Lucy Knisley’s ‘Relish’ Is A Satisfying Comics Meal
The front cover of Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, the new memoir by Lucy Knisley of French Milk fame, bears a pretty killer blurb from Alison Bechdel, whose years of Dykes to Watch Out For and her breakout hit Fun Home have made her something akin to the grand dame of memoir comics: "Step aside, Joy of Cooking."
Bechdel's blurb may be more braggadocio than brass tacks. Irma S. Rombauer's iconic, seminal cookbook isn't going anywhere, and certainly not because Knisley's comic book is pushing it. That said, however, it's an interesting comparison, because joy is exactly what Relish is about: The joy of cooking, the joy of eating, the joy of spending time with the family and friends one shares those activities with and even the joy of memories, which are are often rooted in those activities, and can be so thoroughly summoned by the tastes and smells of food.And, for readers, there's another source of joy to relish in Relish-that of seeing great cartooning and comic-making applied to such an accessible topic with so much wit. A memoir written around the axis of food and told in in Knisley's warm, engaging style, Relish has a lot to offer different audiences. You may read it for the same reason I did -- you're a fan of Knisley's comics, or simply because it is comics -- but it's easy to see others reading this for the subject matter, and I'm having trouble recalling the last time I read a book so perfectly suited to prose reader outreach and book club reading (The recipes included even give book clubs something to make and nosh on during their discussion). Maybe Marjan Satrapi's Persepolis?
Relish begins with a two-page introduction in which Knisley discusses memory-a big part of memoir-making, comics or prose-and how hers works, noting the significance of food and eating.
From there, the book is broken into chapters in which she tells stories about her life, in roughly chronological order (allowing for moving forward and backward within each), and each chapter ends with a recipe (something that the medium of comics is remarkably well-suited to, mixing as it does the verbal and the visual), spread across two pages (or, in the case of the sushi, four pages).
So, for example, the first chapter is about her early childhood in New York City and her immediate family and the circle of their friends that formed the foundation she grew up on (Raised by foodies, it's something of a wonder that Knisley went into comics instead of turning her creativity and energy to a more edible medium). The second is about her moving to the countryside with her mother after here parents' divorce. The third her childhood relationship with junk food, and so on through adolescence, college and young adulthood (A now-arrived, formerly-up-and-coming comics talent, Knisley's in her late twenties).
Each of these features a recipe related to the story she just told, like a recipe for sangria following a chapter on her impossible quest to recreate the croissants she found in a bakery in Venice (no sense including the croissant recipe, since she never figured it out, after all), or a recipe for her mom's pesto after the chapter on her and her mother starting a new, rural life together after leaving the city.
Along the way, she covers what one imagines are many of the big milestones of one's life story, at least the childhood and coming of age portions of a life's story, like coming to terms with death, her evolving relationships with her parents, a pivotal moment in her journey towards becoming an artist and even her first period.
That last bit occurs in one of the several too-perfect-to-be-fictional stories within the book, in which the teenage Lucy and the younger-than-her-by-a-day son of her mom's best friend, both experience transitionary rituals into adulthood that they tried to keep from their mothers while mostly left to their own device in Mexico (While Lucy began menstruating, Drew discovered pornography in a marketplace where the seller didn't seem to mind that he was a minor).
The other anecdote I wouldn't believe were I reading it in fiction involved Lucy being attacked by geese as a child, which she uses to jokingly justify the eating of pate, which is maybe the cruelest of all animal products, surpassing even veal (As a mostly-vegan vegetarian who abstains from all dairy products not baked into a doughnut or other baked good, I must confess I didn't try out any of the recipes, and thus can't report to you how good they are; of the few I could actually eat with some minor adjustments, the sushi and the Shepard Fairey Pie were both too daunting; maybe later).
With actual cookbooks, one of the most important components is always the imagery: Who wants to try a recipe when they don't know what the dish looks like? In fact, the case can be made that the images are even more important than the words in a cookbook, as a batch of poorly-written, bad-tasting recipes can still end up being widely read and tried-out if the food is presented and photographed well enough.
Relish lacks photographs, obviously, but there's nothing to complain about in the imagery department. Knisley's style hits that sweet spot between cartoony and representational, so that everything looks fun and abstracted yet recognizable and utilitarian, and she modulates the degree of realism like a camera coming in and out of focus, to highlight the humor or drama of a situation, or to render something more recognizable when necessary.
It's fully, brightly colored, with what looks like watercolors, and highly verbal, Knisley's pages containing plenty of words (though not so many they overwhelm the pictures), and chart-like elements like little boxes and arrows identifying people and elements within the imagery. It's a great-looking comic, and a great memoir, and, I suppose, an okay cookbook.
It's not Joy of Cooking though. But that's okay: For all her talent in the kitchen and influence over the cooking habits of Americans, Rombauer wasn't, as far as I know, much of a cartoonist, and I'm sure Knisley could draw circles around her.
[Click Recipe To Enlarge]