Lucy Knisley’s latest book, Relish: My Life in the Kitchen (First Second, 2013), is clearly meant to be read as a memoir. From the subtitle to the organization of chapters to Knisley’s first-person narration of panels, Relish is most readily accessible as a series of recollections about food, people, and place taken from different moments in the author’s life. Memoir and autobiography are also the modes in which Knisley wrote and drew for her previous book, French Milk (Simon & Schuster, 2008) and writes and draws for her webcomic, Stop Paying Attention. Despite the preponderance of reasons for approaching her new work as a memoir, I found myself reading Relish as a cookbook.
My suggestion here is more “both and also” than “eiher/or” in intention. More precisely, I think that Relish works as a cookbook because it is also a memoir. Critically, it’s not simply the combination of life stories with recipes that makes the book work in the way that it does, but also that it’s a comic. Knisley’s drawings, as well as her “voice”, is what personally connects her stories with her recipes in a fashion that shows cooking to be approachable and fun rather than rarefied and technical.
Following an introduction that gives the reader a sense of what food means to her, Lucy Knisley organizes Relish into chapters that focus on what might be called, “food memories”, or stories taken from different times in her life that are related to food and what she did and who and where she was with at the chosen moment. Chapters are organized chronologically, from infancy to now, and each chapter, including the introduction but excepting the last, closes with a recipe, or, in one case, a guide to cheese.
Most cookbooks include some kind of illustration, but more often than not, the included images are more for aesthetics than instruction, offering gorgeous photographs or whimsical drawings for visual interest, but not much else. Typically, step-by-step instructions in recipes are given in words, not pictures. For a beginning cook, this can be a puzzle. What does it mean to “mince” or “dice”, let alone, “fine mince” or “fine dice”, something?
The first quality of Relish that makes it an effective cookbook is that instruction is provided equally in words and pictures. Readers are shown, as well as told, how to prepare the food and in what quantities ingredients should be measured. Most importantly, by drawing her recipes, Knisley, almost literally, shows cooking to be more art than science.
At this point in my life, I’m a well-practiced, and I think, fairly accomplished, home cook. I can’t remember the last time I worked directly from a recipe. What I’ve learned over time is that, with seasoning in particular, there is no formula that will get a dish right for every occasion. Different varieties and potencies of herbs, spices, salt and pepper, and personal preferences, means that there is no universal formula to get a perfect result, every time. However, in a typical cookbook, precise measurements are given for seasonings as if taste was absolute, and not relative.
Knisley’s recipes eschew this kind of precision, advising readers to use quantities like, “a lot” or “a handful”, or “many”. In straight prose, these kinds of instructions could be frustrating, especially if one isn’t experienced in the kitchen. In Relish, however, the drawings work to make these otherwise ambiguous amounts seem practical by giving would-be cooks an image to size up and mirror in making their own measurements.
When she briefly pivots from cooking to baking for chocolate chip cookies, I think that her insistence on the intuitive nature of cooking underscores her cautioning about baking, where greater precision is needed when measuring and balancing ingredients. I know I’m not the only person who has, early in life as a home cook, tried baking and learned the hard way that there is more science to the latter than there is in the former.
Knisley’s drawings are not the only means by which she makes cooking inviting. What is also effective in this regard is that she writes her recipes in the same voice as her personal stories; cooking instructions are more narrated than dictated. She embellishes her recipes with witty asides and by direct address. Knisley shows cooking to be an embodied practice, not a mathematical one. Her combinations of words and pictures evoke the visceral and emotional aspects of cooking, which connects text to reader at a sensual as well as a technical level. She, particularly, shows smell, taste, and anticipation to be integral parts of the cooking. She humanizes the experience, acknowledging that the practice of cooking is not simply a mechanistic process of following direction, but relates to us as organic beings.
The personal stories work with the recipes in other ways, as well. The provided recipes either come directly from Knisley’s recollections, as with her mother’s sautéed mushrooms, or have a natural connection to a chapter, such as her guidance on making sushi, which follows from memories of a trip to Japan. More importantly, Knisley’s recipes are grounded by her artistic self-representation and storytelling. Reading her cooking instructions is more like being in the kitchen with a friend than getting lectured by an authority.
Knisley’s art style is simple, but not simplistic. It’s expressive and accessible. Her drawings signify what is being represented, whether people, things or concepts, in a style that is neither iconic nor photorealistic, but remains easy to read. Comparing the included photographs at the end of the book with her drawings shows her talent at evoking the spirit of a person without literal likenesses. If anything—and following Scott McCloud—the lack of literal realism in the drawings in Relish likely makes it easier for readers to imagine themselves making and enjoying food as Knisley does.
Suggesting that Relish can be read as a cookbook is not the same as asserting that it is a cookbook. The fact that Relish is a comic, that it is both handwritten and hand drawn, foregrounds the book’s subjectivity, inviting readers into a dialogue with the text. In my case, my reading of the book was partly framed by my daughter showing an increasing interest in cooking. Thinking about teaching her how to cook highlighted the recipes for me, and I began to see Relish as a great potential “first cookbook” for teens and young adults looking to expand their food horizons. I doubt I would have thought the same about a prose memoir.
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