By Lucy Knisley
176 pages, color
Published by First Second Books
When I read Lucy Knisley’s travel/food memoir French Milk back in 2009, I closed out the review by saying, "Knisley is definitely a creator to watch; she’s on her way towards greatness." You might think this is me leading up to gloating that I was completely right, that Knisley’s new memoir Relish: My Life in the Kitchen—a book about growing up around food—in fact proves that earlier prediction. As it turns out? I am. Relish is one of those charming books that delivers everything it promises and more.
Relish opens with Knisley explaining that many of her strongest memories involve how foods taste. It’s a smart introduction, one that preps you for what’s to come in Relish. As we move through her life, one that is shaped in no small part thanks to two parents who are obsessed with food, the continual circling back to what she was eating and cooking and serving at that time period makes much more sense. In many ways, Relish is less a series of autobiographical stories about Knisley, and more about Knisley serving up a series of love letters to the craft of cooking and the joy of eating. It’s a smart tactic, because even if you can’t immediately relate to Knisley’s slightly peculiar life, those who love food will instantly gravitate to the pages of Relish and their gentle descriptions of the joy that food’s brought to Knisley.
Some of the stories are exactly what you might expect; a chapter on being out on a farm, a story about the love that cookies can bring, or Knisley’s first time actually working within the food industry. Don’t get me wrong, all those stories are charming and they grabbed my attention quickly. But it’s some of the stories that you wouldn’t expect that jump out at you. It’s rare that you’ll find a food memoir that devotes a chapter to the main character gleefully eating McDonald’s food while on vacation in Italy, for example, and continuing to extol the virtues of their french fries years later. Also of particular note is Knisley’s story of going to a remote part of Mexico with her mother, her mother’s best friend, and two other kids and discovering that no one cares if young children try and buy pornographic magazines. There are still hints of a food memory in that particular chapter, but it’s the backpack full of porn (and to a lesser extent, Knisley’s discovery that she’s hit a new stage in puberty) that steals the show. It’s told with a pleasant level of whimsy and humor that reinforces Knisley’s power as a storyteller. She’s able to find ways to always make her stories relatable and welcoming; in many ways, Relish lets you feel like you’re part of the gang and in on the adventure with Knisley and company.
Knisley’s art is, in a word, adorable. There’s something about her gentle rounded lines, her wide-eyed expressions, and those soft colors that make every page something you’d want to hug. And yet, it’s hard to not be taken by Knisley’s visuals here, one that just never fail to charm the reader. It goes without saying that she spends an especially large amount of time focusing on the way that the food looks in her drawings. My favorite part of the art, though, are the chapter breaks where Knisley always presents a new recipe in a visual manner. Gleeful chocolate chip cookies with smiles and arms running across the page never fail to delight, and there’s something about a drawing as simple as pouring soy sauce over a leg of lamb that still can’t help but but make your mouth water. Knisley’s drawings aren’t just technically strong, they’re also dripping with emotion, and it’s that combination that makes the book sing.
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen is a love song to all things food. Everything from fresh milk being turned into butter, to a bowl of Lucky Charms is touched on here, and it’s that omnivorous appetite that solidifies Relish into a winner. I was already a fan of Knisley’s before reading Relish, but now I’m even more so. If Knisley’s name is part of the byline, I’ll buy it, no questions asked. Highly recommended.