Lucy Knisley is a talented cartoonist, and Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, her new book out from First Second, shows off her skills as an artist, which are considerable. However, the book also demonstrates her failure as a writer on multiple levels. Relish seeks to be a memoir that is also a meditation on food and food culture and cooking, but it reveals almost nothing about Knisley, and while it demonstrates that she loves food, there is little evidence that Knisley knows much about food or food culture. Every time Knisley tries to make a larger sociological point beyond her own experiences, it’s unclear whether she’s simplifying the issues so that they’re impossible to understand or whether she simply doesn’t understand the issues she’s raised.
There are also recipes in the book. Not only are they not worth buying the book for, but many of them are simply generic recipes one could find through a random internet search. Does anyone need a recipe for pesto or sangria or chocolate chip cookies that could be found anywhere? Even more puzzling, most of them are not personal or pertinent to the plot or directly related to a story or memory. It would be one thing if the recipes were generic, but functioned like the songs in a musical or the fights in an action movie. Instead they feel miscellaneous and extraneous.
Simply, the book fails as memoir because it’s not revealing. I don’t mean this in a salacious nature, but because historically the memoir is about revelation. There’s a trend in contemporary memoir to provide not a revelatory experience, but rather to cash in on celebrity, providing a book which shares a great deal of facts, but has no interest in getting at something essential to the character of the person. It can be compared to how reality television manages to stop short of reality and character and understanding the people being filmed.
Knisley is writing about herself and her family, who are still alive and with whom she has contact, and it shows. There’s a noticeable lack of emotional detail, as if she is going out of her way to avoid sharing anything that she or anyone depicted might find uncomfortable. As a result, Knisley never manages to do more than share a series of stories, none of which are very personal or affecting. Reading the book is more akin to hearing stories an acquaintance tells to a group of people she does not know very well than it is to reading one of the memoirs mentioned earlier. One learns that Knisley grew up in New York and went to college in Chicago. That in college she finished her final project early, unlike her classmates, so she cooked for them and they all loved what she made. That she once met Kate Hudson working for her mom’s catering company. She went to Rome when she was young and didn’t care. That her parents are divorced but they’re always portrayed as getting along incredibly well. In fact her mother’s boyfriend has a far more fraught and troubled relationship with her mother than her ex-husband does, according to Knisley’s book.
At one point she writes, “I’ve since turned to the mixing bowl so often in times of turmoil, I can practically bake blindfolded. The act is so soothing–reminding me that I might be a mess, but I can at least do ONE thing right.” (Page 32, Panel 6) That’s good to know. It’s a sentiment to which I and many people can relate. Of course this might have been a statement better used in a book where Knisley actually relates a story involving emotional turmoil. Instead of showing us this, she told us this. Except for loving food–this is representative of the book’s emotional content.
For example, in one of the book’s lengthiest stories, Knisley, her friend Drew, and their mothers travel to Mexico. The story’s laughs come from Drew, who spent a couple hundred bucks on pornographic magazines while there, which he left behind in the airport. At the end of the story Knisley depicts her and Drew’s childhood selves left behind on that trip. In Drew’s case I’m not certain how exactly that qualifies–I’m a male who’s bought, read, and thrown away pornography and never thought of any of it as a life-altering experience–but for Knisley, it’s because she had her period for the first time.
“Many women recall the flushed embarrassment of purchasing sanitary napkins for the first time, accompanied by Mom as a brand adviser,” Knisley writes. “I cannot fully recall my feelings, though, buying them alone, from a Mexican druggist who had no idea what I was trying to ask for.” (Page 66, Panels 1-2)
That Knisley speaks of other people having an emotional reaction to this, but she doesn’t share her emotions with the reader is typical of the book. The story becomes more confusing when at the end Knisley tells us, “What amuses our mothers most, when they tell the story of our Mexican ‘concurrent coming of age,’ is that the two of us believed, sincerely, that our secrets were well kept from them.” (Page 69, Panel 1) Why Knisley wanted to hide this information and why her mother let her deal with it on her own or what happened the following month when they were at home is never explained in any way, shape, or form. This is even more confusing because in every other story of the book, they’re portrayed as being very close–the word “Mom” is capitalized throughout the book for no apparent reason. It also complicates the book’s tone. Knisley is sharing a memory which tends to be messy and uncomfortable and real–and these are the very elements that Knisley avoids at all costs, in this story and throughout the book.
In a book that is a collection of short pieces like this, the throughline is the characters, but we don’t get to know Knisley and the other people are not explained particularly well. Her parents seem to be just as happy today that they’re divorced as they were when newlyweds and she repeatedly makes clear how much her father loves her mother’s cooking. At the same time, her mother’s boyfriend is a vegetarian who prefers to cook for himself which is a problem because “for my mother, a rejection of her cooking can be seen as a rejection of her affections.” (Page 138, Panel 6) Knisley never portrays her divorced parents as exchanging words in the course of the book, and though she does in an odd adolescent moment compare herself to Persephone and her parents to Demeter and Zeus, they’re never portrayed as troubled or combative. Her mother’s boyfriend’s sole appearance in the book includes the line, “Can love ever work?” (Page 138, Panel 6) It’s unclear whether Knisley poorly depicted the collapse of her mother’s relationship with a man or if she chose to portray her divorced parents as getting along better than her mother and her current boyfriend. It’s an issue I feel I should avoid and leave to mental health professionals
On one page she writes, “My mother cooked for strangers all the time, so she was rarely interested in cooking around the house.” (Page 148, Panel 4) And yet her mother is constantly cooking for people and there are multiple stories about her mother cooking at home. Is Knisley in that instance referring to a specific period of time? This is never explained and it’s easy to simply dismiss it as the result of what happens when stories that are thematically linked and take place over decades are grouped together, but the problem is that we don’t know or have an understanding for who any of these characters are and so the book feels much more fragmented than it should.
