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Bringing Food Culture into Focus: Comic Strips

Bringing Food Culture into Focus: Comic Strips

Gastronauts, manga chefs, and much more: what graphic novels and comic strips can tell you about food.

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As all the best chefs know, we eat first with our eyes. We like to look at food and we like to look at pictures of food. Ever since people first scrawled crude outlines of deer and bison onto cave walls, food has been a part of our artistic landscape. And it’s a tradition that’s continued through the ages, from Roman frescoes and the still life works of the Flemish baroque period, to the Impressionists and the pop art of Andy Warhol. But there’s another kind of food art that’s more accessible, more fun, yet no less impactful.

No, it isn’t Instagram. It’s cartoons. Comic strips. Graphic novels. Whether it’s Japanese manga or a simple cartoon in a newspaper, it entertains and informs, while bringing our food culture into sharp focus. Here’s five you should check out.

Anthony Bourdain’s Get Jiro
Chef, food writer and broadcaster Anthony Bourdain isn’t known for pulling punches, and neither does Jiro, his hero in a dystopian graphic novel packed full of food, fights and fun. It’s set in a future Los Angeles ruled by two ‘chef warlords’ at opposite ends of the fine-dining spectrum. One wants the best food at any cost, the other is a hardened locavore; both want to exploit the super skills of Jiro, a former yakuza gangster turned sushi chef. But Jiro has a chef’s knife as big as a samurai sword, and he’s ready for a battle. Bourdain’s first stab at Japanese manga is a satirical take on our food-obsessed culture of chef worship, brought to vivid life with the help of writer Joel Rose and illustrators Langdon Foss and José Villarrubia.

Berger & Wyse
Since 2007, cartoon-strip duo Joe Berger & Pascal Wyse have had a regular slot in The Guardian newspaper’s Weekend Magazine. Their weekly food cartoon - usually occupying just a single frame - has become near-legendary for its neat artwork and ready wit. Berger & Wyse inhabit a strange world, in which ‘gastronauts’ get up to food-based high-jinks in space, and talking shellfish are only outdone by garrulous godzillas. Animal, mineral or vegetable, few entities escape the satire, in which pretty much every food folly you can think of gets ripped apart.

Lucy Knisley - Relish: My Life In The Kitchen
Illustrator and musician Lucy Knisley likes food. And cartoons. She often brings the two together to tell stories about her experiences as a twenty-something New Yorker with a fascination for the world around her. In 2008 she published the illustrated photo journal French Milk after an extended trip to Paris with her mother, where she estimates she ate around sixty croissants and a metric tonne of chocolate mousse. But it’s her latest book Relish that will really get gourmets hooked. The graphic novel-cum-cookbook charts her life story with the kitchen as a backdrop, where every rite of passage is accompanied with a beautifully illustrated recipe or poignant food memory.

This Japanese manga series is about as big as manga gets, selling over 100 million copies worldwide. Translating as ‘The Gourmet’, Oishinbo tells the tale of a quest by two rival newspapers to identify the finest Japanese food and drink available to humanity. Lazy-but-food-savvy reporter Yamaoka Shiro goes in search of the ‘ultimate menu’, while his irascible father, Kaibara Yuzan, a gourmand and master chef, aims to assemble the ‘supreme menu’. Like all good manga, there’s plenty of confrontation in episodes such as ‘The Soul Of Ramen’ and ‘The Power Of Sake’, but there’s also stacks of tips, facts and background on Japanese cooking and ingredients. Originally published in the 1980s, it was translated into English in 2009, bringing the wonders of Oishinbo to a whole new hungry audience.

In The Kitchen With Alain Passard
Chef Alain Passard shook the world of gastronomy in 2001 when he banished red meat from the menu at his L’Arpège restaurant in Paris. Passard’s dogged devotion to vegetables might be viewed as a tad austere but for graphic artist and writer Christophe Blain’s colorful and humorous look at life in the kitchen at this three-Michelin star restaurant. Delving into ‘the world (and mind) of a master chef’, Blain chronicles his time spent lurking behind the pass, at the fringes of the controlled frenzy of lunch and dinner services. The charmingly scatty artwork sheds light on Passard’s philosophies and techniques, as the chef guides and gently chides his cooks. With 15 of Passard’s recipes scattered throughout, it’s a cookbook as well as comic book, which may explain why it sold over 25,000 copies in just two months.

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