In her adult graphic-novel memoir Relish: My Life in the Kitchen (First Second, April 2013), Lucy Knisley portrays specific periods of her life and their associated “taste-memories” in a series of witty, touching vignettes.
Relish begins with Lucy’s early childhood in New York City, growing up in a family of foodies with great faith in “the trinity of cooking, dining out, and eating.” She details her brief “farm kid” life when her parents divorced and she moved to upstate New York with her mother. (Of that time Lucy writes, “I think it changed my relationship to the world, to my body and food, to see that what I ate didn’t originate on the shelves of a store.”) As an impoverished art student in Chicago, she worked as a cheesemonger and occasional food critic because she could not otherwise afford the “fancy food” she loved. As in her first book, French Milk, a food travelogue about her six-week stay in Paris, eating while traveling is a major theme. Being a baker myself, one of my favorite chapters tells of Lucy’s obsessive attempts to recreate the addictive apricot croissants she discovered in Venice. Each section closes with an illustrated recipe.
I recently attended Lucy’s book event at my beloved local indie bookstore Brookline Booksmith. She talked about the inspirations for Relish, her previous food-related comics, and her creative process, then answered questions from the audience on current work (an Oscar Wilde biography; another memoir with First Second about her art education), her dream projects (children’s books!), and her least favorite foods (anything bland and mushy). When signing, she generously drew each reader’s favorite food in their copy of Relish. Then I got to sit down with her and ask a few questions of my own!
What’s been your favorite new food experience on your book tour?
When I’m doing signings, so many people come up and give me food recommendations. I’m getting local people who really know what’s new and what’s amazing locally. One of the best food recommendations I had was the Ferry Building Market – I love food markets. I was there [practically] every day that I was in San Francisco. And that was awesome not just because Cowgirl Creamery — which I love, and when I used to sell cheese it was one of my favorite dairies — had a storefront there, but I ran into my old babysitter who manages a bakery there. Food brings everyone together!
Also in San Francisco, I went up to a food truck to order a sandwich and the girl said, “Are you Lucy?” She had been reading my book and had it with her in the food truck. I signed it through the window, and then she sold me an incredible crispy meatloaf slider. That was a really big deal for me.
Does writing about food ever make you hungry?
All the time.
If you were going to host a dinner party and you could invite anyone, living or dead, who would you invite?
Oscar Wilde. Not just because I’m totally fascinated with him as a historical figure but also because he ate crazy, amazing things when he was alive. He had this incredible, decadent palate — gold-leafed quail eggs and stuff. So I would really want to go to a dinner party at his house. He used to have salon dinners at his house and [would] just hold court with witticisms as his guests ate.
What would be on the menu — besides the gold quail eggs?
He also smoked gold-tipped cigarettes! He loved foie gras, which I love as well, so we could bond over that. I’m sure he had lots of gross Irish food tastes, like meat pies. And he drank like a fish, so there would be excellent cocktails, probably involving absinthe. It would be a meal in decadence. I would have gout immediately.
In Relish you talk about how you have a place in your heart for both junk food and fancy food. It reminded me of my own reading habits. I was wondering if your reading is anything like your culinary habits.
They’re very much alike. I’m an equal opportunity foodie and reader as well. Well, I should say that I’m more of a junk-food reader. I really love dystopian young adult fiction. I’m so glad that more and more adults are coming out as big fans. Things like The Hunger Games and Twilight have made liking dystopian young adult fiction more of an acceptable thing [for adults]. It’s my favorite genre.
Do you watch cooking shows?
I don’t watch cooking shows. Most of the TV-watching that I do takes place while I’m inking, so I can’t look at the show, I have to listen to it. For a lot of those competition shows, so much of it is visual, so I can’t keep up with what’s happening.
But I am interested in what reality shows have done to food in America, the way that people see food as more of an entertainment thing now. People can [consider themselves] “foodies” and never cook, and not dine out very often. It’s getting a lot more people knowledgeable about food and interested in traveling and trying new things. But I’m totally freaked out by those shows like Man vs. Food: “I’m going to eat the biggest, craziest, spiciest thing on earth.” That doesn’t sound fun or delicious. That just sounds uncomfortable!
I love movies that involve food. I loved The Trip. You can’t draw in the movie theater, so I get to pay attention to the visuals more. Toast, a book that I really loved, was made into a really weird movie a couple years ago that I loved anyway. And Chocolat is an old favorite of mine. Also Julie & Julia.
Did you ever perfect the apricot croissant recipe?
I never did. But I have gotten a lot of tips, especially on this book tour. Apparently Trader Joe’s has frozen croissants that you put in the oven. I haven’t tried them yet but that might be a good way to cheat.
Boston’s The Metro daily newspaper also published an interview with Lucy this week.