This interview with Lucy Knisley, cartoonist of Relish and other wonderful comics, will make you hungry!
Lucy Knisley: I would go to conventions all day and then I would go to karaoke that night and be out.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: Well done, yes, meals are important to you.
Knisley: They are, especially convention meals. You don’t realize you are getting hungry until you are like, “I feel weird” and fall over.
CB: That’s exactly what happened to me yesterday.
Knisley: Oh god.
CB: Because I was in interview after interview, right? It is fun. You get in the moment. You start talking to people. And then you start walking out like, “why is my head spinning?”
Knisley: Maybe I stood up too fast. Yeah, I can’t do that.
CB: Part of the beauty of meals, too, is getting the chance to spend time with friends and family and to have a great experience.
CB: And that’s a lot of what Relish is about.
Knisley: Yes, exactly.
CB: It’s a fun book because you really get to show the relationship of food to relationships and family. Did you just approach this book as putting a bunch of stories together with recipes? It was a very unique book.
Knisley: Well, thanks I was telling stories about my childhood and realizing that they were all anchored by these scents memories of food, which has always been really, really important to me. So it sort of just made sense to tell stories from my past from the perspective of somebody who really, really loves food, which is what I am. And then to kind of have this dichotomy of the stories of food in the abstract and then anchor them as more concrete recipes about food to split up with the stories.
CB: I’m a little jealous of all the recipes in there because I am just not a cook at all.
Knisley: It’s not something I do. Is there something I need to do to change my habits? I am little afraid of the amount of time I have to spend versus the amount of time I am going to enjoy it. It’s a time investment.
Knisley: Have you tried Soylent?
Knisley: Have you had it?
CB: No, we are getting some for our office. We are all talking about trying it. Isn’t it the most ridiculous thing?
Knisley: Yes! It totally grosses me out, but I am at the same time totally fascinated by it.
CB: I’m so curious about it, right?
CB: You know the story behind it? There were some developers who didn’t want to ever get off their desk, who just wanted write software all day.
Knisley: Right, too much time spent cooking and eating.
Knisley: But it is so much of what makes us human. And I know that like that’s the argument that people have, like the computer age is killing what makes us human. But food is really integral to what we do with our life, also sort of not just how to be alive but also how to make life worthwhile. Because there is a difference between living and just sort of existing.
CB: Right, right.
Knisley: And I was always brought up by cooks, chefs, who found the process of cooking just as enriching as the process of eating. So being around food and sort of understanding your relationship to food and the way that food connects you to other people is something I sort of was born with. So it’s difficult to kind of convey that. I tried to do that in the book. I meet a lot of people who are like, “I wasn’t a cook. I’m not a cook. I don’t understand food. But I tried your recipe and it went really well and I wasn’t quite intimidated by it.” I’m like that’s great. I think a lot of people look at these cookbooks and they’ve got all these complicated ingredients and they’ve got all this stuff that they don’t understand, all these instructions that don’t make sense, this vocabulary they don’t know. It’s not taught in school these days.
Knisley: They sort of get intimidated and overwhelmed. It’s this long column of text. It is easy to loose your place. Pages get stuck together and recipes get combined.
CB: Right, and you read tablespoons of salt as teaspoons of salt.
Knisley: Right and it ruins everything.
CB: It’s a high stakes kind of a thing in a way.
Knisley: Right, chefs make mistakes all the time, which is something people seem so scared of. They are like, “Oh no, I can’t mess up the recipe.” It’s like, no, people mess up the recipe all the time; it’s fine. I think the comic version of recipes actually really helps for people, like myself, who are visual learners and can’t look at this long column of text and numbers are sort of parse out what they are supposed to do here. I learn best from watching someone else perform the tasks involved. So the comic recipe is sort of a nice common ground between learning from somebody and learning from read it.
CB: Food is important, but it is kind of a venue or an avenue for the real important thing, which is companionship.
Knisley: Yes, true.
CB: You spend time with the people you love or want to learn about or better friends.
Knisley: Or connect to your surroundings, the local food where you live and sort of understand that it comes from people, it comes from the earth, and have sort of a little gratitude for that sort of a thing.
CB: You really are a local, natural ingredients advocate?
Knisley: I try to be, yeah. I grew up in the Hudson Valley, which is a sort of big farmland area. We have lots of good cheese and produce and stuff. So I was very, very lucky to have been brought up there. I see this sort of movement happening, a localvore movement. It’s so great to see more and more of that in the culinary world these days.
CB: Those are the best meals, right?
CB: Something that is local, fresh made, their own unique take on things.
Knisley: Exactly. In America that was really kind of born here in California. I was having a conversation with somebody who was like, “I liked your book. I’m a real foodie.” I’m like, “Oh you are from here. Tell me where to eat.” He’s like, “Oh, San Diego isn’t that great for food.” But every meal I’ve had here has been great.
