Lucy Knisley’s Relish: My Life in the Kitchen is a graphic memoir brimming with what she calls “taste memories,” conjured up through an inseparable blend of food and the recollections of the stories its flavors and textures bring to life. Her ode to food, family and the connections intertwining the two is told with an infectious enthusiasm. Autobiographical and loosely chronological, Relish traces her culinary roots growing up with a chef mother and a gourmet father.
As a writer, illustrator and comic artist, Knisley was quite aware while working on Relish that her book was “different from what was coming out at the time.” Not only was her graphic novel about food, she was also creating Relish at the “height of the anti-autobiographical movement.” The graphic memoirs that were being published were “about dark unhappy childhoods. I had a lovely childhood,” Knisley says. “I wanted to write about my experiences with food, how they shaped who I am today.” By then, she had already published French Milk (a well-received travelogue of her six-week trip to Paris with her mother highlighting the culinary delights of their travels) so the feedback she was getting “that you can’t make comics about food” irritated her. “And I really love food. So my reaction was, ‘Oh Yeah? I like making it and I like drawing it and it really inspires me.’”
But Relish was not just a rebellion; the project was also influenced by Knisley’s delight in a little book her father had given her. Images a la Carte, by Claes Oldenburg and his wife Coosie van Bruggen, inspired her with its beautiful watercolors of the pair’s fabulous meals and restaurant dishes. “It was another way of consuming, a gastronomy of the eye,” Knisley explains. “I loved that book so much. It gave me a new way of looking at food” and provided “yet another reminder of how food connects us.” Relish, she decided, would not just be a food diary, a list of “‘here’s what I ate today,’ but something intrinsic about me.”
Human beings, she points out, have always come together to eat or to prepare food; “sharing food is a powerful and primitive act built into our DNA….We can share meals with family, friends or strangers, and it all brings us closer to one another.” Most social acts revolve around food. “Even if you have nothing in common with someone, it’s always acceptable to sip a nice cup of tea and remark, ‘Oh, this tastes nice,’ and for your companion to nod and go, ‘Mm!’”
Despite its upbeat message and happy illusion of ease, graphic art is challenging to execute, and Relish was no exception; in fact, Knisley finds that comics about food present additional challenges. Although food photographs are easy to make tasty looking, it’s actually really hard to draw comics of food that look genuinely appetizing and that appeal to the palate. And those graphics themselves–which readers consume so quickly and with such pleasure–require long and hard physical hours to produce.
“There are so many parts!” Knisley says ruefully. “It’s such an exacting process. So many stages that take forever. Just as soon as you’ve finished one, then comes the next incredibly involved thing. I wish I could do it faster, churn it out. But I am the kind of person who needs to stop and let things germinate. I wish art could constantly flow out of my body, but usually physical constraints get in the way of that.”
Asked about the digital dominance debate in comics, whether the inevitable use of technology will make the hand-drawn comic extinct, Knisley acknowledges that there has been much growth–and growth of interest–in the digital world. “Digital art used to be so crude, but now it has advanced and really competes with hand-drawn work,” she says. “It’s a lot easier and cheaper to accomplish what you need to accomplish. Everybody is working in both hemispheres these days.” But she says, she will “always ink on paper. I cannot do it on the computer; it’s not the same feel or sense of satisfaction. I find it physically satisfying and necessary to my health to make comics on paper.”
Jessie C. Grearson is a freelance writer and writing teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. She has co-authored two books and several essays on intercultural subjects and reviews art, books, and audiobooks for a variety of publications.