New York Comic Con 2013: Interview with Relish Author Lucy Knisley

I was so pleasantly surprised and hooked by Lucy Knisley’s food memoir graphic novel Relish: My Life in Food, that I jumped at the chance to sit down and chat with her at New York Comic Con. There was so much to talk about and Lucy did not disappoint.

Sitting in the back of the First Second Books booth on the floor of NYCC, Lucy and I discussed everything from how she draws food so well, great NY food establishments, why her mom is a wizard and what super power she’d love to have (it’s freakin’ awesome). As it turns out, Lucy might actually have a super power already, at least when it comes to her favorite cupcakes.

Castles & Cooks: Did you ever consider a culinary career?

Lucy Knisley: I love working in the food industry and I did my whole time growing up, but there’s a sort of temperament that you need for that and I always made art as well and I think that something I always think of when people ask me that question like why I didn’t follow in my mom’s footsteps and be a chef, which I did think about, is that I grew up watching that, you know?

Sitting there watching that and digesting that, drawing pictures while I watched it. And I think that made an artist out of me more than a chef because it gave me this perspective where I could watch people and process that and turn it into art. And I love food and I love the food industry and I worked in it for years, but making art was always what I really wanted to do.

C&C: How did you learn to draw food so well? Your food is drawn so well that when you give recipes and examples you almost don’t even need the dialogue to identify them.

Lucy: Well the thing about food is that there’s a difference between the visceral picture of food thing, when you look at somebody’s Instagram of their lunch and you think ‘ooo I want to eat that’ when you make art about food it’s sort of one more step removed, it’s more of a symbol of the food…and what I was trying to do with my artwork for the book was to make something that looked delicious that wasn’t just a symbol. So rather than look at photos and try to copy them I really drew from my memory and sort of what like the platonic chicken would be in my mind when I think of what makes it delicious.

There’s this great book by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen called Images a La Carte which they made together when she developed allergies later in her life and she couldn’t eat a lot of the things that they used to enjoy together – they were big foodies. So Claes would draw the food in these beautiful expressive ways that she could imbibe them through “gastronomy” of the eye she called it. Which I really love that idea that you can have a sensory expereince beyond sight when you look at these images and that’s what I tried to do.

C&C: Are you into going to restaurants that try to make food an experience beyond eating – like eating in the dark, or a new one that was covered in the paper yesterday where you eat in total silence? (Editor’s note: The restaurant EAT in Greenpoint, Brooklyn has been hosting “Eat, Don’t Speak” meals which have become very popular)

Lucy: [laughing] I’ve never been to those, I totally would but I feel like it’s a great way to be self concious while you’re eating. Like way more concious of yourself than the food.

C&C: Yeah, it would probably distract. Especially eating in the dark…

Lucy: Eating in the dark, and to know that the waiters have the night vision goggles so to know you’re being observed but you can’t see them. That would horrify me. I would be like *waving her arms around in front of her* ‘is there someone by my head? Get away!’

C&C: Have you ever thought of writing a cookbook in graphic novel style?

Lucy: Totally, but like I said I’m not a chef, so I’d have to pair myself up with a chef and we’d have to collaborate together.

C&C: Your mom?

Lucy: My mother is totally great at that, but she’s sort of Julia Child. She follows the recipes that she knows and loves. And she has a whole bunch that she’s tweaked, but I’m not sure she has like a full cookbook in her. I’m not sure about that. It might be cool, we could maybe do it together…I think that might drive me nuts. [laughing] We’d kill each other.

C&C: With her cooking is she crazy precise or she is more ‘a little bit of this and a little bit of this and magic happens’?

Lucy: Oh it’s just magic, suddenly all of the food is ready at the same time and it’s like ‘how did you even do that? You were like on the phone, and watching tv and reading a magazine at the same time that all of this was happening, and it’s like perfect.’ So, nobody knows, she’s a wizard.

C&C: I think that’s the great divide between the younger generation of people who cook and the older generation. I meet a lot of young people who can cook and things aren’t ready at the same time and the older people are just like ‘eh, whatever’ and it’s all done.

Lucy: I’m pretty good at that…I’ve inherited my mom’s ability to multitask and do things at the same time. But my fiance is not. He’s very ‘follow the recipe, one thing at a time…’

C&C: Does he have an egg timer on the stove?