CB: I had the most amazing meal last night just at one of the hotel restaurants.
Knisley: Oh really?
Knisley: Oh you are kidding.
CB: Yeah, Roy’s Hawaiian Restaurant at the Hyatt. It was fantastic. They had the best tiger prawns.
Knisley: Oh my gosh.
CB: Oh, their pineapple upside down cake is outstanding.
Knisley: That’s sounds really good.
CB: It was a little indulgent. It was rather expensive. But it was really good.
Knisley: Sure, but you’ve got to be good to yourself. You are on your feet all day. You are interviewing people all day. You are talking and connecting. It drains you. You’ve got to fill yourself back up.
CB: Also it is the thing with connecting with friends, too. I have friends who I just see once a year at Con. And getting a chance to catch up over food, for whatever reason, is even different than even over drinks or something.
Knisley: Oh definitely.
CB: There is something about the formality of it, I guess.
Knisley: Yeah, and you can be sitting in a crowded room with a lot of people. But it is intimate to sit at a table with just the people that we are sharing food with.
CB: Yeah. I like how you really touch on that in the book, too.
CB: Obviously you have a great family foundation for one thing. The nightly dinner table is also something that is going away with in America these days.
Knisley: It’s true, weirdly enough. Although I think there are sort of resurgence. I think there are people who are making an effort. And all of these studies that are being done that show that sharing food with your family is really important in sort of creating this familial bond.
CB: Yeah, you always fight that. I have three kids, two of who are now out of the house. I regret we didn’t spend enough time together at meals just talking about whatever. It’s like that weird both structured and unstructured time in your life.
Knisley: Totally. And you want to at the end of the day sometimes just stare into the middle distance and not have a conversation with people. That can be healthy even if you are staring into the middle distance with somebody else and eating at the same time. It is the act of the preparing the food together or just sitting down to eat at the same time. You can still make a connection even if you aren’t like, “What did you do with your day today, Ginny?”
CB: The companionship of it, the relationship of it.
Knisley: Right. This sort of primal communal thing of eating together.
CB: You keep coming back to that: primal, earthy, real.
CB: I guess it is one of these things that’s both modern and really connected to our caveman days.
Knisley: Sure, definitely.
CB: Way back in the day, we were all around the fire.
Knisley: Yeah, but Soylent I guess is kind of primal in that it is substance keeping you alive in a way. But I read this really interesting article by Steven Fry a few years ago, many years ago, where he was talking about gay rights basically. What he was saying about sex, he was comparing it to appetite in food. And he was saying sex is for reproduction and everything, but there is so much more to it than that. It’s comparable to food where there is substance and then there is like crème brûlèe. So why limit yourself to just Soylent when there is crème brûlèe to be had.
I thought that was so interesting, sort of the wide variety of foods that we make and the wide variety of sex and sexual expression that we have in the human world, and how these are two very primal sort of ingrained things in our human bodies and how we have sort of managed to celebrate it. Much like we have this amazing show here. It just totally blows my mind how many passions there are in this room, how many people have so many incredibly strong feelings. I got like trampled on the way in here today because people were like, “I’ve got to get this thing because I love it.” You are willing to trample another human being to get this thing that you love. That’s how much love it. That’s great. Please don’t trample me, but that’s awesome. So I think that passion is something I tried to convey in Relish and I try to convey in a lot of my work.
CB: It’s this hardiness of it, this love of what you do or what you want to do.
CB: The passion in your life. It’s actually the main reason I love ComicCon, besides the fact that I just like to meet interesting people, is that everyone is here because they want to be here. It’s not easy to come here. Even if you are local, it’s not easy to come here. It usually costs you a lot of money to get here. But once you are here, you are going to have the best time of your life. Everybody has their own unique Con, too. I am kind of fascinated by when I get together with my friends, too, in the evening; their stories are so completely different than mind. And they all end with, “I had the best day.”
Knisley: It’s amazing; no two people have the same convention.
CB: Yeah. It’s kind of the same thing with the food, that your experience with all things in life really. We’re all just reflections of who we are.
Knisley: It’s true. I am so fascinated by people who only eat white foods or only eat… There are so many picky eaters in this world. I’ve never been like that. My fiancé was a picky eater as a kid and he told me that he spent a year eating nothing but chicken fingers and cheese doodles. I was like how did that happen? That’s amazing. That just kind of blows my mind.
CB: Little kids are like that.
Knisley: Oh yeah. It’s when it sort of comes into the adult sphere that you start to get like maybe you should open yourself up to something else.
CB: Well I work in software, same people who love Soylent. And they are the most like that of anybody.
