It’s odd to think of “tasting” a memory, but for some people, food is a nostalgic unifier: It’s impossible to think of Thanksgiving without smelling a roasted turkey, or recalling the salty squish of stuffing. Lucy Knisley has hauled up her dearest food memories and written them down in Relish, an all-together charming graphic novel memoir about Knisley’s life, as seen though the dishes that have populated it.
“I’m sort of a unilateral food nerd and sort of like all kinds of food,” Knisley said from her apartment in New York. “I think with our current social interactions, food is always kind of the anchor — you meet somewhere for coffee or you have dinner with someone. It’s an automatic social interaction and you feel a strong personal connection to them.”
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen is packed with strong connections from Knisley’s past. There's the time she chugged buttermilk with a friend, memories of exploring her mother’s crop garden, the way mom makes mushrooms, her travels in Japan, her first cooking job, and leaving Chicago to “make it” in New York, where Knisley has worked in kitchens and now become a writer/illustrator focusing on food. It’s a full life and one informed by cooking.
What makes Relish special is how each of these key moments in Knisley’s life is so tied to food. A batch of cookies isn’t just a batch of cookies; it was a way to connect with her classmates and prove her skills to her mom. Each of Relish’s 12 chapters focuses on a salient memory, bookending them with an illustrated recipe.
The inspiration came from a book called The Sweet Life in Paris, by David Lebovitz. “He’s a chocolatier and he lived in Paris, writing about its food. He ends each of his chapters with a recipe. I loved the idea that you could think about food as history, and then directly through a recipe.”
Knisley’s recipes are tiny windows not just into the book, but into the memories Knisley writes about. Bake those cookies, and you can participate in her memory with her (and create some of your own).
“All human beings start out drawing comics, telling stories in visual ways,” Knisley says. Even babies start out scratching doodles of the world around them; “It is a really natural way for humans to tell stories, to pair words with pictures.” For Knisley, it was also a way of sharing her recipes in better way. “I’m such a visual learner that I find it hard to follow some traditional recipes. I like to cook things by watching hands actually involved in putting the ingredients together… you’re not just looking at a stream of text.”
The light, almost Sunday-morning-cartoon quality of the illustrations gives both the stories and recipes an easy, whimsical feel. The cookie recipe, for example, has little pictures of half-eaten cookie men celebrating beside each step. A recipe for Mom’s pesto (included at the bottom of this story) makes everything taste better, even the shoe it's drawn on.
In case you’re picking up a theme, much of Knisley’s passion came from her mother, a multifaceted chef and foodie. “I grew up with this ‘Alice Waters’ mother who would go to the farmer’s market and buy us dinner.” Knisley’s mother worked in kitchens, for catering services, with farmer's markets, at the original Dean and Deluca store, and much more. Much of that drive came from the poor eating habits of both her parents while she was growing up: “Both of them came from not-the-best-dinner-table childhoods,” Knisley says. “So I think when they got old enough to cook for themselves, they really embraced better food and [making sure] their kid was raised with better food.”
That theme carries through both in Relish’s recipes and in Knisley’s own life, though she does take a more agnostic approach to “health” food: “[The] philosophy that I was raised with was ‘all in moderation.’ Eat what’s delicious, and try not to waste meals on ‘bad’ food.” But that doesn’t mean eating like a rabbit every day. “It’s possible to eat very cheap and very conveniently and still be healthy and not eat McDonald’s for every meal. But sometimes you just really want McDonald’s fries, and that’s OK.”
Knisley admits she’s a little craving-based, and can fixate on a specific dish until she either makes it or finds it elsewhere. Still, it’s possible to indulge without losing sight of sustainability. “I think a lot about what I eat, my personal health, the balance between being an aware carnivore and thinking about how we eat meat, trying to be socially and ecologically-responsible meat.” But Knisley knows that everyone should (and will) make their own choices about food: “I try to walk the line, personally, but I don’t consider myself an authority. I can’t tell anyone how to eat.”
What Knisley can do is tell people how she eats, and how she has eaten. There’s something to be said for making recipes more personal and more tied to history. "I trust the books I inherited from my mother more than just random recipes on the Internet,” she says.
Knisley is now closing out the book tour for Relish, her second food book after French Milk, published in 2008. She’s visited cities across the States, picking up new tips and favorite meals along the way. “It’s been a dream,” she says of the tour. “It’s awesome because I get to meet readers and talk about food… it’s kind of a nice benefit of the tour; I get good restaurant recommendations.”
Knisley is currently working on some more food-based books projects while also freelancing for publications like Saveur. Next up, is a travelogue about the life of Oscar Wilde, however, there’s just one catch: “My camera was stolen and all my reference photos were lost,” Knisley says. “The whole book is written, but I lost all the reference photos.”
This might seem like a problem and, admittedly, it is kind of a roadblock, but if anyone can draw from memory, it’s Knisley.
Mom's Pesto Recipe, From Relish
Do your best memories include food in some way? Share your own story in the comments below, or find the author on Twitter at @zsniderman.