I was diagnosed with Celiac disease on Halloween eight years ago. That’s eight years of politely saying, “no, thank you” when offered a delicious pastry, forgoing mom’s signature stuffing on Thanksgiving, and checking restaurant menus ahead of any dinner out with friends. As anyone with food issues can tell you, the hardest part of having a restricted diet is adjusting socially and emotionally. Lucy Knisley perfectly defines the value of food in Relish: “When we eat, we take in more than just sustenance.” She’s actually describing the cultural immersion through food she experienced in Japan, but the statement resonates because it’s about the complex role of food in our lives.
Relish has only received one star (from Publisher’s Weekly), but it’s one of my favorite titles of the year. Yeah, it speaks to me because I have a lot of complicated emotions about food, but it’s also charming and witty, earnest and playful, and it has illustrated recipes that will make you want to run to your kitchen and start cooking.
I can hear the tap tapping of your keyboards, your busy fingers talking to me across the ether: “but, it’s not YA. So it’s not eligible. … Wait, maybe? … Huh?” Well, I’m glad you mentioned that. First Second produces graphic novels for all ages. Their collection separates the work out into books for kids, middle grade, teens, and adults. Relish is grouped with titles for adults on this site. BUT when you click on the title for details, the publisher info states: age range 15-18, grades 10-13. (Yeah, I don’t know what 13th grade is either. Freshman year in college?) The point is, there’s conflicting information here that supports an argument for YA and against. Aside from the publisher info, were I on the RealCommittee I would be arguing that this book is essentially a coming-of-age story through a food lens and therefore eligible for discussion.
There’s more to say of course, so let’s begin with story. Memoirs give authors the flexibility to tell a true story with style and in a strong voice; it’s probably why memoirs in graphic form work so well (I’m specifically thinking of Fun Home and Stitches). Style and voice are key elements that I’ll get to later, but in terms of story Knisley keeps it simple and light; short anecdotes which demonstrate the strong influence food has had on her life. The story’s simplicity is a strength—because it feels like a friend is telling you about that time she spent weeks trying to replicate croissants she had in Venice—but I could understand the argument that this is a “light” (i.e.: weak) story compared to something like American Born Chinese, with its intricately structured interweaving stories.
Ultimately, I think it’s impossible to consider the story without discussing how it works with the art. It’s actually in re-reading the book for this review that I’ve come to appreciate the symbiosis of the text and art. I’m an emotional reader so my first reads are usually weighed down by my baggage. (We keep talking about this for a reason, folks!) Without that baggage though, I was able to really pay attention to how the art not only visually represents the text above (or in, below, or around), but how it elaborates, comments on, and augments the text. In fact, the recipes are the best example of this. Each one has all of the textual and visual information needed and manages to convey a clearer message than any other recipe I’ve ever seen. It’s not just the steps to create the dish, it’s the joy you’ll experience while cooking, and the satisfaction you’ll feel when you’re done. They’re completely functional and beautiful—a strong example of how Knisley’s playful style and voice are consistent throughout all elements of the book.
The recipes all have some link to the preceding chapter, underlining the theme of self-expression through cooking, which is a common thread through the various memories. Knisley talks about her baking as “too emotional, too volatile with distress, to ever match Mom’s cookie perfection. But my cookies contain the anxious deliciousness earned through an afternoon spent in turmoil, soothed by separating my troubles into warm crispy pieces.” When she bakes, she pours all of herself into the process, and the process transforms her. In fact, the latter chapters of the book often focus on how the act of cooking a meal for someone can form strong bonds.
If there is one flaw that must be noted, it is the not-so-subtle statement of these themes. A spread at the beginning of the book serves as a prologue, telling you exactly what the book is about, and again at the end there are panels that sum up everything you’ve just read. The first read: love. Second read: it felt like a bit too much. When every memory is a variation on the same theme, it’s not necessary to draw a box around it all with a framing device.
I figuratively devoured Relish but what about you? Is it YA, New Adult, or Adult? Could a story this light be a true contender? And as a graphic novel, do the visuals highlight that “lightness?” Were you salivating while reading about all the delicious food? (The answer to that one is: yes.)
[And just because this is what kept playing on loop in my head while I was reading (baggage!), I now share with you this scene from Ratatouille. It's a spoiler, so if you don't want to experience the emotional climax of the film without seeing the buildup, don't hit play!]
Now that you’ve had a good cry, join us in the comments, won’t you?