Tonight I read Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, by Lucy Knisley. I often read books, especially graphic novels, in one sitting or, at the very least, over an evening spent in alternating sitting spots. It’s rare, though, that I complete a story out of sheer reading pleasure as opposed to the horrible hunger of my dark internal engine that thrives on the worn pages of second-rate comic books. That’s an issue for another post, one written while curled up on the veritable sea of unread library books that have gathered in the corner of my living room. Tonight’s topic: Relish and pleasure. And, related to that: food.
Lucy Knisley is an absolute marvel, let me just say that upfront. She churns out relatable yet fascinating stories from her own life in clean, colorful comics that seem precision-crafted to make your tummy feel warm and pleasant. She’s only written a few published books (but has very vibrant online presence), so any time I settle in with something of hers, I immediately clear the calendar and put my cozy pants on. It’s that kind of reading. Perhaps not surprisingly, her stories invoke a deep, cruel envy that creeps around the hems of even the coziest pajamas. The subject of Relish, as you might have gathered from the subtitle, is her abiding love of good food. This love, fortunately for the reader, is not garnered from lonely experimentation with spices. It is drawn from a lengthy family history of pleasure-eating and a palate expanded by youthful world traveling. Pouring through 173 pages of expertly sketched culinary adventures this evening, I now find myself positively green with jealous rage. My best story about food right now? I just spilled a little pinot noir on my bluetooth keyboard. Twist ending! I licked the wine right off, no harm done. Now someone draw that up in a crisp little comic for me and we’ll be rolling in fistfuls of greenbacks just as quickly as you can say “Tumblr publishing contract.”
No, but seriously, while Relish might contain true stories that only occur in my best dreams, my middle class white boy life has not been without its food pleasures. I just…can’t remember them. At least, not vividly. And none of the “The best meal I have ever had oh my god” stories, strangely. You’d think those would stand out. Not so: One of the most commonly retold tales of my dissolute youth was when the family visited an Italian restaurant for dinner. Being a child whose daily caloric intake consisted largely of bread, crackers, and juice, it was bound to be my kind of meal, if not necessarily one to note down in the memory books. But my parents, perhaps stoned out of their minds, allowed me to eat an entire basket of garlic bread for dinner. I must have been deliriously happy. It’s honestly my favorite meal-memory-that-I-don’t-actually-have-because-I-was-too-young-but-I’ve-heard-the-story-often-enough-to-feel-like-it’s-a-memory.
(I once told that story to my college friends on the day the cafeteria was serving garlic bread. Being young and restless and largely impervious to dietary concerns, I was easily convinced to attempt some kind of record by eating the massive pile of garlic bread they heaped on my plate. After 11 pieces I called it quits. Probably not a record, but in my defense, the caf’s version of garlic bread was cold toast with a dab of garlic butter in the middle. I’m not going for a record if it’s not a fucking baguette.)
It might not be that I lack memories of excellent food experiences, but simply that I am currently engulfed with high-quality meals. (+1 humble brag) I happen to work at one of those nifty high-tech firms that thinks employee retention will improve if they install slides and serve award-winning meals in the company cafeteria. Surprisingly, all employees really want is better wages, but in the meantime I’ll certainly accept the food. In an attempt to remember some of the subsidized specialties I’ve tasted over the past two years I actually started a meal diary. Some examples:
– Sardinian slow roasted goat in goat broth with filindeu pasta and pecorino
– Carnitas a’Elotes and tostada with roasted zucchini and red peppers in a garlic butter sauce (with malted milk ball gelato for dessert)
– Rosemary crusted steak with potatoes and bacon-wrapped asparagus
– Roasted pork loin, smoked sweet potato puree, pearl onions and bacon, rhubarb apple compote with an apple cider reduction
Could I tell you a single unique thing about any of those honestly spectacular lunches? Probably not, except that they all cost less than $5 as corporate-subsidized meals. If I learned one thing from Relish, it’s not the food itself that provides the memories, but the occasion. Who are you eating with? Why? Where? Did you cook it yourself? Buy it yourself? Plan ahead and prepare? Grabbing foie gras from the company cafeteria is certainly a life experience I’m thrilled to be able to have, but when I then take that foie gras to the grassy amphitheater and eat it hunched quietly over my book, you can imagine that some of the pleasure is lost. I still take my time and enjoy the meal, recognizing that it’s unlikely I’ll encounter such mouth-joys in future jobs. But without the camaraderie of friends, the allure of a foreign city, or the warmth of a freshly used oven, the meal loses something unique.
Relish didn’t necessarily teach me that there’s more to meals than consumption, but it did make me eager to spread the message that one should experience a meal, not just eat it. Set aside some time and make something special. Splurge on an interesting meal while traveling. Invite some friends over for something simple, but memorable. Dinnertime doesn’t always have to be spent perched on a stool at the kitchen island, flipping through Netflix for the latest episode of The League. Sometimes it should be special.