Comics and food have a longstanding relationship, most
spectacularly in a unique genre known in Japan, its country of origin, as ryôri manga, or
cooking comics. These are comics entirely devoted to food—its preparation, its
appreciation. Today we can find food comics in France and the US, but this is a
genre that traces its roots back some 30 years to the first installment of the Japanese
series Oishinbo (The Gourmet), in which a young food critic is
given the assignment of identifying the perfect menu. One hundred and ten volumes later, the
English-speaking readers have had access only to a small sampler of Oishinbo in the form of seven volumes selected from the series’ long run, organized around various foods—for example, ramen, rice, or sake. These volumes ignored chronology in favor of thematic organization, and few readers felt they had truly experienced the thing itself. For me, however, the experience whetted my appetites for more food manga (and taught me how to make a proper dashi, something I had failed at for years).
In Japan, comics, like food, play a much more important role in daily life than in the US. The Japanese comics market is intricate, with genres defined both by subject matter (food, sports, romance, etc.) and by intended audience (adults, young boys, teenage girls etc). So ryôri manga itself breaks down around subdivisions, with a comic like Oishinbo classified as seinen manga, directed at young adult men. As the English-language manga boom of the ’90s has subsided in recent years, Viz, Oishinbo’s publisher in the US, has increasingly refocused much of its energies on books directed at younger readers. But this has not meant a retreat from food manga, which is well represented across age and gender demographics.
For example, from 2006–2011 Viz translated the entire 26 volumes of Yakitate!! Ja-pan by Takashi Hashiguchi, a shōnen manga, with teenage boys as an imagined audience. Here the story focuses again on a pursuit of food ideals, in this case for something potentially even more elusive than the perfect menu. Alone among the great cultures of the world, Japan has no bread for which it is famous, and the protagonist is determined to change that fact. Yakitate is tremendous fun, but much of its energy is devoted to satirizing the conventions of shōnen manga (the inside jokes are likely to be missed by readers new to the genre) as well as to outlandish puns that don’t always survive translation. But if Yakitate!! Ja-pan was a hard sell to readers new to manga, it became for many a kind of shorthand for the generic diversity of Japanese comics of which American readers had only an inkling.
In fact, Japan’s range of food manga is likely to surprise even seasoned manga fans. Among the many titles that fall within this genre we find Addicted to Curry, a seinen manga that ran for over a decade with 49 volumes; Yumeiro Patissiere, a 12-volume shōjo manga (directed at teenage girls) about a protagonist’s struggles to become a world-class pâtissière; manga about fish (Tsukiji Uogashi Sandaime); Italian food (Bambino!); quick “sloppy” meals (Hana no Zubora-Meshi); even historical cooking manga (Chūka Ichiban!) and science-fiction food manga (Toriko). None of these are yet available in English, and the declining fortunes of US manga publishers have made the introduction of any new food manga—especially that directed towards adult readers—seem unlikely.
So it was with great delight that I discovered that Kinō Nani Tabeta?—translated as What Did You Eat Yesterday?—was now being serialized by Vertical, a small publisher specializing in translations of Japanese novels and comics. What Did You Eat Yesterday? has been running in Japan since 2007, and is currently at seven volumes. Vertical will be publishing the volumes every two months until the English-language editions catch up with the Japanese editions, allowing American readers a rare chance to follow a food manga in progress. The series is written and drawn by Fumi Yoshinaga, whose work is familiar to American manga fans from Ōoku, a series set in an alternate feudal Japan in which much of the male population has been wiped out by a plague, leading to a dramatic change in the gender structures organizing traditional Japanese society. Her first food manga series, Antique Bakery, was also translated into English, although here the food served more as a backdrop for a romantic soap opera featuring a group of men running a small bakery.
What Did You Eat Yesterday? is a true food manga in every sense—focused as much on recipes and technique as on the characters and their adventures. The title for the series is drawn from a question delivered to Shiro at the law offices where he works. His detailed answer ultimately deflates the man asking the question (who wanted only to show off the size of the crab he had consumed with his wife) but it sets in motion for the reader the complicated role of food in Shiro’s life.
At some point early in his law career the protagonist had decided to seek employment at a small low-pressure firm in order to “live like a human being”—which for Shiro means cooking. The decision came with a price, in that now Shiro is certain he must economize ruthlessly. As he explains to his boyfriend Kenji, giving up the income of a major law firm means that they have to strictly limit their food budget in order to make sure they are saving for their retirements. The economizing allows Yoshinaga to focus not on fine cuisine, but on the possibilities that lie hidden within the humble ingredients Shiro finds on sale each day at the market. The book is thus as much about techniques for economical shopping as it is about the recipes themselves. Most rewarding of all, we get access to Shiro’s constant internal monologue as he shops, cooks and pieces his dishes together into a meal, learning more about this private and taciturn man through his food than we ever would had we known him at work or even socially.
Somehow, even in the first volume, Yoshinaga manages to accomplish a remarkable amount of character development for both Shiro and Kenji. We learn that Shiro’s career choice has come with another price: in the conservative world of the Japanese law firm he remains closeted at work (Kenji, on the other hand, is very much out to his clients and coworkers). Food for Shiro becomes the arena where he can express himself in a way he never can outside the kitchen, a world that represents for Shiro his repressive work or manipulative, disappointing parents. Kenji—outgoing, spontaneous—is in so many ways Shiro’s opposite that early in the book it is hard to see how their relationship survives. But when they sit down to the meal Shiro has prepared at the end of the day somehow it makes sense.
