Noodling on Restaurant Napkins: Recipes and Comics

Given my appetite for recipes and the cookbooks they’re published in, it was just a matter of time before I stumbled across the hybrid genre of cooking memoir in comic book form. Needless to say, these two art forms have been friends for a long time: comics have been highlighting food in different ways for probably as long as comics have existed. As for cookbooks, it used to be common practice to include illustrations (maybe even cartoons in the margins!), not the lavishly printed photographs we are used to today, alongside the recipes. A treasured 1930s Soviet cookbook inherited from my grandparents, falling apart but no less charming for it, features little cartoons on every other page, similar to how the drawings of Robert Gring once adorned the pages of Assimil language guides (see co-admin RG’s Robert Gring’s Wits-Sharpening Fun).

But I believe that endeavours to specifically write a whole graphic novel/cooking memoir (replete with recipes!) is a fairly recent phenomenon. I’m not talking about stuff like Stan Lee Presents the Mighty Marvel Superheroes’ Cookbook (1977, complete with recipes for ‘He-Man Pancakes’ and ‘Thor’s Cabbage Rolls’), but a thoughtful examination of food functioning as connective tissue between generations and memories. It also helps when the recipes are actually appetizing.

Why is Captain America lasciviously fondling a meatball when absolutely no meatballs are involved in this recipe? Art by Joe Giella.

I’m actually not fond of cookbooks that delve into family anecdotes, as that type of narrative tends to get bogged down in saccharine sentiment that obscures the bigger picture, as the narrator collapses into dreamy sighs about how genuine cooking used to be (as compared to the sterile, hurried modern approach, presumably). The visually-oriented nature of comics seems much better suited to emphasise that telling-stories aspect, besides which drawing ingredients and techniques over and over again must get tiresome rather fast, which tilts the stories-to-recipes ratio firmly in favour of the former. Here are some excerpts from books in my library, each taking a slightly different focus on the subject.

An excellent example of memoir-cum-comic-cum-cookbook is Lucy Kingsley‘s joyous Relish: My Life in the Kitchen (2013), probably my favourite example of this subgenre. Its colourful, cartoony style is the perfect backdrop for Kingsley’s pilgrimage through memories – and as the daughter of a professional chef with a penchant towards nature and an aesthete dedicated to fancy gourmet food, she has a great variety of cuisine-related reminiscences to share.

Cook Korean! (2018) by Robin Ha draws strong connections between Ha’s Korean roots and her gradually evolving relationship with her mother. Mothers, as they tend to be the first source of a newborn’s food and the child’s main guide to new flavours, crop up a lot in these recollections, but here the emphasis is more on reconnecting with one’s ancestry through traditional food. I bought this book for the recipes, but I was touched by Ha’s obvious enthusiasm and desire to make this cookbook a fun, easy-going romp through not only a lot of Korean staples, but also people’s attitudes towards them.

Dirt Candy (2012) by Amanda Cohen and Ryan Dunlavey chronicles the hard life of the chef/owner of a NYC restaurant. While I am not quite on board with Cohen’s claim that vegetables are boring unless they’re treated in very specific and fancy ways, her clear frustration at the reputation of vegetarian (I’m sorry, ‘vegetable‘) cuisine is educational and entertaining, as she spends a chunk of the cookbook discussing the evolution the Americans’ tortuous relationship with vegetables and ‘healthy’ food.

I’m still on the fence about whether I think it’s pretentious or not, but vegetarian cooking with ‘gloopy brown sauce’ is definitely a thing.

I have not tried any Dirt Candy recipes yet, as most of them require a multitude of bowls and techniques, not to mention the sort of time investment I currently reserve for other projects. The culmination of that approach is Cohen’s recipe for onion soup, which demands two days of preparation and would have also required the sacrifice of your first-born, if this hadn’t been a vegetarian (sorry, vegetable…) cookbook.

I applaud bold new ingredient combinations, but I think most of us are perfectly happy to keep our kumquats away from our onion soup.

Carol Lay‘s The Big Skinny: How I Changed My Fattitude (2013) recounts her tortured relationship with food and how she finally was able to come to grips with her weight. It’s not that easy to laugh at yourself, and Lay successfully pulls it off, which makes this memoir instantly endearing whether one swears by counting calories or is convinced that it’s the sort of madness psychiatrists make a living on.

~ ds

P.S. I couldn’t write a post about comics and food without mentioning Ben Katchor, a WOT favourite. He has many beautiful perambulations into the territory of food, but one might mention The Dairy Restaurant for starters.