It should exist, but it doesn't

Paul Constant

May 11, 2017

This book doesn’t exist, but it should. Imagine it: it’s a giant, full-color, hardcover affair — sturdy and substantial. The kind of book that forces a little grunt out of you when you pull it off the shelf. The kind of book that thuds onto a kitchen counter like an announcement, like a statement of purpose.

It’s a cookbook. But it’s not like any cookbook that you’ve ever seen before. Once you flip it open, you’ll see why: it’s a comic book. Every recipe — from ingredients to preparation to serving suggestions — is told by a different comics artist, and presented in full color. It’s a general-interest cookbook formatted roughly in the same structure as the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, with breakfasts in the front, lunch and dinner in the middle, and desserts in the back. Different international recipess are represented, along with some American standards.

The fact is, we’ve always been doing recipes all wrong. Prose recipes alone leave too much to the imagination: are these onions chopped too coarsely? Did I spatchcock this chicken correctly? What the hell should a proper meringue look like before it sets? And photographs always feel weirdly limiting in cookbooks. If something on the cutting board doesn’t look exactly like the perfectly lit sample in the photograph, a novice chef might feel intimidated or confused. And don’t even get me started on cooking videos — a good recipe allows a chef to move at her own pace — and long, drawn-out blog posts, which are terrible at getting the essential information across in an efficient manner.

No, comics are the best medium for recipes. Unlike prose recipes, it’s easier for the eye to scan across a page of comics and take a whole recipe in all at once. A good illustration can clearly show a chef what their food should look like at every stage of the way, without the oppressive expectations of photography. Comics provide just enough information per square inch to match the cooking process, which is a step-based and visual experience.

Why has nobody put together a definitive comics cookbook? I honestly don’t know. It seems like a no-brainer to me. A few years ago, I wrote about this same subject and I was contacted by someone who works for a comics publisher. They thought it was a great idea, they said, and they were going to work on it. That book never materialized. Why? Again, I have no idea. Maybe it would be a logistical nightmare to put together. Maybe they decided there was no market for the book. Maybe it’s not a very good idea.

But in my heart, I know this book should exist. Maybe two decades ago, before comics became an acceptable medium for adults and before everyone developed a more adventurous palate, this idea wouldn’t have worked. But now, there’s practically an open spot on my bookshelf, just waiting for this book to exist.

As part of Independent Bookstore Day, Fantagraphics Books put together a black-and-white minicomic called The Northwest Cartoonists Cookbook. It’s pretty much a rough, stripped-down prototype of this imaginary cookbook I’ve been talking about for years: an anthology of recipes as related by area cartoonists. And it’s a joy to peruse.

Some of the recipes in this book perfectly demonstrate why cartoons are a terrific medium for cooking. The back cover recipe for fried ginger garnish — a reprinted collaboration by Ellen Forney and Kitty Harmon from 2006 — is pretty much a perfect example of why the book is a good idea. Forney is a master of explanatory comics. The tiny little illustrations showing a knife cutting ginger into slices and then slivers immediately prove the usefulness of the form: in less than a square inch of space, Forney conveys a lot of information that is very difficult to impart in traditional cookbooks; the difference between slicing something and reducing it to slivers often leaves aspiring chefs confused and frustrated, but Forney’s friendly lines make the process seem easy and fun.

Other standouts in the volume include Laura Knetzger’s recipe for meatballs (which includes one of the best cooking directions ever put on paper: “mix it up with your hands like a nasty animal,”) Colleen Frakes’s easy razor clam cioppino, Tatiana Gill’s key lime marshmallow meringue pie, and Roberta Gregory’s guide to easy salad dressings. All these recipes are bursting with personality, and they each convey their instructions with varying degrees of formality. Gregory’s recipe, for instance, only gets about as specific as “a heaping teaspoon” of tahini, but it also puts forth at least seven different variations on the recipe in just a few word balloons, empowering the reader to get creative.

Not all of the recipes work. Quite a few aren’t, strictly speaking, recipes. David Lasky’s cartoon about how to make lattes at home basically boils down to “buy a used espresso machine,” which is not super-illustrative. A few of the cartoonists demonstrate a failure of imagination by simply sticking normal prose recipes in the middle of their strips, with a few panels thrown in before and after to remind the reader that they’re technically looking at a comic strip. Some draw the ingredients but unhelpfully relate the cooking instructions — the “action” of the strip — in handwritten prose, the equivalent of a movie’s climactic car chase happening off-screen as a narrator explains to the audience what they’re not seeing.

The Northwest Cartoonists Cookbook proves that the trick to a good comics recipe is narrative. Just like every comic strip, every recipe has a structure — a beginning, a middle, and an end. When a cartoonist can turn a recipe into a story, they succeed. The story can be a family history, or a personal anecdote, or even something as simple as “hooray! You baked a cake!” But the story is the important part: it’s what convinces a reader to invest groceries, time, and a growling belly into the journey that the cartoonist is inviting them to take. A good cookbook is an adventure, and no medium is as good at adventure as comics.

Books in this review:
  • Northwest Cartoonists Cookbook
    by Various

    April 29, 2017
    32 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Visit Fantagraphics

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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