I read Relish in the middle of a week-long vacation that started with amazing food in New Orleans (still-warm house-made potato chips! fried oyster slider! maple sriracha donut with candied thyme! lamb neck and beet green curry! condensed-milk cake with chicory ice cream and Meyer lemon sauce!) and proceeded to less-than-amazing food on Grand Cayman (with the exception of an Australian-fusion restaurant where I had a perfect Aussie-style burger, complete with beet, pineapple, bacon, cheese, and fried egg). We didn’t have a kitchen in New Orleans and only had a microwave and toaster in Grand Cayman: it was a week in which I ate every meal out and sometimes (particularly toward the end of it) thought longingly about my kitchen at home, although to be honest, before vacation I’d been spending more time climbing at Brooklyn Boulders (and going out to eat afterwards) than I had grocery shopping and cooking.

Relish is a memoir in comic-strip form, with recipes, though the recipes weren’t the main draw for me. Which isn’t to say there aren’t some delicious-sounding recipes in this book, but many of them felt not quite right for my kitchen. The marinated lamb looks amazing, but a five-pound cut of lamb is definitely a meal for more people than I cook for; I love huevos rancheros but they seem pretty labor-intensive for a meal that doesn’t produce leftovers; sweet-potato sushi is great, but I’m pretty sure the cheap sushi place around the block does it better than I could. I don’t really need recipes for mushrooms sauteed in butter and oil, or pesto, or pickles; I don’t see myself making sangria, or vegan shepherd’s pie (I don’t like seitan, or margarine, for that matter). Which leaves me with three recipes I wanted to make: chai, chocolate chip cookies with coconut flakes, and spaghetti carbonara.

I made the cookies first, and found myself wondering about a lot of things as I went. Salted butter, or unsalted? Light brown sugar, or dark brown sugar? Sweetened, moistened coconut flakes, or the organic unsweetened kind, which aren’t moistened? “Drop onto an ungreased baking pan” – by the what? Tablespoon? Heaping, or not? How far apart should I put them? How many cookies is this recipe meant to make? (I ended up with 52!) Having made cookies before, I made educated guesses, and the cookies turned out delicious (maybe it’s a very forgiving recipe) and I’m very much in favor of cookie recipes that use melted butter/don’t assume you have an electric mixer, but if I were totally new to baking, this wouldn’t be the recipe I’d want to start with. Next came the spaghetti carbonara: this recipe, too, was not as clear as I would have liked (what heat am I cooking things over? how long does it take pancetta to cook?), but it was amazing comfort food: salty and cheesy and hearty. I haven’t made the chai yet, but I will, and I’m excited to have chai concentrate with anise and cinnamon and cardamom and cloves in my fridge waiting to be heated up.

But, like I said, the recipes weren’t even why I wanted to read this book. Knisley clearly knows and loves food, and her food-related stories from her childhood and young adulthood were what I was most interested in. Knisley writes about how food memories are her most vivid, and she writes about some of them evocatively. “I can remember exactly the look and taste of a precious honey stick, balanced between my berry-stained fingers,” she writes, near the start of the book, and I thought about summer warmth and honey sweetness and the way the plastic straw of a honey stick feels between your teeth. Knisley spent her early childhood in New York City and writes about a Tribeca that’s long vanished, and also writes about the Hudson Valley (where she moved with her mom when she was seven) and Chicago (where she went to school), with chapters about trips to Mexico, Japan, and Italy, too. She writes about how her chef mother made crème brûlée for her school birthday when she was seven, and about milking goats and starting to like the country after initially hating it, and about eating corn on a stick with lime and hot sauce in Mexico, and about the apricot-jam-filled croissants she ate in Venice, but couldn’t recreate at home. Possibly my favorite part of the book isn’t really about food, though it’s a story that happened because Knisley was working for her mom’s catering company: before she left for art school, Knisley helped out at the DIA Beacon preopening reception, and had a chance to be alone with the big Richard Serra sculptures, whose size and presence she captures well in one full page panel and two half-page panels.

I like the stories, and I like Knisley’s drawing style, particularly in the chapter on Japan (which is looser than the rectangular grid of much of the book, and has some great images, like a cluster of “jewel-color umbrellas”) and when she’s drawing places (her uncle’s store in Tribeca, DIA Beacon, San Miguel de Allende seen from above, the kitchens at Alinea). The episodic structure of the book meant that some chapters felt a lot stronger than others, or maybe I just like reading about travel more than I like reading about cheese. Another problem: when Knisley tries to speak broadly rather than strictly personally (e.g. about junk food and the possible place it has in all our lives, as opposed to just the place it has/has had in her life) she sometimes comes off as preachy or overreaching (like: “Most of us seem to have problems with moderation, but junk food shouldn’t be written off entirely!” – above a drawing of angry overweight people shouting “It’s all McDonald’s fault!”), Still, I enjoyed Relish, for Knisley’s stories about food, and for the way the book made me want to engage with my kitchen again.

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