'Hungry Girl' Has Found the Way To a Snacking Nation's Heart
Friday, April 24, 2009
WOODLAND HILLS, Calif. -- The country's best-selling cookbook right now is for people who don't 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 couldn't 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 wasn't."
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. I'm that way. When I taste something, I can say, 'You know what? I like it okay, 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, like in a "Seinfeld" rerun, Lillien drove 40 miles to have her favorite low-fat pastries tested at a lab. They weren't low-fat at all. She felt burned (and chunky). "People lie," she says. "Whether or not it's malicious, there's 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 don't 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 product's 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 Lillien's 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. Lillien's latest, "Hungry Girl 200 Under 200: 200 Recipes Under 200 Calories," will debut at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list May 3.
The world headquarters of the Hungry Girl empire is 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 Girl's employees sit working at computers in what would be the dining room.
In the open kitchen, a food assistant works on today's test recipe, a version of a Planet Hollywood appetizer from the carbed-out 1990s known as Chicken Crunch (and informally as "Cap'n 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 recipe's secret is one of Hungry Girl's trademark leaner workarounds -- blending the pulverized Cap'n 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.