Relish: My Life in the Kitchen
“Relish is as warm as Lucy Knisley’s beloved homemade chocolate ship cookies.”
Such an easy river of food, color, and memories . . . Relish holds much of what cooking and life should ideally be filled with:
• small meals of infinite delight,
• a hundred attempts at croissants that refuse to manifest themselves the way sunlight once did over an odorous canal in Venice,
• fun episodes overseas with friends and not so fun episodes overseas with parents,
• occasional (and understandable) forays into junk food,
• laughs generated by parents, your own foibles and embarrassments,
• the pleasure of dining both with others and alone,
• the joy of learning to cook. Making pickles, learning about cheese and digging for mushrooms by hand, and
• occasional conceits coupled with a small bit of insight into who you really are.
Author and artist Lucy Knisley begins her most recent graphic novel with the Skip-to-My-Lou weightlessness of childhood while building and growing into a world filled with responsibility, mistakes, success, work, art, travel, friends, family, and wonder.
Relish is a gentle reminder that our connection with food is as important to our lives as our relationship to those who share that life with us is. Often the two can become tangled. Born into a family that appreciated food as an essential part of life, a family that made the preparation of a meal or snack as important as the dining experience itself, Ms. Knisley had no problem fitting right in with them from the minute she showed up.
Portraying herself as a diaper-clad infant with big, blue, inquisitive eyes Ms. Knisley shows her younger self munching on a piece of brie. An unusual scene for any American infant as the usual parent would have handed the kid a juice box and a chicken nugget. But her parents weren’t the norm.
This is one of the reasons that Relish is such a beautiful read. Ms. Knisley’s story may center on food but flitting around the edges of the story is the way she gradually grows into a relationship with her parents and the outside world. It is only as you near the end of the book that the recipes and detailed portrayals of various foods seem to melt away into loving images and stories of the people who have walked through her life.
As we follow her through Manhattan, Mexico, Chicago, Japan, and the rural experience of upstate New York, she takes each step with a willingness to try each new meal or adventure with as open a mind as possible. Ms. Knisley seems to be completely taken with the inherent beauty of the world and the wonders nature provides. The positivity with which she approaches her life is a wonderful change from writers who showcase their suffering and struggles.
As an artist it’s fitting that she loves Archie, Tintin, and Calvin and Hobbes. Like the strips and characters she admires, her artistic style conveys a world absolutely dancing in vivid, solid, basic colors. A world that involves imagination, adventure, and social activity on both a massive and deeply personal scale. Like so many of us, what she finds in her life is often beyond her control.
Her discovery of art as something to live for occurs in the form of a quiet encounter with a Richard Serra sculpture. Working as a caterer, Ms. Knisley stumbles into a room at an event and her life is transformed upon seeing the sculpture before her.
The immensity of the moment and what it meant to her is mirrored in the way that she fills the entire page with “. . . this familiar, famous, remote giant.” Standing to the left of it in her server’s uniform she seems nearly dwarfed by what she sees.
Moving from a full page where she first encounters the art she follows the first impression by cutting the next page in half. The first panel reflects her gentle approach toward the tiled arc; the second panel shows her close up with closed eyes, gently embracing the giant in quiet bliss. In three panels she moves us from the largeness of the scene into possibly the most personal moment in the book. It is a gifted storyteller who can do so much with so few lines.
Like building a good two minute and 23-second pop song, this type of world may appear easy to create, but in reality it is one of the hardest to construct in comics. Ms. Knisley trusts her skills as well as her readers, refusing to crowd scenes with unnecessary details. When showing us ingredients and recipes she perfectly uses white space to enhance what she is telling us. As if she has prepared a meal and wants us to enjoy each part of it as it sits across a well-made table.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t moments and pages of noise-filled cacophony or discomfort. Crowded panels highlight packed cities and countries. As skilled as she is with a “quiet moment” inside a page, she has no problems with cement and brick and the oppressive weight and texture of a city. When the story needs it she is relatively merciless when documenting her own problems with her parents and has no problem making fun of her own occasional forays into obsessive behavior.
Relish serves as an important reminder that so many of us have lost our relationship with what we eat. We rush about grabbing what we can, seldom stopping to realize that a pan of fried mushrooms is as important, if not moreso, than that last tweet from an acquaintance—and that pan of mushrooms lasts a lot longer.
Relish is as warm as Lucy Knisley’s beloved homemade chocolate ship cookies.