This week's Unshelved Book Club is full of books that would be great for book clubs. They're about two men who fought on opposite sides in WWI competing for the same young woman's affections, short stories set in Spokane, WA, invisible women, a dying man reliving the painful moments of his life, a doctor with schizophrenia who still hears voices, compulsive, genius photographer Edward Curtis, two women linked by a line of Siberian huskies, a computer hacker who has fallen in love with the wrong woman, a young loner who makes an emotional new friend, a young golfer on a road trip, a mother writing about her terminally ill infant, and a young girl with supernatural sewing abilities.
Plus I had a chance to talk to Lucy Knisley about junk food, eating live octopus, and breakfast cereal. Her beautiful, foody graphic novels Fresh Milk and Relish would give any book group the perfect excuse (and inspiration) for the best pot luck ever. If you recognize Lucy's name from somewhere, it could be because she drew this amazing guest comic for us back in June, or because you saw her recent comic about writing autobiography, dating, and getting engaged.
Gene: After reading Relish again, I feel like your memory works very differently than mine. Do you feel like you remember things differently than other people?
Lucy: I think that there have been lots of studies that link smell to memory, where you smell something from your childhood and all the sudden it's like, "Oh, I"m transported back to that time." But I think that mine is more geared toward taste and flavor and the remembrance of certain kinds of food. There's something to be said for the sense memory, the evocativeness of being able to remember what something tasted like and then linking that to other things that happened at the time. So that's sort of the structure of Relish in that I was trying to tell the story of my life and growing up with a chef mother by conjuring these memories of things that I ate as a kid.
G: Did you know that was going to be the structure before you started working on it? Or did you come up with it as you were working on the comics?
L: I really love food and I really love writing about food and I sort of started to think about how, as an autobiographical comic artist, it would make sense to tell my story using food to tell my story. It really came together pretty naturally. My whole family works in food. My whole upbringing was involved with food, so it was just the logical way to tell my story.
G: Did you write it food first? Did you just sit down and eat cupcakes and go, "I know what that reminds me of." Or did you have a story you wanted to tell and ask yourself what you were eating then?
L: I think it was a little of both. I would be eating something and I would suddenly remember a whole story in full detail because I was reminded of it by the flavors. In other cases, like with the Mexico vacation story, I really wanted to tell that story. I thought it was really funny and it pertained a great deal to food and my relationship to my mother, so I wanted to talk about that and rebellion and food. So I then remembered all of the flavors from that period of time.
G: The story of your vacation in Mexico is sort of the most naughty and personal, not only because your friend Drew discovered pornography there, but also the fact that you ate yourself sick on candy and you had your first period. It's a lot to put on the taste of tamales and Mexican candy and binging on pixie sticks, but it works. You manage to convey the taste of what you were eating while all of that was happening.
L: I think I remember that food especially well because it was my first taste of rebellion and adolescence. The memory is really strong and the memory of the flavors is really strong.
G: You had another act of rebellion. Your mom is a cook and your dad loves good food, or at least what he considers good food. I'm talking about you eating junk food all the time.
L: Neither of my parents are health nuts but they do try to keep their food high quality, good tasting, and well prepared. When I was growing up they always fed me what they ate which was always well prepared, locally produced food, and so as a kid I didn't get experiences with boxed macaroni and cheese and fast food and stuff until I was a good bit older and by then I was looking for ways to rebel against my parents. That really fit the bill in a way that I thought was pretty funny. I horrified my parents by coming home with McDonald's and Lucky Charms and stuff.
G: For me it still is Lucky Charms. Once in a while I have to have a box and watch Saturday morning cartoon so that I don't feel like quite the old man I'm starting to look like.
L: It's a detox.
G: And I loved your dad's horror at watching you eat McDonald's in Rome.
L: I know. Tons of really amazing, fresh Italian food all over the place and I wanted McDonald's.
G: You still eat fast food?
L: I got to the point somewhere in the course of writing this book where I realized the amount of terrible havoc that that food would wreak on my body now really isn't worth it anymore. It's rare for me, but I do spurge on Shake Shack and stuff like that. I don't crave it like I did when I was a kid, but I really needed it for a good time in my life. When I was in college and I would get hung over it would be like I automatically had to have a McDonald's breakfast sandwich, it's just what I needed.
G: Do you have any memories about bad tastes?
L: There's one chapter in the book about my friend Mark learning to cook. It was an attempt to reach out to people who aren't natural chefs, because Relish tries to make connections between images and memory and food. While I was in grad school Mark was trying to teach himself how to cook because he'd never lived away from a meal plan or his parents before. He made the mistake of going online and trying some unveiled recipe he'd found. It was just very bad. Very bad food. He did his very best, bless him, but it did not turn out well. Eventually he made it, but I did want to talk about the dangers of internet recipes.
