Food comics haven’t been around long enough to have a canon.
With food writing, you’re spoiled for choice if you want great food memoirs. M.F.K. Fisher, Michael Ruhlman, Ruth Reichl, Anthony Bourdain: Distinct personalities, distinct experiences, great writers all.
With her collection of comics essays Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, Lucy Knisley joins that crowd but adds a distinct sensibility. Part of it is the genre — she’s using comics to discuss life in relation to food — but even more of it is her enthusiasm. She’s an enthusiastic cook, not a professional chef, but she’s been enraptured with food her entire life and she wants to invite you in and make you just as excited.
Relish contains 12 chapters. They’re all related thematically, but each one stands on its own as a vignette. Each one involves food, some more centrally than others, and almost every chapter ends with a recipe (sautéed mushrooms, sangria, sushi), though there’s also a fantastic guide to buying cheese from a cheesemonger.
Her recipes and guides are all delightful, taking full advantage of the comics format. Knisely presents each of them in two- or four-pages spreads, and she manages to do two things at once: Provide clear, concise instructions, and portray the excitement involved in preparing a great dish.
Her recipes remind me of Mollie Katzen’s work in The Enchanted Broccoli Forest or The Moosewood Cookbook, though where Katzen uses handwriting and illustrations to personalize her recipes, Knisely fully embraces comics as a medium.
Joy isn’t the only familiar cooking emotion she portrays. In one chapter, she falls in love with fresh croissants while traveling through Europe, and later tries to recreate the recipe when she’s back in the states. The frustration and obsession that go into recreating a favorite food experience are both funny and familiar, and she confesses in the end that she never solved that recipe, and relies on store-bought instead. (“Making croissants is hard. So, that said, sorry — no croissant recipe. How about one for sangria instead?”)
(If you’re similarly croissant-obsessed — and who’s not? — we’ve got you covered both ways: you can get delicious, professionally baked ones and avoid the hassle, or you can take one of our workshops and learn to tame the recipe in your own kitchen.)
Don’t get the sense that Knisely’s a food snob, though. In one memorable chapter, she describes an adolescent trip to Rome with her foodie father, who’s horrified to see a McDonald’s across the street from their hotel. Knisely, however, is delighted to eat genuine carbonara in the evening yet horrify her father with a fast-food breakfast the next day.
At its heart, Relish is a celebration of the social aspects of cooking. Knisely celebrates the idea that cooking for people is a way to love people. In one chapter, she nourishes a bunch of her stressed out art-school classmates by putting together a riff on shepherd’s pie. (It’s art school, so of course she dubs it Shepard Fairey’s pie.)
Though it contains recipes, Relish is not a cookbook. It’s a celebration of food enthusiasm. Knisely doesn’t try to persuade you of the joys of cooking — she shows you, with vivid colors and simple but expressive lines. Recommended with gusto.