Art & Photography / Culture Talks

The Illustrated Book Finding Humour in Culinary Critique

Illustrator-turned-comedian Lisa Hanawalt dissects foodie culture to hilarious effect in her newly released tome, Hot Dog Taste Test

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Hot Dog Taste Test
Hot Dog Taste Test, © Lisa Hanawalt, Courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly

If you've ever had the pleasure of watching BoJack Horseman, Netflix's irreverent cartoon sitcom mocking Hollywood through the eyes of a forgotten anthropomorphised horse-star, then you'll already be familiar with Lisa Hanawalt's outlandish sense of humour. Whether through comics, animation or tongue-in-cheek journalistic pieces, the multifaceted Californian artist's breezy satire is a brazen yet hilarious depiction of our inner complexities and social exaggerations.

Since her first graphic novel My Dirty Dumb Eyes debuted in 2013, the cartoonist has received praise from high-profile comedians and popular publications alike, going on to secure a culinary-themed column for foodie magazine Lucky Peach. Food has proved a fertile field for Hanawalt's particular brand of satire, her witty and colourful drawings for the publication earning her the prestigious James Beard Award. Now, inspired by the absurdities of the culinary scene, Hanawalt has put together a vibrant new collection of comics, titled Hot Dog Taste Test, which launched this week with Canada-based publisher Drawn & Quarterly.

The book serves up a cheeky yet accurate case-study of foodie subculture, oscillating between an enthusiastic reiteration of the importance of breakfast ("The person who skips breakfast is bad," she warns, mockingly), and a withering vision of the habits and happenings that define the culinary landscape. Presented in a scrapbook-like format, comprised of beautiful watercolour tableaux that haphazardly alternate between the appetizing and the disgusting, it guides us through a concoction of bizarre baking tips and screwball food categorisations (like "Yogurt makes promises it can't keep" and Shiraz that "makes your tits itchy"), alongside Hanawalt’s rambling travel diaries.

Above all, though, it is interesting to see how the illustrator analyses food as a social experience, unapologetically charting a map of all the food obsessions our society has developed. In Caballos con Carne, for example, Hanawalt imagines the odd trend of photographing your meal while riding a horse breaking the Internet, while in Food Photography Terminology, she provides the definitive guide to making your Instagram feed chef-approved. The particularly eye-pleasing Planting series explores and parodies the sudden obsession with growing your fruit and veg in-house, following the life of a couple of anthropomorphised birds.

Ultimately, Hot Dog Taste Test shows how food has come to dominate contemporary culture on so many levels, whether as a pretext for gathering and community, or as a display of ostentatious hipsterism. Infused with a healthy dose of feminism, irony and the odd deviant nude drawing, Hanawalt’s latest effort won’t provide you with recipes or miraculous diets, but is guaranteed to make you laugh about, in the words of Tavi Gevinson, "how stupid it is to be a person". We spoke to Hanawalt to find out about the roots of her food obsession, her reasons for drawing the gross next to the great, and the most underrated dishes going.

On her fascination with the food industry…
"I’ve been interested in the food industry and restaurant culture for a long time - I think it started with fantasising about having a waitressing job (the closest I ever got was working the concessions stand at a movie theatre). I like that talented chefs are able to keep coming up with new ways of preparing food – it really is an art form. Also food is such a broad topic and huge part of our lives, it's a bottomless pit of material for me."

On her favourite dish…
"My mom used to make milanesa and it's still a very comforting food to me: breaded meat with cheese! I had to train myself to like spicy foods as I got older because they weren't a part of my upbringing at all.

My family doesn't care much for tradition, but I will say we always ate dinner at the table together while having a conversation, so that experience is still really important to me ( even though these days I'll admit I eat most of my meals in front of the computer).”"

On Instagramming your meals, and aspirational eating…
"The social aspects of food are really important to me - my favourite food-related memories are meals I've shared with my family and friends. Posting Instagram pictures of your food and then seeing your friends comment on it is just a modern form of that kinship. I agree there's definitely a braggy, ostentatious edge to some of it. And I'm not super interested by food trends and aspirational, competitive pictures of superfoods arranged in bowls."

On juxtaposing the mouthwatering with the nauseating…
"I value multi-layered artwork that warrants a second glance, so I try my best to achieve that with my own work. If something is solely pretty or solely disgusting, you look at it once and get the gist and move on. If it's a mix of both, it's potentially more interesting. I like having some tension there, even if it's something as stupid as adding a bunch of phalluses to a bouquet of flowers."

On the food trend that deserves more airtime..
"Most food trends are pretty bland, I think? And too sweet? I still don't understand the waffle truck thing. I feel like spicy noodles and dumplings should be trending harder."

Lisa Hanawalt's Hot Dog Taste Test is out now, published by Drawn & Quarterly.

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