Writer-cartoonist Blue Delliquanti and food writer Soleil Ho have keen ears for America’s conversation about food. Their recent graphic novel collaboration, “Meal,” speaks to issues that are blowing up the discourse: everything from the culinary power of insect protein to the struggle to define “authenticity” to the power imbalances inherent in the country’s foodways.
And Ho’s appointment this month as food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle is a strong vote of confidence for the relevance her voice: thoughtful, analytical, and pressurized by righteous anger directed at an often abusive and appropriative food system.
“Meal” tells the story of Yarrow McMurray, an aspiring chef with a passion for cooking with insects. Her tale is intertwined with that of restaurateur Chanda Flores (who is opening La Casa Chicatana, a Minneapolis restaurant focused on insect cuisine) and Milani, Yarrow’s neighbor (and love interest). It’s a human story, but it’s also replete with recipes and methods and lore about cooking with everything from tarantulas to mealworms.
The Growler: How did the two of you get together to collaborate on “Meal”?
Blue Delliquanti: As I was working on the book, I was researching a lot of narratives about where food comes from and what we prioritize in who makes our food, and I kept seeing Soleil’s name come up in the most compelling food journalism I was reading.
So I emailed her, not really expecting anything back, and she emailed back: ‘Oh, yeah, I read your comic! Also, I think we lived in the [same] apartment building, at different times?’
So that was a whole thing we talked about for 20 minutes. It came together really nicely—I think we have similar sensibilities when it comes to comics and similar senses of humor, and ideas about food.
Soleil Ho: A lot of my work is focused on how we can use food to talk about bigger issues—racism, sexism, sexual harassment, identity—and insects were a really good way to do that as well. Especially edible insects, because they exist at the center of so many global trends and power dynamics when you think about colonialism; like the rest of the food world, they have a really surface-level narrative.
If you look past the existing narratives about [insects] being the future of food, about them being super sustainable or the key to feeding an overpopulated world, you can see so many things at play and so many people jockeying for control over the narrative.
There’s a pivotal moment in the book when the restaurant owner calls out Yarrow for pitching insects as this trendy, save-the-world kind of thing, rather than something rooted in longstanding food traditions. What was the thinking behind that?
BD: People who are interested in exploring that conversation will say something about [how] they’ve heard something about how they’re very sustainable, or they’ll jokingly say: ‘We’ll all be eating that someday!’ and that’s the narrative that’s leaped into the mainstream right now.
That’s something I was thinking about when I was writing Yarrow—she is aware of who she is talking to about these things, and what narratives they’ve absorbed and what they haven’t been trained to think about so much. It’s what you’d call the code switch; it’s thinking about what background and what information your audience is coming from.
It was interesting, as Soleil said, to scratch that surface a little more.
SH: It reminds me of a lot interviews I’ve done in the course of doing food writing. I was recently talking to this Vietnamese chef who was ranting at me about the propensity of Vietnamese people to call our food ‘stinky’—at the get-go to characterize dishes or condiments as, ‘It’s stinky, but it’s good!’
And that sort of presumption that this is something to be shameful about is just something we do on an unconscious level because we exist as marginalized people within society. To see that play out in food, once you start seeing it, it’s like: ‘Oh, that’s what’s happening!’ To have Yarrow called out for that is really poignant here.
It can be tough to convey the taste of food through a visual medium—how did you approach that challenge?
BD: When I was sketching out originally how I wanted to convey flavors, I was inspired by this one title in particular—it’s a Japanese comic called “The Drops of God,” written by two wine enthusiasts. They know a lot about wine in a country that, compared to the States, doesn’t have a lot of wine knowledge spread throughout the public.
They realized they were doing a lot of education and incorporating real information in this wacky fictional narrative they came up with. And something they did that I thought was really interesting is when someone sipped a wine, the visual metaphor was them being transported somewhere else—like for a wine with a floral bouquet, you’d be transported to a field of flowers. Some of them were really ludicrous, like a Queen concert circa 1985.
So I thought for the characters consuming this food, what would that visual equivalent be?
Amid all the discussion of authenticity and appropriation, what’s your take on Andrew Zimmern’s new Lucky Cricket restaurant in St. Louis Park, and his controversial Fast Company interview?
SH: [Zimmern] didn’t actually think about the history, or: Why are these Chinese-Americans cooking this food? And who for? And who benefits? He didn’t ask himself those questions. For him, it was just them presenting “horseshit,” and opening “horseshit restaurants.”
The “because” didn’t matter. For people who are of that background or who know the story—people who have read Jennifer 8. Lee’s books like “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” or have seen the documentary “The Search for General Tso,” they understand why they made the choices that they did, and they’re not choices that were made lightly. They weren’t choices made because they don’t like food or have no taste or are putting our souls in danger, as he says—they’re doing it to send their kids to college.
What’s the advantage of the graphic novel format for this story?
SH: We got a lot of really good reception from librarians all over the country, and Library Journal (they covered it), and I know a lot of folks who say: “My students or the youth that I work with are going to love it, because they can parse it,” unlike an academic paper or even a straight book about eating insects. Actually seeing it and it’s bright and cute—all the things kids love. It’s really easy for them.
BD: The renaissance of comics is really showing that all readers, especially younger readers, can parse topics we don’t give them credit for. One of the best young adult comics I’ve read in recent years is pretty openly about the drawbacks of third-wave feminism and queer theory and Christian backpacking camps—but it’s all about middle-schoolers and they’re all thinking about what it’s like to be a girl or a queer kid in a weird, oppressive environment. The author figured out a way to tell it in a way that’s totally accessible. Kids can handle thinking about a lot of things, especially something as universal as food. And kids often ask very interesting questions.
“Meal” is officially available at the end of this month but is already appearing in local stores, including Moon Palace Books.