Hungry Girl has found way to a snacking nations heart
WOODLAND HILLS, Calif. The countrys best-selling cookbook right now is for people who dont really cook, written by a hyperkinetic 43-year-old former TV producer named Lisa Lillien, who once upon a time hated the fact that she couldnt fit into her skinny jeans. I was that person who would sit at the computer and eat an entire bag of fat-free pretzels and think I was doing a good thing, Lillien says. I wasnt.She lost 25 pounds eight years ago, and in 2003 she started sending her friends low-fat recipes and tips for finding healthful food in mainstream supermarkets. She then very smartly turned herself into a cartoon character on the Internet called Hungry Girl. Now Lillien has almost 700,000 subscribers to her daily Hungry Girl e-mails and she employs a staff of nine.As foodies seek eco-revelation in the local and organic, Hungry Girl speaks the language of chips, cake, cereal, breakfast sausage, taco shells, easy noodles. By doing so, she acknowledges something we all know about ourselves: For all our slow-cooking, sustainable gardening ambitions, we are a nation of snackers. We eat stuff out of bags and cans. Lillien has turned her conviction that she can lose weight while still eating her favorite foods or at least some version of them into the latest entry in the highly competitive and ever-changing diet field.I know exactly what people will like, she says. I just know. Im that way. When I taste something, I can say `You know what? I like it OK, but only 20 percent of the people will like it, or `If I really like it, then 99 percent of people will like it, too. She is absolutely sure of her taste buds and absolutely skeptical of nutrition labels. This all started when, as in a Seinfeld rerun, Lillien drove 40 miles to have her favorite low-fat pastries tested at a lab. They werent low-fat at all. She felt burned (and chunky). People lie, she says. Whether or not its malicious, theres a lot of mislabeled stuff out there. Thus Hungry Girl was born.Out of seemingly nowhere, Hungry Girl is now the queen of processed food. Manufacturers beg Lillien for her imprimatur on low-cal, low-fat or otherwise healthy food. They dont always get it. They send her bags of baked tortilla chips, boxes of snack bars. A rave on Hungry-Girl.com can phenomenally alter a products sales, but the only hitch is that Lillien has to like it. When she touted House Foods brand tofu shirataki noodles last year, the response was so strong that the manufacturer put the Hungry Girl cartoon logo on the package. When she bestowed favor on Holey brand low-fat doughnuts, the maker said it caused his biggest sales day ever, better than when his product was featured on cable TV shows and in People magazine.Last year, a compilation of Lilliens most successful recipes, Hungry Girl: Recipes and Survival Strategies for Guilt-Free Eating in the Real World, sold more than 200,000 copies more than two new cookbooks by 30-Minute Meals queen Rachael Ray. Lilliens latest, Hungry Girl 200 Under 200: 200 Recipes Under 200 Calories, will debut at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list next week.The world headquarters of the Hungry Girl empire are located in an unmarked 1,600-square-foot rental apartment not far off the 101 freeway in the San Fernando Valley, where, on a recent Tuesday morning, a few of Hungry Girls employees sit working at computers in what would be the dining room.In the open kitchen, a food assistant works on todays test recipe, a version of a Planet Hollywood appetizer from the carbed-out 1990s known as Chicken Crunch (and informally Capn Crunch Chicken).It was good. We used to order it all the time, Lillien says fondly, but with a grimace of caloric regret.The smell of chicken and sugar quickly fills the room, and the secret is one of Hungry Girls trademark leaner workarounds blending the pulverized Capn Crunch with her favorite healthful breading ingredient, Fiber One cereal.This is all exactly what it seems: fast recipes, with names such as chocolate pudding crunch explosion and swapcorn shrimp, using mostly processed ingredients to assemble shame-free nosh. Hungry Girl recipes approximate the foods Lillien knows her adherents (mostly women) crave, such as fried calamari, onion rings and that totem of post-feminist gastronomic fetishes: cute cupcakes.Its a pink Web site, but its not too girly-girl, Lillien says. The copy isnt written in that `Hey, girlfriend stuff.Last month, she added a video studio in an apartment down the hall from her office. A Hungry Girl television show, at some point, is not out of the question. Neither is a line of Hungry Girl grocery items. And I still have people from my life who ask me what my day job is, Lillien says. They have no idea how big this has become.The Capn Crunch Chicken is done. But is it to use one of Hungry Girls favorite words yumtastic?Lillien examines a piece, squints at it, nibbles, considers it, then frowns. Did you mix the spices first? she asks her aide. The Capn Crunch is still too chunky. It needs to be smoother. But its a good start.The research team begins anew.