Thu April 11, 2013
Cook, Illustrated: A New Graphic Novel That Live-to-Eat Types Will Savor
Lucy Knisley eats better than you do.
Face it: she knows more than you about what makes food delicious and satisfying. She's a former cheesemonger who monged her odoriferous wares with verve and aplomb. She's spent her life in kitchens, and has developed the skills to prepare meals with passion and something very like grace.
So, yes: her carbonara is way, way better than yours.
These are just facts. Accept them.
If you don't, you'll likely waste the first few minutes you spend reading her charming comic-book memoir Relish: My Life in the Kitchen with a chip on your shoulder. Which is understandable: You've been burned in the past, after all, on foodie memoirs that stink of pretension like durian fruit stinks of ... um, stink.
Here's the difference. It's a small but crucial one.
Lucy Knisley isn't a food hipster. She's a food nerd.
Which is to say: she doesn't lecture. She enthuses.
Her knowledge of food isn't an excuse to lord her expertise over others. It's a means to connect with them, to get them to understand why she loves what she loves — and, maybe, to get them to love it, too.
Relish contains a series of stories from Knisley's life in the culinary world, from being toted along as a young girl to her mother's job at the first Dean and Deluca, to her own experiences in the Chicago food scene. These are broken up by some of her favorite recipes, lovingly illustrated and annotated in her bright, cartoony style.
Consider this two-page spread, for example, in which Knisley effectively sits the reader down to talk about cheese, in all its splendor. Note the tone — cheerful and excited, never pompous or condescending.
And if the notion of illustrated, annotated recipes has you thinking of the adorable, rustic-country, calico-colored world of cookbook maven Mary Engelbreit, rest assured that Knisley's sensibilities run considerably less twee.
Take this page, for example, illustrating her first real awakening to some of the more grisly realities behind her evening meal.
Note how completely in control she is of her cartooning, how off-handedly she adapts her style to the narrative. That panel on the upper left is — to me — laugh-out-loud funny every time, in the way she so ruthlessly distills the surprise and horror of that moment into a perfect, saucer-eyed take. Ditto the sidelong glance she gives the angelic-seeming dog in the fourth panel, shielding herself from an unpleasant memory by folding herself into a defensive crouch.
But then, in the final panel, she expresses the unadorned pleasure of a delicious meal simply, giving herself the faint smile of expectant appreciation we Live-to-Eat types know so well.
And do understand: This is a book for avowed Live-to-Eat types. If you count yourself among us, you'll enjoy Knisley's guided tour through the world of her enthusiasms.
But if, on the other hand, you're an Eat-to-Liver (heh) — one of that benighted lot of mere subsisters who can read an article about eating nothing but a mysterious bean-based gruel called Soylent (LET'S AGREE THAT IS A PROFOUNDLY DISQUIETING NAME, PEOPLE) and think, "That's for me!" — you should pass this book by. The rest of us will be over here, give her Huevos Rancheros a try.