A few years ago, if you were told about the rise of the Internet and asked to predict one of the top things that people would blog and post about, can you honestly say food would have been up there as a contender? And by food, I don’t mean cookery, recipes and dedicated food sites, but Facebook statuses, Tweets, Instagram photos, all that jazz. Out of all the little banalities of life, who would’ve thunk that narrating what we eat would be the common denominator of web sharing, and in such a wholly ubiquitous fashion.
Telling strangers on the net what you’re eating isn’t groundbreaking, constructive or thrilling to others in any way- by and large it reflects a personal enjoyment of consumption that has or is about to take place, made more understandable, I think, if you’re of the view that food is one of life’s true pleasures, and not of my sister’s mindset; she who see food as fuel and a necessity to survive, not caring particularly about taste as long as it’s not detrimental to her health and fulfills her needs (yes, she really is my sister).
Lucy Knisley, it’s safe to say is, is firmly in the former camp. Knisley’s Relish, a book that follows her through various periods and moments in her life framing them in relation to her culinary experiences, has been one of the most anticipated releases of the year for many- not least myself. For Knisley, these ‘taste-memories’ are no tenuous associations: she has been immersed in food culture in some form or manner since she was born- her mother a chef, her father himself a cook and discerning consoeur, her uncle owner of a food-shop selling gourmet comestibles and homemade food- and has generally been raised in an environment filled with ‘cooks and bakers, eaters and critics.’
Growing up, food remained a strong presence in different ways; working in cheese shops, farmer’s markets, growing and sourcing ingredients, getting involved in the business side of things. So Knisley’s relationship with food is much deeper than your average persons, and despite feeling a little different for being a cartoonist, it’s a theme that turns up naturally and with happy regularity in her work. They marry well, do food and comics.
The book is divided into chapters, with each one recounting a specific food-related memory and a recipe for that food then given at chapter’s close. Both the experiences and foods are diverse in range, from a trip to Mexico where her friend Drew learns about the penalties for smuggling porn across the border, backpacking through Europe and discovering the world’s best croissants in Venice and feverishly attempting to recreate them to no avail, to navigating horrible lemonade chicken cooked by good friends.
As someone who salivated over Enid Blyton’s terse descriptions of hard-boiled eggs and cold ginger beer, Knisley’s recollections paired with her drawings are almost a sensory overload (her move to the country with its ripe, colourful fruits and freshly plucked produce left me feeling a little light-headed). That said, what I particularly enjoyed here wasn’t what I expected. And that’s the way in which each memory, each anecdote genuinely tells you a little about the author and her life- it’s not just ‘hey, delicious food art!’, it’s much more thoughtful and reflective than the bright colours and subject matter belie. In between food chopped and dishes cooked, there are insights into her close relationship with her mother, attempts at bonding with her father over dinners, queasy coming of age experiences shared with friends who are still friends, the developing of a cook’s resilience and tenacity.
Having said that (paradoxically) -and this is my sole criticism of the book- there is a strange sense of remove and disconnect of Knisley as a character. The reader is reading about her without any strong emotional investment or relatability on her behalf. Relish arrived in the post the same day I got Christophe Blain’s In The Kitchen with Alain Passard; in that book, a charming and effusive Blain slings an arm around the readers shoulder and guides him around, managing to thoroughly absorb him, as a novice, into the life of a Michelin-starred chef. This may have something to do with the first person narration, planted in the present but talking about the past, making it difficult to get a sense of Knisley as a person today.
I’ve always been a big fan of Knisleys cartooning and it’s as accomplished and attractive as ever here, with line and expression on point. To my mind, she’s the only cartoonist who controls the art so deftly in terms of what it conveys emotionally, perfectly straddling the realms of cartoony while maintaining an aspect of brevity. Make no mistake, Relish is a great achievement, pulling off a truly tricky combination of genres and tones to produce a book that will not only make you want to get into the kitchen and fondling food at the farmer’s market, but one I am confident will be a highlight of the comics year.
Oh, and a top tip for when you’re reading this: surround yourself with tasty snacks because you will be needing them.