Yoshinaga’s style might be a bit unsettling at first for readers new to her work or to manga in general. What Did You Eat Yesterday? employs a relatively minimalist style, with thin line work and expanses of white space. Only when Shiro is cooking does the artwork take on detail and depth. Such abrupt changes of style are familiar in Japanese comics, but they can be jarring to newer readers—especially when Yoshinaga employs abstract emotional backgrounds or expressive deformation of central characters to represent extreme emotions. The recipes will keep a new reader hooked the first time, I promise, and by the volume’s end, even a new manga reader will be acclimated to the style and conventions and eagerly looking forward to the next installment (and the next dozen or so recipes).
While comics are a global medium, it is generally agreed that there are three great traditions: Anglo-American, Japanese, and Franco-Belgian. Given France’s keen appreciation of comics and fine food, it was inevitable that the two would eventually come together in that country. Last year I reviewed Étienne Davodeau’s The Initiates (2013), which contemplated the parallels between the arts of making comics and fine wine. Originally published in France in 2011, it is likely that at least one inspiration for Davodeau’s book was the publication in France, beginning in 2008, of Kami no Shizuku (Drops of God), a food manga devoted to French wine. In Asia, Drops of God has by all accounts transformed the wine industry, and in translation it has proved a hit in France as well (as of 2011 it is being serialized in the US by Vertical).
Such cross-cultural pollination is of course part of the vital history of the comics form and part of what keeps the form growing and reinventing itself generation to generation. In this case, we see the affiliation between food and comics, once introduced into France via Drops of God, sparking a wave of marvelous new experiments. For example, Guillaume Long’s À boire et à manger, now a featured comics blog at Le Monde, recounts Long’s adventures with food, cooking, and travel, in a diary-comics form. Two book collections of Long’s food comics have now been published in France so far, and one hopes English-language editions are in development.
We do have one splendid example of book-length French food comics in English in Christophe Blain’s In the Kitchen with Alain Passard (2013). Blain is a veteran cartoonist, responsible for several popular series in France, including Isaac the Pirate and Gus, both of which can be sampled in English-language editions. For In the Kitchen, Blain shadowed Passard, owner and chef of the three-star restaurant L’Arpège and a leader of France’s “vegetable revolution,” over the course of three years. Sketching Passard in action, Blain succeeds in capturing what this revolution means for Passard, aesthetically, spiritually, and politically. He also conveys, more than any food comic artist I have read, what it is like to taste food infused with the art and passion of a master chef.
Like What Did You Eat Yesterday?, In the Kitchen is centered around recipes and meditations on their preparation. But Blain focuses much less on specific techniques and more on the vision and passion the food inspires in the disciples who work in Passard’s kitchen and in the organic gardens that provide his produce. Passard’s dream is to get people to appreciate the properly grown and prepared carrot or eggplant in the same way they appreciate a fine wine. In his vision for the future of French gardening, “every vegetable will be a gran cru.”
In this book, every vegetable is indeed its own work of art, and Blain early on comes to appreciate how much of Passard’s technique is about composition—on the cutting board, in the garden basket, in the pot—and uses techniques of color, texture, and arrangement not so dissimilar from the art of the cartoonist. But he also captures how much of this life is very different from his own: the hours (Passard finishes his day at 3 a.m. and is up by 7 to begin his next), the politics (attending to the needs of wealthy customers used to having their every whim attended to), and the fans (as Blain confesses in a moment of postpandrial bliss, “If I were a lady, I’d be an Alain Passard groupie”). In the Kitchen with Alain Passard may well be the perfect food comic, particularly for the foodie eager for three-star kitchen confidences. Even I, a food reader generally interested in more humble fare, found myself head over heels in love with Passard and his food.
While the US has historically not treated either its food or its comics with the deepest respect, in both cases this has begun to change over the last couple of decades. Like France, the US has seen a rise of food webcomics in recent years, including my personal favorite, Eric Feurstein’s adventure/cooking mashup, Rutabaga: Adventure Chef; and in 2012, J. T. Yost kickstarted a terrific food-themed anthology, Digestate. But true cooking comics of the kind epitomized by What Did You Have For Dinner? and In the Kitchen with Alain Passard are still a fairly scarce in American comics.
The notable exception is Lucy Knisley’s 2013 food-memoir, Relish: My Life in the Kitchen. Knisley’s first book, French Milk (2008), was a pleasant diary comic about her travels and eating in France, but in Relish Knisley has matured considerably as an artist, a storyteller, and a food writer. Here she weaves a story of her life—her homes, travels, family, and coming of age—with a story of her expanding appreciation of food, from haute cuisine to Pixy Stix. While the book offers few individual revelations about food or Knisley’s own life likely to strike a reader as profound, somehow the combination of the vignettes about life and about food come together in the course of the book to make a deeply satisfying meal out of what feels like a fairly random assortment of pleasant tidbits.
The recipes are, for the most part, for foods you likely already have in your repertoire—pesto, cookies, huevos rancheros. Yet to revisit them here with Knisley is to see them afresh and to remember the joy that once infused such humble cooking and eating before the experience became overly familiar, routinized. The joy of Knisley’s book is the joy of remembering the way food is meant to anchor us to place, to people, to time and space. This message runs through all three of the works on which I have focused.
One feels in reading Knisley’s book that she is gifted with a wonderful kind of synesthesia, such that taste sparks for her visions, colors, and shapes—the building blocks of the comics she crafts about the food that inspires her. The book opens with a short meditation, in which Knisley describes her memories as all being grafted to tastes and images. By avoiding the deeply personal or particular in her memoir, the armature remains capable of triggering of related memories in the reader. Knisley invites us to “remember a time you tasted something that would shape you for years to come.” When I started the book, I was skeptical that I had any such tastes of my own to recall; by its end the room in which I read was filled with smells of dishes and markets I had long forgotten. In all of these works, there is some powerful alchemy at work indeed.