifies Freddie’s plate to align with her wishes, but he also composes her plate with silent veiled threats: the bony fingers of white asparagus; the Munchesque eyes in the sliced lotus root; red flower petals that look like blood spray on the lettuce…worst of all, the plates are bone china which is 35% animal bone material. Hannibal’s dining table is not a safe place for vegetarians.

Hannibal Food Stylist Janice Poon Picks The Show’s 5 Most Iconic Dishes, Film Companion5. Escargots (Season 3, episode 5)

Hannibal’s mind is more arcane and twisted than I could ever image, so when Bryan was looking for a really diabolical way for Hannibal to feed Gideon his own arm, I surprised myself by coming up with this horrific dish of Arm Escargots. I had read somewhere that snails are carnivorous under certain conditions so I suggested we grind up Gideon’s arm, mix in some herbs and feed it to snails. Then, when the snails have fattened up nicely, flambé them in a red wine sauce and serve them back to Gideon. For filming, we hung a prosthetic severed arm in a large glass cabinet that I decorated with cabbages, fruits and vegetables to look like an overgrown Victorian garden and the snail wrangler placed snails all over the arm as it dangled over a bowl of red wine like a macabre fortune-telling pendulum.

Hannibal Food Stylist Janice Poon Picks The Show’s 5 Most Iconic Dishes, Film Companion

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