G: Why aren't you a chef? Why are you doing comics instead of cooking?
L: I'm not sure I have the endurance to be a chef. I love to cook but I couldn't be on my feet in the kitchen for that long. I did it my whole life growing up in kitchens and waiting tables and sous chafing and I certainly know the ins and outs because my whole family is in the business, but I was always more interested in eating the food than in cooking it. I don't know if I could cook food that I didn't get to eat or share with people that I knew later on.
G: Do you think that working with food and with your parents gave you a good work ethic?
L: Definitely. There are a lot of similarities with late hours and there are a lot of little things that no one understands that you have to do, kind of the obsessive nature of both. I think that it lent itself to this obsessive nature that I have about my own work.
G: I have to thank you for the recipes in the book. My wife has made your carbonara a few times and it is fantastic.
L: Excellent! I'm so glad to hear that.
G: I really love the visual recipes in your book. I'm not a cookbook fan, and I usually find recipes frustrating, but yours are fun.
L: I feel a little similar about cookbooks. They're these little paragraphs of text that you have to parse out and refer back to a million times while you're cooking. I tried to make them a little bit more streamlined and less intimidating.
G: When you visited Japan you said you "ate weirdness and drank strange." When I was living in Korea I got super into that somehow. Now I watch Bizarre Foods and I feel like I was living that a little bit. I really appreciated your stories of trying to eat natto and that kind of stuff. But I remember, too, that every once in a while I had to reset my body, and the only way to do that was to go get a burger or Pizza Hut.
L: Right, it's the comforting taste of home thing.
G: You don't have kids, right?
G: We always gave my daughter everything that we ate because we wanted her to like the same food we do, which includes a lot of kimchi and spicy food, a lot of Korean and Japanese food. And she ate it. I think my mother-in-law gave her her first taste of kimchi when she was about eight months old. It was Cheerios and then it was kimchi and she just snacked both down. And now she doesn't blink at umeboshi plums and fried dried squid. But I was thinking about that because I was wondering what you would do if you had a kid? How would you raise a kid to love food like you do?
L: I think about this all the time. Right now I'm on vacation at the beach. You see these moms throwing crap at their kids like Cheetos. I never had that stuff as a kid, so when I got older I sort of had fetishized it and I went overboard with the junk food. You've got to balance it out I think. You can't turn anything into this forbidden fruit. But I don't know what I would do. I really love cooking for people. And I really love making up recipes. So I'm sure I would just make any kid that I have eat whatever I eat, but that means that sometimes they would get Cheetos.
G: You drinking shots of vinegar with your dad when you were little was hysterical to me.
L: It is so good. It is delicious. It's really healthy, too. It's like kimchi. It sets up your body to be able to digest things.
G: Do you eat insects? Is there anything you don't eat?
L: I've tried insects, yeah. I've tried cicadas and crickets before. But I was in Korea not too long ago with my dad and we took this really amazing food tour together. It was really, really cool. We tried all of these amazing things and went to these little markets all over the place. The guy who gave us the tour was like, "So you're a really adventurous eater, right?" So, later, live octopus. I was like, "What?" And we got all the way there to the fish market and got the little octopus out and I just couldn't do it. I eat oysters and live bivalves but I don't think I could directly cause the death of something with my teeth that I was eating. That's a little much for me. I eat meat, but you have to chew the octopus up in your mouth to make sure it's fully dead when you swallow it so that it doesn't asphyxiate you on the way down with its tentacles.
G: I've eaten that before, but I didn't eat it whole. They cut it up for me and put a little salt and sesame oil on it. It was still moving around. It looked like gagh on Star Trek. The suckers were really active, so you pick up a piece and you have to chew it until it stops sticking to the roof of your mouth and then you can swallow it. But it was so good.
L: I've heard mixed reviews about the flavor.
G: I think it depends on if it was living in clean water or not. If it was clean, it tastes like really good seafood. And if it wasn't, it tastes like a dirty aquarium.
L: Patbingsu was my favorite thing in Korea. You can get it in K-Town in Manhattan, but it's not as good as what I had in Seoul. The one I had in Seoul had everything and the kitchen sink on top of it, that's why I loved it -- mochi, jelly candies, ice cream, red beans, the shaved ice, marshmallows, it was totally covered in stuff.
G: Now I'm thinking I need some Lucky Charms on my next patbingsu.
L: Oh my god, that would be awesome.