relish by lucy knisley

I was really, really excited to read Lucy Knisley’s Relish. I’ve been a fan of her web presence for a pretty long time. I think her art is really sweet and I think she makes funny, touching observations and, though I have rarely experienced the things she writes about, they’re no less relatable or interesting.

Unfortunately, Relish didn’t feel like her autobiographical webcomic Stop Paying Attention. Perhaps it is a problem exclusive to her books — I haven’t yet read French Milk — but the whole of Relish felt pretentious and pompous and snooty. (I know those are basically synonyms but it deserves all three — “pretentious” for her superiority complex, “pompous” for the near-explicit sense of “anyone who doesn’t eat like me is unworthy” and “snooty” for her constant need to point out that cheap, quick food is “bad” even when she is talking about how much she likes it.

I know this is autobiography and I know that autobiographies are a very tight lens through which to see and express the world and I know that it can sometimes make for a very limited scope, but I would have loved to see adult Lucy perhaps realizing that the way she grew up and her relationship with food is a highly, highly privileged one.

Food is a political issue and it will remain a political issue until all people have access to high quality food that they can afford and I believe it to be a genuine failure on Knisley’s part to never in the entire scope of the book address that. She takes the time to let her readers know that she liked McDonald’s even though it’s “considered cheap and unhealthy” and in the same page devotes a panel to fat people picketing McDonald’s for making them fat, but never addresses any of the systematic issues that bar access to good, nutritious, fresh food for great swaths of human beings across the globe.

As a fat person, this is what Lucy Knisley thinks of me. Wonderful.
Politicization of food aside, I wanted to like Relish, I really really did. The art is fun and I particularly like Knisley’s rendering of place — there’s an overhead rendering from the section about her childhood trip to Mexico that I find particularly charming and I love almost every illustration of shop fronts — and I think her illustrated recipes are legit wonderful. I enjoyed the tale of the lemonade chicken and how much she appreciates sharing a meal with another person, but I spent an enormous amount of my time reading rolling my eyes and groaning. There is some gentle, but still icky othering of food she experiences while traveling that I did not enjoy, but more than that I just couldn’t stomach the pomposity of it all.

Food is wonderful and I mean that really and truly. I love to cook and I love to shop for fresh vegetables and choose the perfect piece of meat to barbecue. I love gourmet meals prepared by master chefs and a perfectly constructed Big Mac. I love to share meals with people I love and I love falling in love with people over shared meals. I feel like, at our cores, Lucy Knisley and I are probably not that different about food.

But it seems very likely that Lucy Knisley has never been one of the 2.3 million households in the United States that live in a food desert. She has likely never paid $9 a pound for defrosted “fresh” chicken. She has probably never skipped a meal so that someone else in her household could eat. And though I do not expect her — nor anyone — to apologize for the privilege of being able to eat not only regularly, but incredibly well, I do expect her to acknowledge it. How can you spend so many pages talking about the unbelievable richness and joy of your food experience and not acknowledge how lucky you are to have had it?

So, though Relish was not for me, I decided to trust Knisley’s skills and tastebuds anyway and make carbonara for my family following her recipe. Mostly.

I am not a person who follows recipes well which has often led to genuinely grotesque meals and has taught me to avoid baking at pretty much all costs — I’m an experimenter! I like to add and subtract and never measure anything! Those are not skills for baking or recipes! — so I made sure to keep a copy of Knisley’s recipe right at hand and also to read it about a dozen times and also make my girlfriend gather all of the ingredients because she is much more meticulous than I am in the kitchen.

carbonara prep
We live on a strict-ish budget so the only thing I bought special was thick cut bacon (The wilds of North Dakota are not prime pancetta territory, tragically.) which means that we went without the wine (I have learned from experience that the Moscato we drink is way too sweet to cook with.), used lots of parmesan because we didn’t have any romano on hand, and used dried parsley because we are notoriously bad at not letting leftover herbs go to waste. Also, once the garlic was soft and golden and delicious, I smashed it up and added it to the egg mixture because… well, why wouldn’t you? It’s garlic.

Though I am atrociously bad at recipes, I am a better than average cook so once everything was ready and organized and sorted into little bowls like the pros do on the TV, it went super easy. Even though I was worried the illustrative nature of it might mess with me, Knisley’s recipe was not at all hard to follow.

pasta dump
We decided to heat up our peas on the side and then dump them over the top of the pasta servings partly because it looked super pretty and partly because my mom doesn’t like the frozen peas we buy because they have a sort of stiff inner texture — they’re very meaty, basically — and then we sat down and everyone proceeded to stuff themselves to the point of wishing we were dead or maybe napping for a super extended period of time.

finished carbonara
I cannot emphasize how good this was, for real. With four people eating one of our usual pasta meals, we leave behind enough for a couple of lunch servings. This time, with only three people eating, there was nothing left in that big silver bowl when we were done.

So maybe, as a reading experience, Relish wasn’t for me and perhaps I have some serious qualms about un-broached social issues in it, but as a cookbook I have at least one great recipe — my girlfriend and I have already talked about making this again but adding onions and mushrooms and swapping peas for asparagus — and high, high hopes for the few others Knisley illustrated.

I might think twice before I buy more of Knisley’s autobiographical work, but I’ll certainly be first in line if she finds herself compelled toward an entire illustrated cookbook.