Web cartoonist Chris Onstad describes the genesis of his comic culinary work, "The Achewood Cookbook," as follows: "I was sitting there looking at that massive "French Laundry Cookbook," which is essentially useless to any home cook, and I thought: Well, fuck this. I think it would be fun, and it would be a great challenge, to take on a project for guys who are just out of college and have one pan and one electric burner."
Praised by Time magazine for its novelistic depth and now clocking around 10,000,000 page views a month, Onstad's Achewood is a rare bird: a Web comic with a massive following. It's also one of the only strips in any medium to tackle the nuances of the culinary world, riffing off of molecular gastronomy and eggless Sardinian pasta the way most strips work with put-upon wives and clumsy oversize dogs.
The epicurean tendencies of Achewood emerge organically from its author's commanding -- and borderline obsessive -- interest in cookbooks, and his almost militarily perfectionist brand of home cooking. But it's not the cooking that holds his audience's attention. It's his well-developed cast of characters, many of whom just happen to be seriously into good food.
"There's such a variety of characters in the strips that I always have something for some of them to say. Or one of them always reflects the way that I feel about something, in their mentality, or their approach to life. I guess you could say that I'm dodeca-schizophrenic," Onstad explains.
Salon reached Onstad by phone at his home south of San Francisco and spoke with him about his awkward online interchange with culinary author Julie Powell, why he despises the word "foodie," and his increasingly passionate Bacon-of-the-Month blog.
Obviously, you're a smart guy, and your comics have been praised for their novelistic style. So what drew you to Web comics, as opposed to actually writing novels, or doing screenwriting or literary journalism?
It's easier. [Laughs] I can bang out a little funny idea and put it up, and I can get a little feedback from people. I think feedback is a really important thing. You can work on a novel in the dark by yourself for 10 years, and it's a lonely, hard thing if you're doing it right. But with Achewood, knowing it was making people happy and entertained along the way kept me going.
Cooking and eating have become pervasive themes in the strip. Do you worry that some percentage of your readership just has no interest in what you're talking about when you get into vegan substitutions or molecular gastronomy?
I do not and cannot care. I have to write about what interests me the most. If I don't write about what interests me, it's not going to interest anyone else. And you know, it's the same thing -- oftentimes I'll sit here, and I'll be writing a strip, and I'll make a reference to a uniquely American thing and I'll go, Oh, well, I've got a lot of readers in the United Kingdom and Australia, and they're not going to get it. But then I think: But you know what? I watch and adore British comedies and oftentimes I don't get the references, but I can appreciate the completeness and the honesty of it. So I try not to dumb it down, and I try not to think for other people.
How did you personally get into cooking?
My whole life I did nothing but enjoy eating, but when I met my wife she was a bit more of a cook than I was. She spent time in Italy in college. And since she's mostly vegetarian and I'm mostly omnivorous, we have to do a lot of homework finding stuff that fits both of us. And I'm competitive, and I really want to do a good job with these things and impress people. Also, my wife worked for Williams-Sonoma, so we got just tremendous deals on high-end cookware that we wouldn't normally have been able to afford.
Do you have a favorite cookbook?
The one that I turn to most often is probably "Jacques Pepin's Complete Techniques." It's basically like a cooking school between two covers. Everything from how to butterfly a chicken to trussing to stocks and all that sort of thing. It's a go-to book. And lately, I've really been getting a lot of use out of the new Mario Batali "Molto Italiano" book. It's sort of his masterpiece. But also a lot of Patricia Wells stuff, a lot of Julia Child, a lot of Chez Panisse -- you know, we're here in California, it can't be avoided.
And how about food television? Are there any personalities you follow?
I watch it all. But I find the best stuff right now is on public television on Sundays. You can catch Jacques Pepin, you can catch Rick Bayless -- those are shows I've been getting into a lot.
Do you like Christopher Kimball from "America's Test Kitchen"?
I love anything that's well done. The people at "America's Test Kitchen" put a lot of effort into it and it's sincere. I think it's enormously useful. And Kimball's just this goofy, 8-foot-tall nerd. It's fantastic. I describe him as a Yankee Wookie.
How did "The Achewood Cookbook" come to be?