Knisley: It’s true, there are a lot of tech guys who are…
CB: “I will only eat chicken.” “I will only eat certain things.” That’s a certain mindset I guess.
Knisley: Sure, it’s that same mindset that sort of dreamt up Soylent that’s like “I need this certain amount of substance in my life and chicken does the job, so I will be eating chicken and nothing else.”
CB: It’s a pretty reductive view of the world.
Knisley: I agree. But it is at the same time…
CB: And read more types of comics, too.
Knisley: I know, exactly. People are like, “What type of comics do you read?” I’m always like: lots of types of comics.
CB: Yeah, I eat lots of types of food, too.
CB: So one of my little obsessions about food is the idea of regional food. I’ve just always fascinated. I’m from Seattle, right? Our regional foods, so to speak, are teriyaki and [fub], like they are on every corner. Chicago has deep-dish pizza.
Knisley: And hot dogs. The hot dogs are really good.
CB: Detroit had Coney Island hot dogs, right? New York has pizza. I have always wondered how these things evolved. Was it just a local color kind of a thing? Do you have a theory on that?
Knisley: I think it’s a combination of where the largest group of foreign people settled and stuff. In Chicago, we have a lot of Polish people and we have a lot of Mexican people. So we have really, really good Polish sausages almost everywhere, all over the city. We have a lot of really good taco joints. The pizza thing, I have no idea. We don’t have a huge Italian population. And even if we did, I think Italian people would be horrified by Chicago pizza. So I don’t know where that came from and I don’t know why people really like it, actually. I live in Chicago and it’s one of those things that I’m always like it’s fine but it’s not pizza because I am from New York.
CB: Oh, yeah, New York pizza is the pizza.
Knisley: It’s the pizza. This is going to be a problem when my fiancé and I have kids, like how do we raise them? Because I am like am vicious about Chicago pizza and the poor guy is so hurt by it. But yeah, it is totally fascinating. I did an illustration a while ago about hot dogs and the way they are regionalized, that they are localized to each city. It was really interesting because there is this huge Wikipedia article that I researched about what goes on hot dogs in various places. I made this illustration. I put it online. And I got so many people gave me, “Nope, that’s not accurate. In my city we eat it this way. How come you didn’t include Portland, Maine?” I’m like I’m really sorry I didn’t include everywhere on my hot dog thing. I didn’t have the room. But it was a really cool research project.
CB: People are so passionate about that kind thing.
Knisley: I know.
CB: You are doing a graphic novel about cruises too, boat cruises. It’s a great transition because food is a big thing on every cruise as well.
Knisley: My god, yeah. Big is certainly the right word. I have these two books coming out from Fantagraphics, both travel logs. One is about sort of going on an adventure, going as a young woman to Europe and adventuring and exploring. And the other one is when I sort of nursed my grandparents along on this elderly persons’ cruise ship. And that was quite an experience. I realized that I’m not a cruise person. And I realized that I have had no experience in the past caring for 95 and 96 year old people.
CB: You are lucky, though.
Knisley: I’m very lucky. I’m very lucky. It was an amazing trip and I am really glad I got to go with them, but I was very much out of my depth for much of the trip.
CB: You must have been like forty years younger than anybody else on the ship.
Knisley: Yeah. It was amazing. It was a really weird experience.
CB: Not that I am saying that you are in your fifties, but you know what I mean.
Knisley: Yeah, but I was definitely of the younger set.
CB: The only people up after ten o’clock.
Knisley: Yes, exactly. The only people who can run on board.
CB: I don’t know what you would expect from a cruise like that. It must have been a really interesting experience.
Knisley: The food was not good, I’ll tell you that right now.
CB: Well because it was made for…
Knisley: There was a lot of it, though. Yes, it’s made for easy digestion. It’s also on a boat, so you can’t expect very fresh ingredients for the most part.
CB: I’ve always heard on like those Princess Cruises and stuff are supposed to have amazing food.
CB: They are always stocking up awards.
Knisley: Sure, but is also you are feeding massive amounts of people. There are fifteen thousand people aboard this ship. It’s really hard to cook very, very well in that kind of volume. I was like miserable by the end of it. One of the few things I could do with my grandparents, because they weren’t very athletic and they didn’t swim and they weren’t social, is that we would take tours of the ship. They offered these tours. And we took a galley tour of the ship. They gave us all these little tidbits of information, like “We go through three thousand pounds of veal every day.” And it would be like, “What are you talking, three thousand pound of veal? What? How?” That massive amount of food, it just seems unfathomable to me.
CB: It’s like a college cafeteria or something.
CB: The quality is probably about the same quality.
Knisley: Yup, yup. And you know, you can get some good food in college cafeterias from time to time.
CB: From time to time.
Knisley: I wouldn’t say, “Fantastic food. Go on a cruise ship and eat the fantastic food.”