I think I have a thing for graphic novels about food because as I read Lucy Knisley’s Relish, I couldn’t help but remember how much I loved reading Sara Varon’s delightful Bake Sale (which Kimberly and I joint reviewed — with taste testing — here). But where Varon’s book is a fictional tale with a strong narrative arc, Knisley’s is a memoir of foodie told through vignettes.
Lucy was born to two parents who appreciated the finest of foods. They established a fine palate for Lucy at a young age, and throughout Relish, we’re reminded not only of this familial influence, but we’re forced to think about the role that food has for us on a very personal and on a very social level. When Lucy’s parents divorce, and her mother takes her from their apartment in New York City to a home in upstate New York — Rhinebeck, specifically — it impacts Lucy not only because of the shift in her life, but it changes the way she thinks about and eats food.
It’s a little bit challenging to explain what this book is really about, since it’s a series of short moments within Lucy’s life that illustrate a greater point: food is important. And where this is a story of a die hard foodie who grew up around the finest, the freshest, and the best sorts of food possible, it’s not at all the sort of book which reads with an upturned nose at the reader. In fact, this is the sort of book anyone who has an appreciation of food and the art of eating and enjoying it.
After learning about how Lucy’s upbringing in upstate New York and about how much she learned about the way food is grown and produced, it would be easy for this to be the sort of book that judges the types of foods we eat. But, Lucy chooses instead to offer us up a vignette about how much she loves fast food, despite the feelings her parents have toward it. Rather than judge it or judge people who eat it, Lucy instead notes that the reason people eat fast food is because it tastes good and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s this vignette, in fact, that made me laugh out loud and made me realize how down to earth this graphic novel is, as well as how accessible it is to not only adult readers, but teen readers, too.
My favorite vignette, though, takes place in Mexico, when Lucy is twelve years old. Her mother and her mother’s best friend decided to take a trip there, bringing Lucy and her mother’s friend’s son, Drew, along with them. Lucy’s mom and mom’s friend became quite ill early on in the trip, and as a result, the kids were left to their own devices to explore the small interior arts community they were vacationing in. Both kids were given cash, and that cash was then used by them to buy all kinds of sweets at the local market. It wasn’t long, though, before Drew discovered how much easier it was to purchase pornographic magazines in Mexico than in the states, and as a result, his petty cash was being spent accumulating plenty of dirty magazines. In the midst of this, Lucy gets her first period, and now she has to figure out how to purchase feminine products in Mexico without speaking the language. This entire series was laugh out loud funny, and at the same time, it was an incredibly authentic and sweet exploration of the tricky things that come with emerging adolescence. More, the way that this foreign experience of growing up tangled with the experience of trying foreign foods in a foreign place just worked well without ever coming off as trying too hard.
Interspersed with the stories are actual recipes. There’s one for sushi, one for huevos rancheros, one for sangria, pasta carbonara, and many more. But rather than lay out the recipes in a manner that’s step-by-step, what Knisley chooses to do instead is illustrate the ingredients and then give a very loose set of instructions for assembly. As someone who cooks regularly, I loved this approach not only because that’s precisely how I cook, but I think it tied into the greater message of the book which is that food is an experience, that it’s individual, and it’s something that you mold to make your own. The image below is from the publisher’s website, and it’s her recipe for the perfect chocolate chip cookie (which I have to take some issue with since it includes coconut, but you get the idea of how the recipes look from this one):
Relish is a sensory experience. Aside from the food itself, the way that Knisley describes and illustrates the book grabs every aspect of the reader’s senses. There’s a scene in the book where Lucy is riding her bike in Chicago, and she passes the Blommer Chocolate Company. I could smell the semi-sweet chocolate through the pages. When Lucy describes the way that her grandmother made the perfect mushrooms — a food that I have always found repulsive (despite how much I really want to try them) — I could not only smell them, but I could taste them. I could hear the way they whistled on the pan, too. In addition to the sensory experience and the recipes are the small insights on food straight from someone who has clearly dedicated much of her life to learning about it on a very intimate level. There’s an entire section, for example, on different types of cheeses that I absolutely loved. It’s not presented in a pretentious way, either: Knisley offers it up with plenty of humor, making it accessible even for people who simply like to eat cheese.
|One of the pages from “Europe/Croissants.”|
There’s a real love and passion for food of all types pouring from the pages of this book. I was invested in this from the first page, and even long after closing the book, I’m thinking about it. This is much more than simply a memoir of Lucy’s life in food. It’s a story about the way food impacts us on every level and how much we forget to step back and think about and appreciate the role it plays to us in both a social and personal level. Food nourishes us for a reason, and it’s not simply because of nutrients. It connects us to other people, to other cultures, and to ourselves. Food and life are about experimentation, about being imperfect, about savoring, about exploring and returning to things that are comforting when it’s most needed. Over on Knisley’s blog, you can read a perfect example of how these ideas intertwine in the vignette titled “The Craver.” And after reading that, if you aren’t craving spinach with garlic and olive oil, I’m sorry!
The art in Relish never outshines the prose, as the prose never drowns out the illustrations. In fact, I think that they work together in a way that the tangling story lines of adolescence and food do: they work together to give a whole and complete story. Without one, there wouldn’t be the other. I loved the full-color illustrations. This is the kind of graphic novel that will appeal to those who regularly read the format, but I think, too, it’s the kind of graphic novel that’s extremely accessible for those who may be reluctant to give the format a try. Hand this book off to readers who are diehard food lovers, as well as those who love graphic novel memoirs. It’s got easy appeal to both teenagers who will get everything Lucy is going through, and it has mega appeal to adults who can reflect upon the foods and meals that, too, remind them of both the significant and less significant moments of their lives. This reminded me a bit of a cross between Julia Wertz in terms of humor and Sara Varon in terms of style (and Varon, too, has a bit of that humor to her writing, too, even when her characters aren’t human). Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home, blurbs this book, and I think that readers who have read and appreciated Bechdel will find plenty to like in this book, too.
Relish is a real winner. Just don’t read it on an empty stomach.
Relish is available from :01/First Second. Review copy received from the publisher. If you want to sample the book, make sure you check out the galleries over on Knisley’s website.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).