Basically, I was sitting around looking at that massive "French Laundry Cookbook," which is essentially useless to any home cook, and I thought: Well, fuck this. I think it would be fun, and it would be a great challenge, to take on a project for guys who are just out of college and have one pan and one electric burner. And because of where I was with Achewood at the time, I thought: This is a thing for young guys. It'll connect well with my young readership. So I went to some chain grocery store like Albertsons and bought ground beef and some eggs and mustard and worked up about 50 recipes for various things ranging from cocktails to Scotch eggs.
Oh, yeah. I got her book, "Julie and Julia," for my wife for Valentine's Day, and I read it and thought: That's fantastic! And in Achewood, I write about stuff that I read and do in life. So when I wrote about her, I didn't intend to start up an exchange. But then somebody sent me a link to Powell's blog, where she talked about seeing the comic and basically summed it up in one word: "creepy."
I thought ... Oh my gosh. If you don't know Achewood, and you're well established, you might see it and go: "Oh, there's this creepy little badly drawn comic strip making a weird adult reference to my work? I don't like that" -- I absolutely understand her perspective. I'm not going to do anything weird and send her a signed copy or anything.
That's probably shrewd.
I loved her project, though. I'm actually doing something a little bit like it now with the Bacon-of-the-Month Club my wife signed me up for. I'm trying to document my year's worth of bacon experiments.
So the Julie Powell "Julie and Julia" thing was the seed of that project?
More or less. You can't look at in any other way, actually. I read a book about documenting a yearlong project ... and then I start my yearlong project.
Have you had Nueske's bacon from Wisconsin?
I've only had one of these so far, so I'm a total amateur. But if it's a renowned artisanal bacon, I'm sure it'll be showing up at some point during the year.
OK, well, if Nueske's isn't on there, you should let me know. We can get it around here in Minnesota. It's fantastic; R.W. Apple called it "the Rolls Royce of rashers."
Nice. Yeah, the more I learn about bacon, and the more I hear from the British readers, "American bacon is crispy little strips of paper. It's nasty stuff. We want thick stuff. We want stuff that's more akin to a pork chop in our bacon." So we'll see.
Speaking personally as a blogger who once invoked the word "foodie" when writing about your strip, I'm now painfully aware that this is not a term you care for. What's your distaste for the word "foodie"?
The first time I ever heard a friend say it, the hair on the back of my neck stood up, my gut twisted, and I felt angry for some reason. Why do we need this fake new word? There are so many words that already describe the concept of people who like food, or enjoy cooking, or enjoy knowing about cooking. "Foodie": It's like the infantile diminutive -- you put a "y" on the end of everything to make it childlike. We don't need it. It's embarrassing. "I'm a foodie." Oh my God.
As a fan of good food -- as an epicurean, or gourmand, or however you want to frame it -- what's your take on molecular gastronomy?
If people want to do something that's creative and they're having fun, go for it. That's great. Push the envelope -- it's not like we know everything there is to do yet. You know, I watch these shows about Ferran Adrià and Grant Achatz and that [Homaro] Cantu who was just on "Iron Chef," and I see them, and I see the way the judges and customers are reacting to their food and it's exciting. I wouldn't make fun of it if I didn't like it.
Tell me a little bit about one of your creations, "The Dude and Catastrophe."
"The Dude and Catastrophe" is the fictitious pub started by Cornelius Bear who is sort of my older Anglophile man-of-the-world-type character. It's like a Cheers-type place.
Is it sort of a fantasy project for down the line -- could it become a real place?
If I get rich and retire, yeah.
Do you have a sense of when your next cookbook will come out and what the theme will be?
I've been writing it since I did the last one, and over time the project has morphed into something that's naturally about the next level of cooking. It's a higher-end cookbook. It's not going to be anything with a two-page spread of Jamie Oliver in a hipster T-shirt or anything, but it is going to be something that assumes a bigger pantry, and a greater set of tools, and a little bit of cooking knowledge.
I've been doing so much growing as a home cook over the last few years, and as a scholar of ... uh ... did I just say that? A cookbook scholar. My own approach to food has changed so much since I did that last cookbook that I'd like to -- oh, God -- I'd like to say it will be done this summer, but we've got so many projects in the works right now.
How has your own approach to cooking changed and evolved?
I'm familiar with more tastes, I've got more distinct opinions on how things should be served. You know, when I make a pasta dinner for the family, I want everyone to be sitting because every second that you wait, it gets colder. I want steam to be rising off of everything when I set it down. I'm more sensitive to moisture. Just the basic things that you don't have a touch for when you haven't done it before. I'm more comfortable with butter. I could go on and on.