Gourmet graphic novel whets palates

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Lucy Knisley’s “Relish” is, at first glance, simply a graphic novel about food. However, just as food is far more than merely sustenance, her book is not just a graphic novel or a book about food. It certainly (and thankfully) is not Instagram photos of meals converted into drawings accompanied by words. She is unquestionably a foodie but presents her love for food, cooking and all things associated with them without pretense. Rather, she speaks with pure enthusiasm and a dash of wit — kind of like if Anthony Bourdain drew cute illustrations.

The book is surprisingly personal, but it is appropriate for describing how food can be a personal experience. It brings people together and takes them to faraway places just to encounter a worthwhile experience for their taste buds. A single “taste memory” can flood the mind with nostalgia, as she demonstrates. Whereas the subtitle of the book, “My Life in the Kitchen,” may suggest stories about cooking to potential readers, the stories range from travel stories to autobiographical anecdotes. As is appropriately stated in the book jacket, “Knisley presents her personal history as seen through a kaleidoscope of delicious things.”

She has clearly experienced what is considered “high-end” as well as what is considered “garbage” but never acknowledges her food experiences as such. There is only what is tasty and what is not so tasty (sorry, lemonade chicken). As the daughter of a professional chef and an epicurean, Knisley had an unusual adolescence. Her teenage years did not involve rebelling with sex, drugs and rock and roll. She ate McDonald’s — and she still does — proudly. There is a section in which she does not bash junk food as a normal foodie might. Instead, she defends it (and frankly, it’s a kind of convincing, if not compelling, defense). She expresses sorrow for her parents, whereas most foodies would express jealousy: “Anyone who can fail to rejoice in the enticing squish/crunch of a fast-food French fry or the delight of a warmed piece of grocery-store donut, is living half a life.” This is a notion that a college student can certainly appreciate.

The book progresses through the years of her life, keeping her relationship with food in mind. Some are the kind of things one might expect: her first time having certain foods or memories of her mother’s and grandmother’s cooking. However, she is not without surprises — somehow, she talks about astoundingly personal topics, such as her first period or her parents’ divorce, and manages to seamlessly tie them in with culinary experiences. The pages are filled with as much hilarity as rumination.

The format is an inventive one, which, in a graphic novel about food, is not surprising. Every chapter ends with a recipe, and speaking from experience (assuming the sangria and chocolate chip cookie recipes were not exceptions), they were carefully chosen. The illustrations are charming in exactly the kind of style that fans of her webcomic, “Stop Paying Attention,” would be accustomed to and fans of graphic novels by Craig Thompson, Julia Wertz or Kate Beaton would likely embrace. Knisley regularly appears in Saveur as an illustrator for “Recipe Comix.”

“Relish” should not be categorized as a book about food or a graphic novel (though even in either of those categories, it should be considered one of the best releases of the year). It is a love story and a coming-of-age story, all with food as the catalyst. That having been said, it is a universal story that is unfortunately likely to have a specialized audience but hopefully will not. Every last ingredient in “Relish” harmonizes, in the end, into a beautiful, bittersweet recipe.

Contact Ephriam Lee at [email protected].