Delicate Balance: The Culinary Comics of Lucy Knisley

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Lucy.KnisleyBy Greg Baldino

Instagram has turned everyone into an armchair food photographer, but there’s still no smartphone app for recording a memorable meal as an uplifting and insightful autobiographical comic. For that you need Lucy Knisley; SAIC alum, former cheesemonger, and the creator of “Relish: My Life in the Kitchen,” a collection of cartoon stories about growing up and eating fabulously.

You’ve been doing comics about food for most of your career, going all the way back to early stories in “Radiator Days” about selling cheese at Fox and Obel. How did the idea for a whole book about food come together?
I’ve always loved books that tell stories through food. I love this idea, of consuming food through looking at it and reading about it. Comics have always been a great way to connect with readers through a story and the visuals, and adding this element of shared sensory experience really appealed to me. I began to brainstorm the idea of this book after returning from a trip to Vancouver with my father, where I’d written and drawn a lot about what we’d eaten. It occurred to me that considering my upbringing around food, I had a lot of stories to tell on this theme, and so I began to conceptualize “Relish.”

What are some of the books on food that have inspired you?
I read Nigel Slater’s “Toast” and it really resonated with me, that he could tell the story of his childhood through his sensory memories of food. It was another way to bring the reader in to share the story with them through that connection of eating and cooking and the memory of delicious meals. I also read David Lebovitz’s “The Sweet Life in Paris,” which bookends each story about his time living in France with a recipe that references the previous chapter, which I loved. And I’ve long loved a book called “Images a la Carte” by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, which is a collection of little watercolored sketches of very beautiful food that Claes drew so that Coosje (whose allergies prevent her from actually consuming the dishes) could enjoy them through what she refers to as “gastronomy of the eye.”

I find a lot of your autobiographic comics to be moving. When you sit down to draw them, where are you emotionally in relation to the experiences you’re retelling?
It’s a good catharsis, to coalesce these emotions into a narrative that is translatable to another person. It’s a relief to form order from the chaos of emotions and thoughts and to have someone read it and know exactly how you feel. It’s the best therapy I’ve found so far!

You cover a lot of different periods in your life with this book. What kind of research did you do for this book as far as the autobiographic material?
I spent a lot of time talking with my mom about what she remembered. In many cases, her memories and my own didn’t fully match up, but my memories of growing up in kitchens and at farmer’s markets are pretty vivid. I think it’s that sensory connection to food, ingrained from birth, which allows me to all up these memories so fully.

Autobiographical comics have really boomed in the past decade, and have grown really passionate audiences. What has surprised you the most from this?
I was thrown for a bit of a loop by the backlash that began occurring a couple years ago in this reaction to the boom of autobio, this idea that they were over-saturating the market—too common, plus boring and mundane. It was a shock to me because I love autobio comics! People were, I think, responding to the proliferation of journal comics by blanketing all of autobio with the same derision reserved for journal comics (not that they deserve derision either—they are their own category, and should be seen as such). A lot of comic artists just starting out begin by doing journal comics. It’s an excellent exercise, getting you drawing every day and thinking about how to tell a story in a few panels, but it’s not always gripping literature, and frequently the art and writing are just developing. Memoir comics are different, as are travelogue comics—and I’m so pleased to watch people revise their former opinions about autobio, adjusting their outlook to see it as the complex and diverse field that it is.

Your book “French Milk” was reissued by Simon and Schuster and “Relish” is published by First Second, but you’ve also extensively self-published. How did publishing your own stuff prepare you for working with a publisher? 
Relish-300cmyk
It’s a good balance, to do both. With a publisher, you get an editor that helps you make the book better, a publicist to sell the book, a designer to make it look good, and distribution that you don’t have to do yourself at the post office every week. But with self-publishing, you get a lot more freedom to do things that wouldn’t necessarily work with a publisher, to edit less and be freer with the content. “French Milk” was published after I’d self-published it, so it was a great intro to publishing, allowing me to revise something that already existed. “Relish” was sold before it was made, so it was a learning experience to make a book from scratch with the collaboration of an editor. Like getting training wheels for “French Milk” and trying to do without for “Relish!”

What foods do you associate with the Windy City?
Hot dogs! And bad pizza. Sorry, Chicago, I know you love your pizza, but that is actually a cheese casserole. I spent all eight years that I lived there looking in vain for the sort of pizza I was used to getting in New York. But the hot dogs are amaaaazing! Like a whole crazy salad atop a perfectly charred hot dog. I’d grown up eating street hot dogs from New York, but Chicago’s really blew me away. Go to Hot Doug’s when you’re in Chicago and see what I mean.

You’ve studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Center for Cartoon Studies. How does learning from self-practice compare to learning in an academic setting?
The Art Institute of Chicago was very conceptual and classical-art-based. No comics courses to be found. (at least in my time—though now there’s a whole comics program!) I had to cobble together drawing and writing classes in order to make comics, and found that my comics were informed by fine arts experimentation, but also confined by the lack of structure that comes from focusing on learning comics as a craft. I got that from The Center for Cartoon Studies, which brought my wilder experiments into a more cohesive format; sort of honed my style a bit. I think it’s taken me this long, doing my work and practicing and studying, to be able to look at other people’s art and not just want to copy it in every way. Now I can look at other artwork and try to let it inform my own work while keeping myself grounded in the confidence of my own style. It’s a delicate balance of experimentation, focus and practice, and most of the time who knows what comes out!?

What do you have planned next?
I have a bunch of projects in the works! I spent the last year doing a series of travelogues that will find their way to readers in one way or another, soon. My next big project is in development now, and it looks like it might be about my experiences in high school as an artist kid that kept slipping through the cracks—sort of an “it gets better” book about how I went to four different high schools and barely made it out alive.

Last, but not least, did you ever get the croissant recipe figured out?
No, but those frozen ones from Trader Joe’s are delicious!

Lucy Knisley will be at Women and Children First on April 11 at 7:30 reading from “Relish: My Life in the Kitchen” from First Second, $17.99.

“Relish: My Life in the Kitchen”
By Lucy Knisley 
First Second, 192 pages, $17.99

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