Begin with two parts memoir, one part cookbook; add a dash of travelogue and blend into a richly colored graphic novel that takes creator Lucy Knisley from birth to adulthood, stopping for plenty of snacks along the way.
Published by First Second Books, “Relish: My Life In The Kitchen” is a series of vignettes bookended with some of Knisley’s favorite recipes, each one holding a strong personal connection to a time in her life. The child of die-hard foodies, Knisley’s upbringing was an eclectic mishmash of gourmet dining, catering jobs, before-dinner vinegar shots with her dad and exposure to the beautiful process of farm-to-table cooking. Knisley dives deep into the development of her relationship with food, friends and family while seeking out new experiences to challenge her ever-expanding palette. Written and illustrated by Knisley, this autobiographical book is a charming step-by-step guide on how to love what you eat, and eat what you love.
CBR News dished with Knisley about her inspirations for “Relish,” her controversial feelings toward foie gras and a taste of her upcoming work.
CBR News: Tell us about what inspired you to write “Relish.”
Lucy Knisley: Food is something that has always meant a great deal to me and to my family. When I thought about telling my story, and the story of my childhood, it made a lot of sense to use food as a touchstone to tell those stories.
What other works helped shape your vision of what “Relish” would be?
The first was a book called “Images a la Carte” by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. The two of them were big foodies and they loved to go out and eat together. Later in her life Coosje developed terrible food allergies. They came up with this plan where Claes would sketch the food she loved so much so she could enjoy them visually and aesthetically through sense memory, through what she called “gastronomy of the eye.” That really appealed to me and I really loved the idea that you could look at a drawing of food, this very expressive thing, and feel a connection to it viscerally. The other two books that inspired me were David Lebovitz’s “The Sweet Life in Paris” and Nigel Slater’s memoir “Toast.”
From reading this book, it’s clear that various epochs in your life were punctuated by specific foods. What foods will always remind you of creating “Relish?”
I reconnected to a lot of the way my mom cooks, which is very impulsively. As a caterer, she spends a lot of time cooking what people tell her to cook. When it comes to cooking for herself, she gives into these cravings, even if they aren’t traditional food. So what she tends to do is eat nothing but, like, tomatoes for a week because of the cravings. I’m very similar, and I reconnected with those hereditary cravings.
In addition to your mom’s cravings, it seems like you also inherited her artistic ability. Did you always know you wanted to draw comics?
I didn’t know that I wanted to be a comic artist for a very long time; I assumed that I’d have to pick a real profession. For the longest time I couldn’t decide between writing and art, and after I went to four different high schools and got kicked out of various schools, no writing program would accept me. So I chose art.
I had really great art teachers who helped me get through high school, which was very difficult for me. I felt that art was worthy of spending my life on if it had saved me and given me a purpose in life. I went to art school and within the first week of being in this very conceptual painting-based school, I realized I wanted to make comics. This thing that I’ve been doing all along for fun is a perfect combination of doing what I love and not have to choose one or the other.
At that point, there wasn’t a comics program in my art school, so I had to invent one on my own. I took a lot of writing and drawing classes, and had understanding professors who would let me do comics. When I graduated, I still felt like I hadn’t taken enough comics classes and I wanted more of a concrete comics education, which is why I went to the Center for Cartoon Studies.
Were you a comics reader before that?
Big time. As a kid I read a lot of “Archie.” It was funny, because my parents didn’t like it. My mom thought it was anti-feminist and my dad thought it wasn’t literary enough. I had to defend them so they would keep buying them for me.
I learned to think about comics pretty critically from an early age because I would have to explain, like, “In this story, Mom, Betty and Veronica reject Archie. And Dad? Do you know where I learned that new vocabulary word? From comic books.” I also read a lot of “Calvin and Hobbes” and “Tintin.” Later on I got into Terry Moore’s “Strangers in Paradise” and as I got older, I got into Linda Berry, Alison Bechdel, and Hope Larson, who was a senior when I was a freshman at The School of the Art Institute in Chicago. She took me under her wing.
Your first graphic novel “French Milk” was also autobiographical. What is it about that style that appeals to you?
It’s something that’s always come very naturally to me. As a kid I really loved writing and reading auto-bio stories. I love it. I know it’s going through a bit of an uncool phase, and people are saying that there are too many journal comic artists, but I really love them. I think people are doing amazing things with it. There is a dismissal that comes from oversaturation of the market and because people don’t differentiate between journal comics, memoirs, travelogues, and fictionalized true stories. The auto-bio is such a big umbrella, and there’s so much you can do with it.
How did you handle the pretty immediate rejection of wanting to become part of that genre?
Everybody gets a lot of “no” in their lives. They get told they’re going in the wrong direction, or that there is something bad and wrong with what they are doing, and artists get so much of the societal reinforcement that they’re doing the wrong thing. You get to a point where you realize when they are right and when they are wrong.
I was in grad school when I decided to write “Relish” and I was getting a lot of no and was being told that I was doing auto-bio wrong. I got to a point where I could differentiate what was good advice and when people were totally wrong. I got to a point where I could say, “Okay, food and memoir comics don’t mean something to another person, but I feel very strongly connected to them, so I’m going to pursue it.”
In “Relish” you expose some intimate details of your parent’s post-divorce relationship. How did they react to their story being shared?
For the most part my parents were thrilled with their representation. I’m not drawing them on the toilet, or doing anything terrible to me. My dad doesn’t mind; he really loves the book and is very supportive.
