Lucy Knisley‘s first autobiographical book, French Milk, told the story of a mother-daughter holiday in Paris with writing, illustration, and photography. Her second, Relish: My Life in the Kitchen is just as personal, recounting Knisley’s childhood in Manhattan through her graduation from art school in Chicago, with snack-filled stops along the way in Japan, Mexico, and Rhinebeck (where after suffering a vicious goose attack, the author goes on to delight in foie gras).
Knisley’s new book reads like a detailed, colorful food diary, documenting the author’s relationships with her chef mother and food-loving father, along with the pivotal, awkward moments of her youth — from her parents’ divorce to her first period. But the bright illustrations and charming writing tend to stay away from food-memoir cliches. Her first cold oysters, for example, which she learns to crack open as a kid, taste the way Knisley imagines “the TI-83 robot from the Terminator would have tasted, but saltier.”
It’s this charming voice that pulls you through the vignettes. Relish ends shortly after a meal at Chicago’s Alinea (which boggles Knisley’s mind) and a tour through the kitchen — it’s always fun to see what the author sees, and here it’s an army of serious cooks, scrubbing everything around them until it’s spotless, passing purees of various foods through a tamis, and frowning.
Simple recipes close each chapter, like mushrooms sauteed in butter and olive oil, or huevos rancheros. (Even the most complex, the “Dent Family Patented Marinated Lamb,” is approachable.) The book comes out next week, and meanwhile Knisley has moved back to New York where she’s developing a comics-making workshop and finishing up a non-food-related side project, In Oscar’s Footsteps.
Where you do love to eat in your neighborhood?
There’s a secret sandwich shop close to my apartment in the West Village called Better Being Underground. It’s only open on weekdays, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and then they take the sign down and it goes back to being a basement. But it’s really, really good!
What do you get there?
They change the menu every day, but I love the St. Luke. It’s a fried chicken sandwich with pickles.
How did you get into comics?
My dad was a writing professor and my mom was a chef and artist, and I couldn’t find a way to split these inherited interests. When I got to art school I realized I didn’t want to be a conceptual painter — I wanted to be a writer and an artist! Comics married the two perfectly.
The book begins by explaining the power of food memories, but how did you remember all the really early food moments?
I did a lot of consulting with my parents, though they sometimes had differing memories about certain events. . . And I looked at so many photo albums! In my family, we have way more pictures of meals than of actual human beings.
Tell me about the recipes.
All the recipes are simple things that I cook for myself all the time. The only one that really needed research was the lamb, which is a little more complicated. I worked on that one with my mom.
What do you eat and drink when you’re working around the clock on a project?
I don’t have regular hours and I work from home, so I work all the time. And I’m not easily distracted, which means that when I do finally stop to eat, that’s my break, my only escape. I usually cook something for myself, like sauteed carrots. Something simple, but delicious.
Is there a food that’s particularly tricky to illustrate?
The funny thing about food drawing is that it doesn’t get that same visceral reaction that food photography does. When you’re drawing, you have to draw the Platonic symbol of the food so people will recognize it. I realized that when I was first showing people pages from Relish.