If you think back to your strongest memories, how many of them are connected to food? That’s the essential question behind Lucy Knisley’s memoir Relish: My Life in the Kitchen. The book chronicles Knisley’s life and travels, with food and cooking interwoven at every step along the way. Whether it is remembrances of her mother’s amazing cooking and the experiences of being around professional kitchens, farmers markets and catering jobs, or discovering amazing cuisine while traveling with her dad.
The stories themselves would be enough for a tremendous food memoir, but what really elevates the text is that it is presented in a graphic novel format, with Knisley herself providing the artwork. She has a wonderful simple style that exudes warmth, perfectly complements the wit and welcome of her prose and allows her to create wonderful caricatures. If you want to know how good, be sure to check the final few pages of the book, where Knisley has included a few real photographs from growing up and you can see just how closely her drawings match the people in her life.
But interspersed between her life stories are recipes and instructions to recreate the foods that have played the most pivotal roles for her. Here the art style absolutely astounds with the way that Knisley is able to recreate ingredients to the point that they don’t even need to be identified. If Knisley ever decided to write/draw an entire cookbook – and she definitely should at some point – the result would be incredible (I will also be first in line for it).
Aside from a few jarring jumps in the narrative the story is consistently engaging and sometimes surprising. A fun story about a trip to Mexico with her best friend and their mothers quickly turns from a tale about discovering exotic new cuisines into a story about two teenagers dealing with some of the unique aspects of growing into a young man or woman. While the book is mostly about food, Knisley isn’t afraid to move away from talking about food at times in order to explore a critical moment about growing up or finding your place in the world. Knisley is open and honest about her life and at various times in the story I vacillated between outright laughter, the feeling of absolute empathy, and even a few tears. And it has nothing to do with how good Knisley is at drawing onions.
As I finished the book and settled on the incredible quote by Ray Bradbury that was included as a bookend it became clear that Knisley was never merely satisfied with words on the page. That words alone couldn’t encapsulate her love affair with food or convey the strong influence it has had on her life. No, she needed the pictures too. But the pictures that matter most aren’t the carefully recreated drawings of favorite dishes and ingredients – and I can’t stress enough how fantastic they are. Instead the pictures that matter are of the meals shared with others, the parties, the depictions of eclectic kitchen crews the or even the singular reaction at the discovery of one of a kind croissants in Venice.
The book and Knisley depict food as an essential part of building a community. Food brings people together, draws those already near us closer. It connects us with people and places distant – in years and miles, or reconnects us with those we’ve been separated from. The sweetest set of panels in the book involve Knisley talking about her parents, long since divorced, but yet her father’s desire to find himself at her mother’s table eating the food he loved and still loves. Whatever the relationship or how it may have faltered, food still brings them together. That is not a trivial thing.
Food is community, even if it is a community of one. Many of the intimate and private moments Knisley reveals aren’t about her connecting with other people, but with herself. With each story and panel, Lucy Knisley reminds us that whether you’re chowing down on perfect McDonald’s french fries on the floor of a Paris hotel room or saying goodbye to the city you love with a food odyssey, the power of food is indeed something to relish.
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen is available on Amazon or wherever books are sold.