The only comic he was sad about was one I did for “Stop Paying Attention.” It depicts him after my parent’s divorce. He went off the deep end and got rid of all of his things, starting totally anew. He got rid of my things as well, and I was very affected by this. I’m a bit of a packrat now because of my connection to things. He was really bummed out that I made that public in a comic because it made him look like an asshole. I was like, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t have been an asshole.”
You talk about “embracing eating as a connection to our bodies and a form of celebration.” Do you feel like as a society we have gotten away from that? There is so much talk about forbidden foods and guilty pleasures that it seems like eating and body image have turned into the same thing.
I totally agree. The relationship everybody in America especially has with food is so weird. Either you’re a crusader or you don’t give a single crap about it. I fall somewhere in between. I’m a fan girl of food and love it unilaterally.
What really interests me is the weird foodie revolution. I’m a foodie, my parents are foodies, but now that word means someone who just watches the Food Network, yet doesn’t cook or eat anything good. They’ve never had the passion for eating or cooking; they’re just in love with these TV shows. That is totally a mystery to me and I’m fascinated by it. Foodies who don’t have any connection to food, and just see it as an industry.
I had an ex-boyfriend who was an eat-to-live person rather than a live-to-eat person. He was all into this new Soylent stuff — the all-purpose nutrient food. There was a point in my life where I felt like that would be the worst thing to happen to our society. Food is an expression of how we live, how we connect to the Earth and to each other. Our social interactions are arranged around food, so to turn eating from a pause to connect with the people around you into just refueling totally freaks me out. It’s like saying that all sex will be for procreation only, and all movies will be educational in format.
â€¨Stephen Fry wrote about how food is a metaphor to describe the way people think about sex in modern society. People who don’t like homosexuality, or kinks, or any sort of “alternative” sexuality, are people who are just like, “I will only eat this green sludge and it will be my meal.” Good alternative sex is like crÃ¨me brulee and foie gras, and other amazing food.
Speaking of foie gras, you definitely share your appreciation for it in “Relish.” Has there been any negativity over it in light of the foie gras bans in various places?
Totally. I am a bit of a foie apologist, because I really love it, but I do feel bad. I only eat it once or twice a year, and yes, it’s one of my favorite foods, so I feel a little bit better about not eating it more often.
Something that is interesting to know about our country and its relationship to foie gras is that there is only one farm currently producing and distributing it. If you ever order foie from a menu in America it will almost certainly come from this upstate New York farm, Hudson Valley Foie Gras. I’ve been to the farm where they make and produce it. I’ve seen the geese and the ducks. They are free-range their entire lives, until the last two weeks, and they live on this incredibly beautiful farm. The last two weeks they do receive extra portions of food and are slaughtered shortly after. It’s terrible and it’s sad, but it’s this tiny family-owned farm where the animals live most of their lives in beautiful comfort.
If you think about places like McDonald’s and KFC and factory farms and the way they treat poultry — that isn’t as bad as one family-owned farm that does their best to recreate a traditional food substance? I feel like foie gras is a bit of a boogeyman for people. They can’t face the idea of hundreds of thousands of animals that are horribly mistreated by the fast food industry, so they pick on this other thing.
I think part of that has to do with the fact that people think its gross. They’re like, “Www, that’s liver, it sounds disgusting, therefore I hate it.” That was certainly the case during the foie gras ban in Chicago, which was overturned. I was there during it, and it was interesting to hear the chefs talk about it. Chicago is a working class town, a lot of people hadn’t actually tried it, and so they’re voting because it sounds gross. They don’t understand the history or the tradition, or what it really means in terms of animal cruelty. It’s a bit of reverse snobbery because it has this reputation of being a rich person food. You can’t shut down KFC factory farms, because it’s anti-people-who-can’t-afford-to-eat-foie-gras. It’s complicated.
While I will freely discuss this, I won’t defend myself very much. I know that it’s terrible, and while it’s delicious and it has history, and there are many aspects that go in foie’s favor, it is pretty terrible. I wish I didn’t love it so much.
What can we look forward to seeing from you next?
I’m working on a book about my experiences in high school and arts education. Also, in the last year I got to travel a great deal and made a lot of travelogues that will be coming out in print over the next year.
One of them is about going on an elderly cruise ship tour.
My grandparents, who were ninety-three and ninety-four years-old at the time, had been living in the same house for sixty-four years in Ohio. My grandfather had a fall, so my family decided to move them into an assisted living facility in Connecticut. They don’t like it very much, so my family wanted to do something to make it up to them. My aunt had this crazy idea to send them on a cruise, but these are land people. They are not cruise people. They don’t swim, they don’t dance, they don’t do group activities, they can’t read anymore, there’s just nothing on this ship for them to do. My grandmother is enfeebled and doesn’t really know what’s going on, and my grandfather has some health problems.
My family booked this whole thing and then realized that they couldn’t just send them on their own. The tickets were non-refundable, so they were trying to figure out what to do. I knew I would be done with my book by then, it sounded like an adventure, and I didn’t want to tell them they couldn’t go on this vacation that they were looking forward to for some reason, so I decided to go with them. I wasn’t aware of the deterioration of their physical states at that point, and it ended up being a full-time nursing position for ten days.
I am not a cruise person, as it turns out. It was horrifying. You’re in this beautiful part of the world in the Caribbean, and you’re separate from the ocean, the sand, and the people. You don’t get to experience anything authentic because you’re trapped in this weird bubble of rude people who run your grandparents down to get to the buffet. And the food was disgusting.
It’s a ridiculous story and lots of crazy stuff happens, so it makes a good travelogue. It’s called “Displacement.”
Knisley is currently on a book tour for “Relish: My Life In The Kitchen” with stops in Boston, Chicago, Portland, Seattle, and Toronto. For more information, please visit www.lucyknisley.com.