By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"It's a pink Web site, but it's not too girly-girl," Lillien says. "The copy isn't written in that 'Hey, girlfriend' stuff."
Marion Nestle, a New York University nutrition professor, author and proponent of the never-shop-the-center-aisles approach to food, took a look at Hungry Girl's site the other day and was not thrilled by all the pink freneticism and exclamation points. Nor could she hide some of her skepticism: "Really? A pizza with only 400 calories?"
But then she thought about what we all know about food consumers in America: There are two kinds. More than half of them are more like Hungry Girl. The rest (and Nestle includes herself here) can often be snobs.
"I'm glad people are interested in food and in nutrition," Nestle says. "If this helps them reach that point, then okay."
Lillien knows she has critics out there. "People are hypocrites," she says. "They say 'shop the perimeter of the store, never eat anything that's not organic,' but it's B.S., because people can't live like that forever."
She insists she will not expose her readers to any product she doesn't run through her own standards: How does it taste, and will it make me fat? She imposes her own simple, Internet-age ethic, walking a line between editorializing and advertising. She says she won't accept payment for any brand mentioned in her editorial content and won't sell advertising space on her Web site for products she wouldn't eat herself.
In an online cacophony of self-started Web sites offering strong opinions about what to eat-buy-do, Lillien is one of those rare profitable breakouts. Hungry Girl occupies a new frontier between consumer news and retail sales, blowing past traditional media. The site does for a new yogurt what Chromewaves does for new music releases, or Naturally Curly does for a new hair conditioner, or Net-a-Porter does for the newest shoes.
Lillien grew up on Long Island. Her mother was (still is) a yo-yo dieter who did Scarsdale, grapefruit, Nutri-System, Optifast, losing the same weight over and over. Her sister went to fat camp one summer. Her brother ate all he wanted. ("Like, an entire box of Lucky Charms, in a salad bowl, with a carton of whole milk," Lillien recalls, with envy. "And he was a stick with a big head, who never gained weight, wearing a swimsuit with a belt on it.")
Young Hungry Girl loved the commercials for Dolly Madison Zinger snack cakes that aired with Charlie Brown TV specials. (It was an off-brand Twinkie.) "You couldn't get Zingers where we lived," she says. "We had to wait until we went to our summer house."
It was that sort of life. It was that sort of food. It was many up-and-down pounds ago.
Lillien is married with no children. She and her husband, Daniel Schneider, the creator of Nickelodeon's "iCarly," go out for sushi three nights a week. When grocery shopping, she likes to peek in other women's baskets, a never-ending quest for likeminded Hungry Girls who are looking for healthful options. She always reminds her readers that she isn't a nutritionist -- she's just bossy. "I think of myself as everyone's crazy best friend," she says, "who will go get the answers to what they want to know but don't have time to get themselves."
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 Cap'n Crunch Chicken is done. But is it -- to use one of Hungry Girl's 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 Cap'n Crunch is still too chunky. It needs to be smoother. But it's a good start."
The research team begins anew.