More than just failing as a memoir, when it tries to be more than Knisley’s own story, it fails even more completely. For example, Knisley writes, “My parents moved to New York City in the late seventies, where they lived the kind of Manhattan life that has since migrated to Brooklyn.” (Page 102 Panel 1) Many people might nod at such a description even if it’s vague and not entirely certain what she means, but many people have talked and written at length about how the Village has changed over the course of a generation, and in the book’s afterword, Knisley reveals that she lives in that neighborhood today. So people who work in advertising moved to Brooklyn and artists moved into the Village? Families live in Brooklyn and single people live in Manhattan? I honestly have no idea.
When discussing her mother’s job at Dean & DeLuca and all the different kinds of people she met working there, Knisley writes that “in present-day Manhattan, this has become rare, as so many trained culinary professionals come to New York to work in food that there are fewer jobs washing dishes or waiting tables to pay the rent for artists or students.” She goes on to write, “It’s nice, of course, to have professionals in the kitchen, but it might be said that without creative people from other spheres, restaurants miss out on something…” (Page 104, Panels 2-3) The ellipses are Knisley’s, but the odd phrasing “it might be said that” and “miss out on something” sets up an argument without providing evidence or explanation or even a single example of something that’s lacking. I was also deeply confused when talking about getting a job in a food store, she wrote that “in Mom’s day, you could be hired as long as you had the time and inclination.” (Page 117, Panel 4) This contrasts to Knisley’s own experiences where she “had to answer a bunch of psychological questions.” (Page 117, Panel 5)
When she talks about food culture, Knisley is similarly confused or confusing, and it’s impossible to tell which. Near the end of the book, Knisley makes two very broad statements: “These days there is a huge culture of people who are excitedly learning to connect with and love food in new ways.” (Page 164, Panel 3) She goes on, “It’s especially exciting in America, where food hasn’t always been a major part of our culture, like it is in France, for example.” (Page 164, Panel 4) This contrast is shown with a panel where under an American flag is a pie and box of macaroni, while underneath a French flag is piled a feast – bread, wine, cheese, macaroons, and other foods.
To argue that the United States has no food culture is either ignorant or stupid. American holidays revolve around food–picnics and barbecues on the Fourth of July and Memorial Day and Labor Day, feasts on Thanksgiving and Christmas, Passover and Easter. County fairs and harvest festivals, suppers after church on Sunday and Friday night Shabbos dinners have been a mainstay of our lives and culture for centuries. I think about the centuries of food culture and tradition in New England, which includes chocolate chip cookies (as mentioned earlier, a recipe for which Knisley includes in Relish), hamburgers, New England clam chowder, graham crackers, and more. This is why in his 2009 book Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, one of the rules author Michael Pollan laid down was, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
When Knisley writes, “Bad habits or industrial compromises have forced many of us to reexamine our relationship to food and begin to embrace eating as a connection to our bodies and a form of celebration,” (Page 165, Panel 1) is she arguing that Pollan and many others are wrong and she’s creating a counter-narrative where what’s important is not rediscovering traditions that have been lost to a century of industrial food production, but rather, creating something new, unrelated to and disconnected from what has happened in the past? Or is she misspeaking? Or does she not know what she’s taking about? It’s impossible to say given the text.
“We’re still a young country, discovering new things, creating traditions of eating and sharing,” (Page 165, Panel 2) Knisley writes. “Like me, still a young woman, learning about what moves me, what I want. What I love.” (Page 165, Panel 3) For her, it’s not about rediscovering old traditions. If it were, then Knisley would not be the hero of her own story. I’d be curious as Knisley embarks on her book tour how people across the country respond to her claim that we don’t have a food culture. Would they say that only recently have Americans “[begun] to embrace eating as a connection to our bodies and a form of celebration”? (Page 165, Panel 1) More confusing is the fact that the book’s target audience is ages 15 and up, for no reason I can ascertain other than the fact that she has a recipe for sangria in the book. There are more complex and thoughtful books about food aimed at teenagers.
Knisley spends so much time and energy detailing sensory experiences, smell and taste, and trying to find a way to convey that visually, and while she’s not always successful, it’s fun and inventive. Her use of color is excellent. She’s a talented draftsman, but for as much care and effort as she devotes to her art, she seems to devote an equal amount of time and effort to not conveying emotion, trying to tell stories without revealing anything complicated or uncomfortable, and not thinking about the issues she raises. This keeps the book from feeling real and alive. As spontaneous and fun as her art is, her story is stilted and limited. The sensory experience of food is one of the few things that she can accurately convey and one of the only things she’s willing to depict.
She’s passionate about food, yes, but passion only goes so far. She needs a subject other than herself or she needs to go deeper into her own thoughts and feelings and experiences. If you’re looking for a book that tells you that Lucy Knisley is awesome and loves food, then Relish is for you, but if you’re looking for anything more, then unfortunately you’re out of luck.