Dirt Candy and the joys of comics about food

Here’s something you didn’t know about me: I once considered seriously going to cooking school.

Well, I’m not quite sure how “serious” the “seriously” part was, but at age 20 and obsessed with the Food Network (when it was good!) and the original Iron Chef, all I wanted to do was cook. But there was the pesky fact I was a vegetarian that got in the way of pursuing cooking school.

I still love to cook. I still love the Food Network (well, not as much as I did) and I spend more Saturdays than I should enjoying the cooking shows in PBS.

So of course, when I read that New York’s “vegetable” restaurant Dirt Candy‘s cookbook was going to be in comic form, I was automatically sold. Chef and proprietor, Amanda Cohen, wrote it with her husband, Grady Hendrix, and Action Philosophers artist Ryan Dunlavey provided the art. It’s a delightful glimpse into the burdens of opening and running a restaurant (harder than you think!) and the ups and downs of cooking (especially vegetarian food to skeptical audiences). Cohen’s voice is light and fun although she doesn’t shy away from the harder aspects of this life. Dunlavey does a wonderful job of keeping the pace with his playful artwork and animated style.

The recipes are amazing — many are more complicated than I want to tackle. One soup takes two days and there’s a lot of smoking and dehydrating and other impractical things, but they’re inspiring. I love the flavors Cohen comes up with and I’m happy to incorporate them into my own cooking. I also hope if I make it to NYC this year, that I can get to go to Dirt Candy.

My one complaint about Dirt Candy, though? Not enough images of the food. Both Dunlavey and Cohen kind of skimp on this area — the recipes are clear enough, but I wanted more illustrations.

Japan, unsurprisingly, does food comics better than we do in the West. Oishinbo, written by Tetsu Kariya with art by Akira Hanasaki, is 100 volumes but it’s broken up by subject in the U.S. They’re not cookbooks, but there’s plenty of information and history on food and many dazzlingly illustrated panels of dishes. If you still retain an interest in Japanese cuisine (and constantly threaten to make your friends vegetarian sushi), I don’t know why you’re not reading this series.  It’s fun just to look at. I wanted a few more elements of that from Dirt Candy.

As far as this year’s other major food-related comic, Get Jiro, which was co-written by celebrity chef/wild man Anthony Bourdain.  While I did enjoy the images of food, part of me kept wishing there were recipes instead of violence.

After all, recipes taking comic form is pretty logical. Recipes are, for the most part, sequential narratives and there are steps that can be easily illustrated.

Luckily for me, as far for fulling my need to see recipes in comics form, webcomics are were it’s at right now.

Every so often, Saveur invites a comics artist to create a piece about food. Some, like Lisa Hanawalt’s recipe for Hearty Sausage and Sweet Potato Soup are more or less straightfoward how-tos. Others, like Lucy Knisely’s Tanzania Travelogue, are more narrative pieces about the food eaten amongst the experiences the artist had.

Speaking of Knisely, she has an upcoming book that’s all about food called Relish and if that’s not quite enough, her blog, Crave This features plenty of simple recipes and fun images of food.

Panel from L. Nichols' Drawn ButterShe’s not alone there, though. I’m a big fan of L. Nichols’ Drawn Butter, especially for the drink recipes. Sarah Becan’s I Think Your Sauceome isn’t always about food, but they are often enough (and she sometimes has guest strips, which adds to the diversity of the food covered).

Of course, as a vegan, I sometimes feel alienated by a lot of cooking shows and even cooking webcomics. I watch and read to get ideas for flavors and techniques, but still, lessons on how to cook bacon are a waste of my time. That’s why Alisa Harris’ Cooking Up Comics is so delightful. Her recipes aren’t all vegan, although they’re usually at least vegan-friendly, but her clear illustrations and personal stories make all of her recipes fun.

And to me, that’s what it’s all about — food is something we all have in common. Food is a story we can all share with each other. I think comics are a perfect vehicle to tell these stories. So while I’d never claim this is any sort of comprehensive roundup of food comics, it’s the ones I delight in and they do fill the time between cooking show marathons. (And I absolutely welcome finding more!)

And maybe if you’re lucky, I’ll try out some of my own recipes on you.

Leave a Reply