Lucy: He totally does have an egg timer. He has one of those things you put in with the eggs and it tells you when the eggs are done, and I’m just like ‘you could just…it’s 2 minutes.’ But it’ll be funny because I’ll give him a job and say ‘chop this pepper’ and I’ll be doing 12 other things and I’ll turn around and he’s precisely chopping the pepper to all the same size and I’m like ‘ we need that now. Just cut it.’

C&C: You know they make cutting boards with graphing lines on them, you should totally get him one of those.

Lucy: [laughing] He would love that.

C&C: So you’ve lived in and visited a lot of places, do you have a favorite food city?

Lucy: Paris. I mean Paris obviously, but that’s such a lame answer. I actually got to go to Seoul South Korea with my dad a couple years ago, and we took a food tour which was so cool. The guy actually has a blog called Seoul Eats. He’s born in Korea adopted to the States then moved back, so he’s bilingual and very cool, very nerdy and into comics and stuff. He took us around to secret food markets and cool restaurants. I had Patbingsu, do you know what that is? It is this crazy ass shaved ice thing. It’s like shaved sweet ice with every sweet thing on it. Like marshmallows, red bean candy, ice cream, and it’s like *this big*.

C&C: That sounds awesome, why don’t we have those things?

Lucy: They have some Patbingsu in Korea Town [in NYC], but it’s hard to find really authentic.

C&C: I’m never going to be able to eat a sno-cone again.

C&C: One of the things that’s great about the books is that it is about food, but you have these moments where you say, ‘you know what, we aren’t going to talk about food now.’ In the trip to Mexico you talk about your friend smuggling porn and you having to deal with growing up in a way that you didn’t think you’d have to deal with at this moment. And you have these great moments where you talk about the dynamic between your mom and you and your dad and you with eating. Did it seem natural to pair those [stories] with your food experiences?

Lucy: Definitely. You know what’s nice about how much I care about food – how much my whole family cares about food – is that we have these really strong memories of these meals and what’s nice is that those memories make connections to other things that happen right around that same time. So when I think about Mexico I think about the food that we ate and what happened to us there and sense memory is really strong. It’s a great tool that I had at my disposal when writing this autobiographical story, that I could connect myself back to that time period through the memory of the food which was great.

C&C: The book is almost about community and how food works with community, even if it’s just a community of one. Even if it’s just you yourself eating unrecreatable croissants in Venice and then spending a lifetime trying to recreate them. Which I imagine you still haven’t right?

Lucy: No I’m going to have to go back to Venice to eat those things. But yeah, when I was starting out making this book I decided to put myself on a cleanse to try and reconnect myself to food and reconnect to what food meant to me, by not eating it for a week. And it was horrible and I hated it, and something that I realized in the course of doing it is how not only does food improve everyone’s mood and makes you feel happy and connected to your body, [but] it also makes you feel connected to other people.

Whether it’s your friends you’re sharing the meal with or the person who prepared it or the place that you’re in. It makes you feel connected outside of yourself. And that’s something I really got out of that experience that carried over into the book

C&C: You talked about having to say goodbye to Chicago, and you have that great page with all the different food places you had to say goodbye to. So now that you’re in New York, I’m going to run through a couple foods and you can tell me your place.

Lucy: It’s only going to be on MacDougal Street.

C&C: So just MacDougal Street, et al.

Lucy: Across the board. Like you can walk one city block and it’s like every ethnic food represented.

C&C: Favorite Pizza?

Lucy: Oh, pizza place, John’s Pizza on Bleeker.

C&C: Good answer.

Lucy: My guilty pizza is two brothers which is the $1 slices when I just want a slice. And people make fun of me because it’s like fast food pizza, but it’s soo good and it’s unrepeatable, they do not have pizza like that anyplace else in the world.

C&C: Chinese food?

Lucy: My favorite one, is actually not far from here [Javit’s Center] is Chelsea Chinese, formerly called – you still have to search it on the map under the old name, Grand Sichuan. The one it’s on 23rd and like 9th. It’s secret. It’s not in in Chinatown, it’s totally out of the way. It’s really good, they have amazing soup dumplings, they have this Au jus chicken which is friggin unreal. I go there with my dad all the time, and we get the Szechuan noodles all the time and I think they’re the best ones I’ve ever had. And it’s the perfect meal. There’s lots of places in Chinatown that I really love, but that one is really good.

I visited Chelsea Chinese after the last night of Comic Con. Lucy was not over hyping the place at all, the food was incredible.

C&C: Favorite place for cookies?

