Sunday, March 24, 2013

Relish: Well, I certainly did

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen
By Lucy Knisley
Published by First Second

Is there a comics equivalent of food porn--that is, the subgenre of movies that feature such delicious-looking food being prepared, served, and eaten that one becomes mouth-wateringly hungry (Examples: Big Night, Tortilla Soup, Eat Drink Man Woman)? Because if not, Lucy Knisley offers an excellent starting point here for what will could kick-start a subgenre of its own. Her depictions of food and the preparation and eating thereof are cute, charming, and unique in their combination of cartooniness and realistic texture and volume, and yes, they look delicious, whether she's detailing gourmet meals, fast-food guilty pleasures, or homemade chocolate chip cookies. It's not just the pictures though; her comics-style descriptions of the various comestibles combine text and image in a way that makes the treats especially delectable:

This isn't just a book-length series of images of food though, it's actually something of a memoir, with Knisley using food as a subject, whether central or tangential to the events depicted, and filtering her life so far through her relationship to the edible delights that have been such a large part of her upbringing and adult life. She's only in her mid-twenties, but she has enough of interest to describe, discuss, and impart that age is no issue. Her life makes for an interesting throughline, whether she's talking about her youth in New York City and, after her parents divorced, in upstate New York, or her years in art school in Chicago, but the structure is fairly loose, with some chapters covering certain periods in Knisley's life and others veering off to discuss more tangential subjects like Knisley's enjoyment of junk food despite her gourmet-loving father's objections, or how her mother (an excellent cook and Knisley's obvious culinary role model) forced her to learn how to make chocolate chip cookies through her own experimentation. Some other chapters focus on a specific time period or incident, such as a trip to Mexico in which Knisley and a friend both experienced life-changing moments of transition from childhood to adolescence.

It's a wonderful trip through Knisley's life, a rigorous exploration of how she came to be who she is and why she loves food and everything surrounding it, from its preparation, to the culture surrounding it, to the context of where and with whom memorable meals were eaten. Her clear-line artwork makes for a perfect depiction of the people and places, giving them enough specificity (and continuity, with people being recognizable at different ages and at different times throughout Knisley's life) to convey that they are real people, but remaining cartoony enough that they and their experiences are universal.

What's more, Knisley ends each chapter with a recipe, how-to, or collection of food-related tips drawn from her own experiences, and they're lovely bits of design, taking a comics approach to what can often be dry recitation of ingredients and procedures. The beautiful art and fanciful text livens up the proceedings, making the process look enjoyable and the results mouth-watering. It's a great bonus, and it even makes a cooking-averse kitchen-phobe like me consider trying them out to see if I can manage to concoct anything similar to the delicacies on display.

As the book nears the end and the timeline approaches the present, Knisley finds some closure with a chapter in which she reflects on her parents' relationship and sees how food and all the elements surrounding it have played such an important part in her life and theirs. But she has much of her life ahead of her, so she continues onward to define a sort of philosophy of social eating, and in a final chapter that's sort of a love letter to the delicious eating available in the city of Chicago, she describes a visit to the kitchen of the restaurant Alinea, a "molecular gastronomy" restaurant that serves incredible food in amazingly imaginative ways (this is something of a follow-up to a webcomic Knisley made in 2008 about eating there). It's kind of an odd way to finish the volume, but it works as a way to look to the future, as Knisley continues to consider how food affects her life and relationships. It's definitely an important subject for her, and she's sure to create more stories and develop more ideas as her life goes on. Here's hoping for a second volume in five or ten years, and knowing Knisley, it will be just as delightful as this one.

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