Review: Relish

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Relish
by Lucy Knisley

★★★★☆

2013 • 192 pages • First Second

Despite my love of cooking, I don’t review cookbooks for this blog. There are a lot of reasons for that. Firstly, I don’t actually read that many of them, because the Internet is my main resource for recipes. Secondly, I don’t actually read them the way I consume media. I rifle through them, searching for something I like, and when I finally do alight on a likely candidate, my improvisation is brutal because of my lactose intolerance, laziness, and cheapness. When I look for a recipe for myself, it’s with the specific intent of making it my own.

But when I read food histories or food-centered memoirs, it’s a different story. I’m seized by the urge to recreate a historical dish, to better access the past through my sense of taste, or by the need to go find the pizzeria this book recommends and see if it’s really worth all the praise. Relish’s recipes and recommendations proved all the more tempting for author Lucy Knisley’s clear, clean, and bright artwork. I have bookmarked places to go eat in Chicago because of this book, and I have never been to Chicago nor plan to visit Chicago. I have an ear of corn in my fridge from the farmer’s market, ready for me to eat raw, per Knisley’s fond memories of doing so. I even copied her recipe for sautéed mushrooms down to the letter, but my stomach was being peculiarly tender and refused to digest it.

What makes those food histories and food-centered memoirs different is that what I get from them isn’t a recipe, but a culinary worldview. (And, in my case, a different palette—I’m a supertaster with a sweet tooth and the inability to digest dairy.) Knisley is an artist first and foremost—I know of her through her bimonthly diary comic, Stop Paying Attention—but her foodie heritage is unparalleled. Her father treats traveling as an excuse to eat well (they share a trip that unfortunately ends in disappointment here) and her mother is a chef who moved her from New York City to upstate New York during her childhood and got involved with farmers’ markets. (Charmingly, Knisley’s biography on every copy of Relish notes that she moved back to New York to be closer to her mother’s cooking.)

It would be easy to look at Relish as a simple accumulation of all the wonderful culinary opportunities Knisley has experienced that other people may never have, but Knisley, ever the memoirist, is much more interested in what food means to us. She declines to provide a recipe for croissants, because her strongest memory of croissants is finding a seemingly magical bakery in Italy during college and never, despite her best efforts, being able to recreate it. Was it her age? Was it the time of the year? Was it simply being a foreign traveller and stumbling across something unexpected?

Because her family is practically its own food culture, most of the chapters of Relish (which conclude with a recipe or, at one point, an illustrated beginner’s guide to cheeses) deal with Knisley and her family. After her parents’ divorce, she begins experiencing food very differently with the both of them. At one point, Knisley finds something appealingly witchy about her and her mother’s predilection for cooking meat together and eating it off the cutting board with their hands. With her father, things are more formal—he doesn’t cook—but she sometimes catches him giving his all whenever he’s at her mother’s table, because he misses her cooking (and, therefore, her). In one chapter, she depicts them as Greek gods, her mother Demeter and her father Zeus. (Knisley, is, obviously and sweetly, Persephone.)

But Knisley is not a snob. There’s a chapter devoted to junk food where Knisley defends a taste for it, briefly depicting a multicultural montage of fast food enjoyment to make her point. She tells a story about eating McDonald’s while traveling with her father, who was aghast to wake up one morning to find his daughter eating American fast food. Her clear devotion to McDonald’s fries is hunger-inducing enough to make you want to run out and get some for dinner.

Overall, Relish is a bright graphic memoir that’ll make you hungry, but, in retrospect, it seems quite light. However, Knisley’s only getting started; she has four (!) books in production at the moment, ranging in topics from her upcoming nuptials to travelogues to high school. She’s certainly someone to watch.

I rented this book from the public library.

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