Lucy: Cookies I feel very strongly about. I live not far from Insomnia Cookies – you can go get a warm cookie at 2:00am which is awesome. But I also have a very strong attachment to the le petit ecolier guys that you buy at the supermarket. You can get 45% dark, 75% dark or milk chocolate. I get the 45% dark because it’s the perfect dark. I really like those and I’m super lame that way.

C&C: Cupcakes?

Lucy: So cupcakes, I live in the West Village and everyone is like “oh Magnolia”. I don’t like Magnolia cupcakes that much, I think they’re kind of dry. My favorite cupcakes moved with me from Chicago. I lived in Chicago and was like ‘these cupcakes are the best cupcakes in the world’, Molly’s Cupcakes.

C&C: You willed them to New York.

Lucy: I willed them to move to New York with me, it was crazy! I went specifically the week I was moving out of Chicago, I went to that cupcake place and was like I gotta eat as many of these as I can before I go to New York. And I moved to New York and they moved like three blocks away from my house.  And they’re so good, they’re the best cupcakes. Molly’s Cupcakes, they’re right at the West 4th Bleeker area.

There’s this cupcake called the chocolate decadence cupcake which is a chocolate cupcake full of chocolate mousse with chocolate fondant cupcake on top. There’s a creme brulee cupcake that has creme brulee cream inside and caramelized sugar on top. I’m like petting the air where these cupcakes are imagined in my mind. There’s a cookie dough cupcake that’s full of cookie dough and then it has chocolate chip frosting on top and then there’s a cookie in the frosting. It’s the most insane thing…the Ron Burgundy one has caramel in it, they’re all amazing. They’re all amazing cupcakes, you have to go.

Lucy was so excited and when talking about these cupcakes I was slightly worried that she might start crying, she was that worked up about them. But when you’re talking about great cupcakes, tears are perfectly acceptable.

C&C: So, in case you didn’t get that…Molly’s Cupcakes.

C&C: What is your favorite food for when you are writing or drawing? Or are your one of those people that says oh no food near the art?

Lucy: Oh my god I eat so much, every page has food on it. I go through phases of intense “this is what I want to eat while I’m working.” They last for two weeks, then I’m like I’m never eating this again for two years. So right now I’ve been working and I stumbled onto the terrible realization that the new flavored Triscuits are really frickin good. Have you had them? I made so much fun of my mother, I got to her house and was like what are these flavored Triscuits, this is ridiculous and she’s like “just try one.”

Keep in mind that my mom is a professional chef and snob, she doesn’t buy crap, she usually doesn’t have any processed stuff in her house. I should have known better. Because now I walk in the house and I walk over and get her box and I eat them until I explode. There’s ones that are Rosemary Olive Oil Triscuits, so that’s what I’ve been eating while I’ve been working. So there’s just crumbs all over my desk, it’s awesome.

C&C: So if anyone else goes to buy original art from you…

Lucy: It will definitely have food on it.

C&C: If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

Lucy: I’ve thought about this a lot. What I am currently thinking would be my ideal superpower is the ability to put someone in a bubble and then float them away from me. So that if I was in this place and someone was walking really slowly I could just put them in a bubble and float them away. They would be unharmed, but they would just not be near me anymore.

C&C: That is like, the most offensive in terms of removing someone, yet gentle superpower ever.

Lucy: I love this because you could be arguing with someone and just be bubble float, and then they’d have to walk back to continue the argument. And then you could be like bubble, float.

C&C: But if you don’t float them away far enough then that means they will just come back and be really angry.

Lucy: That’s okay they get floated away again.

Before departing, Lucy revealed some info about what’s next for her. She is currently working on two travelogues, due out sometime in the next year and reiterated that she does hope she can do a cookbook someday provided that she gets paired up with a chef.

As for the travelogues, ones involves a trip to Europe, a “crazy love affair with a Swedish boy” and a visit to a friend that works in  the wine industry. The other centers on an elderly persons cruise to the Caribbean that Lucy took her 94 and 95 year old grandparents on. Both of the travelogues involve food including terrible cruise food and a tour of a cruise ship kitchen that promises to be enlightening to say the least.

Our interview was only about 30 minutes, but I easily could have talked to Lucy about food for the rest of the day. She has the same engaging open personality that just jumps off the page in her book. Her passion for both art and food are unmistakable and if everything she said wasn’t proof enough, her reactions and gestures every time she talked about a specific food certainly told the tale.

Lucy Knisley photo and book photos courtesy of First Second Books