“Relish” is Lucy Kinsley’s excellent book of autographical essay-style comics pieces about her childhood, her family and food. The timeline is chronological, from the day of her baptism up until the present, and Kinsley’s passion for food shows is intertwined with culture and shared histories. The sensory link between food and memory was best immortalized by Marcel Proust’s bite into a madeleine, that shell-shaped cake that triggers an involuntary flood of recollection in “In Search of Lost Time.” Kinsley continues in this tradition along more conscious lines, beginning with a memory of poached salmon in cream and ending “Relish” with a scene of carrots being sauteed with olive oil.
Like Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” or Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” “Relish” is autobiographical non-fiction comics. However, the closest relatives to “Relish” aren’t other comics works, but prose. Kinsley’s direct predecessors in this particular subgenre fusion of memoir and food writing are Ruth Reichl, Amanda Hesser, M.F.K. Fisher and of course, Julia Child herself. In particular, the structure of “Relish” is most like Hesser’s “Cooking for Mr. Latte” in its interwoven recipes. In style and content, “Relish” will be familiar ground to foodies and fans of food writing. Kinsley namechecks numerous culinary delicacies, most of them in the French or Italian tradition, and there are even a couple of fascinating pages devoted to Kinsley’s visit to Chicago’s Alinea restaurant, Grant Achatz’s temple of molecular gastronomy.
However, a reader doesn’t have to be a foodie to enjoy Kinsley’s stories and art. Her line and panel transitions are approachable and clean. The page and panel layouts and camera angles aren’t particularly dynamic or daring, but Kinsley’s flair for action in domestic spaces, punctuated by cartoony humor, keeps the visual experience of “Relish” exciting. The spot illustrations at the beginning of each chapter and the illustrated recipes at chapter endings provide classic, thoughtful pauses in the narrative flow. Kinsley’s rich palette of warm, flat hues makes the reading experience inviting and sensuous, matching the tone and content of “Relish” perfectly.
Memoir always has a confessional aspect in it, and Kinsley discloses her parents’ divorce and a caper in Mexico with her childhood friend Drew. The reader gets affectionate sketches of Kinsley’s loved ones, especially her parents, through narrative foci of shared meals, dietary preferences and habits of cookery and dining. Each detail is a brief illumination of personality. However, Kinsley keeps “Relish” light, deliberately eschewing opportunities to tap into deeper wells of emotion or insight. Despite Kinsley’s strong relationship with food and her obvious bond with her mother and father, she keeps the reader at arm’s length in a friendly way. In this, her tone and approach to memoir are most like Hesser’s chatty essays, instead of Bechdel’s intense analysis, Satrapi’s politically charged reminiscences, Reichl’s potent, bottled recollections or M.F.K. Fisher’s fervent, quest-like restlessness.
Kinsley’s beginning pieces in “Relish” are slower and slighter, and she doesn’t really hit the apex of her stride until around chapters 8-10. My personal favorite is Chapter 10, in which Kinsley shines more of a spotlight on her discerning, cultivated father. Across six tightly drawn, riveting pages, Kinsley pulls off a clever extended analogy and allusion to Greek mythology as she compares her family to the trinity of Zeus, Demeter and Persephone. She ends the chapter with the strangely moving statement “[Fancy restaurants] will never live up to the pleasure of dining at my mother’s table.”
The appeal and scope of Kinsley’s “Relish” aren’t so wide that the book transcends its category. Areader utterly uninterested in nonfiction or in food will probably not be a fan. However, “Relish” is a very enjoyable example of its kind, and is it highly recommended to readers with either an adventurous reading palate or for those who have already developed a taste for such flavors.