‘Dirt Candy': A Great Graphic Memoir Disguised As A Cookbook [Review]
Parse through the surprisingly lengthy title of Clarkson/Potter Publishers' Dirt Candy: A Cookbook: Flavor-Forward Food from the Upstart New York City Vegetarian Restaurant and you'll likely come away with a few clues as to what you'll get from it. Vegetarian recipes. A certain metropolitan flair. Some kind of soiled sweet, perhaps. What the doesn't tell you is that the recipes are only about half the book. Possibly even less. For aspiring home chefs, that may be something of a disappointment. For readers like me (the comics fan who eats a lot of chicken nuggets), it's a delight. The remaining pages are where Dirt Candy restaurant founder Amanda Cohen, co-writer Grady Hendrix and illustrator Ryan Dunlavey tell some fascinating stories in graphic memoir form about the restaurant business.
Frankly, I don't know why the synopsis on the back of the book doesn't say more about the seriously great storytelling contained in this cookbook's pages. Let me just list off a few of the yarns in here:
There's the story about how Cohen wound up spending $400,000 to open her 650-square-foot restaurant because of greedy contractors. There's the story about Cohen and her staff's harrowing experience on Iron Chef (guest starring X2's own Kelly Hu). There's the flashback sequence, I guess you would call it, in which Cohen learns some serious knowledge about how to run a kitchen from a Jamaican fry cook she worked with at a diner. There's the story of Octavio, the immigrant dishwasher who desperately fought for his wife to make it to the United States so he could give her the clothes he bought her.
It's all eminently compelling, and it helps that the stories are told in a sprightly, engaging way. Sometimes Cohen will speak directly to the reader. Other times she'll get into arguments with a younger version of herself (who hates vegetables). Still other times, such as when she describes the competing detail-crazy and just-do-it-until-it's-good-enough sides of chefs--the monkey and the panda--her stories will be presented as conversations with customers.
Dunlavey, a veteran of infocomics such as Comic Book Comics and Action Philosophers!, does a whole lot to make that tone work. It wouldn't be wrong to describe his style here as a bit cartoony, but more than anything, it's expressive. It's almost Charles Schulzian. Look at that page from the Iron Chef story. Every person on that page wears a very distinct expression and tell me Cohen (the one with the ponytail) doesn't remind you a bit of a Peanuts character.
Dunlavey's art is also just plain dynamic. His drawings of people eating and preparing food, or of just food itself on a plate, has an energy to it you just wouldn't expect from a cookbook.
I've never worked in a kitchen (the closest I've come is working in pharmacy where people also tended to get pretty mad about long waits, or maybe just reading Kevin Church and Paul Salvi's The Line), but I feel like I have a pretty good sense of what it's like from reading the last third or so of this book. Cohen, Hendrix and Dunlavey nail just how important getting your timing exactly right is in a kitchen. That's a hell of a thing to pull off in print.
Beyond the memoir-style stories, Dirt Candy also offers up a pretty compelling argument for vegetarian cooking, chiefly by dispelling the myth that food that doesn't include meat has to be healthy. A sizable section near the middle of the book lists off cuisines in regions of the world where meat just isn't part of the culture. Vegetarian cooking there is incredibly diverse and really delicious, because it isn't just health food. It's food. For her vegetarian cooking, Cohen uses fat, butter, spice, salt, sugar. Those things people usually think vegetarian food shouldn't use.
I guess I'm going to have to try some of the recipes in Dirt Candy. The smoked cauliflower and waffles recipe actually sounds pretty tasty.
Lucky for me, there are illustrations.