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Tuesday
Mar252008

Food For Thought: Sweet Books and some Batter Chatter with Food Illustrator Jesse Breytenbach

What is food, exactly? Nourishment and fuel, to be certain--but as a human race, our relationship with it goes so, so much deeper than that. Sugar in particular can elicit the strangest conflict within us, alternately a BFF, coloring our world in curlicues, hearts and rainbows--or an enemy, eager to pummel us into submission with its intense temptation ("I can't believe I ate the whole thing!"). It can be a strange relationship indeed, and recently we've been impressed by two books in particular which touch on this subject.

The first, which we received as an advance review copy from Crown Press, is The Taste of Sweet: Our Complicated Love Affair with our Favorite Treats by Joanne Chen. While we have received advance copies of books in the past which have left us unimpressed, this one caught our attention from the get-go. In the book, Chen goes on the ultimate sweet quest, doing her homework by examining the science of sweet in food labs across the nation--melding this information beautifully with commentary on our more intuitive emotional and cultural reactions to dessert. She also examines dessert trends and what shapes them (um, Oprah?). It's a fascinating read, and is available in all those major book stores now!


The second book which caught our fancy was one passed on by Cake Gumshoe Heather Moore (you may know her from her popular design site Skinny LaMinx): I Don't Like Chocolate by Jesse Breytenbach. The book, which was printed in South Africa but is available online, is a beautifully drawn graphic novel, assembling 90+pages of vignettes which sometimes cheekily but always cleverly address our complex relationship with food. We had the luck of talking sweet with the illustrator herself; here's what she had to say about life, love and sweetness:

 

Cakespy: First off--we're curious. What did you have for breakfast today?
Jesse Breytenbach: Coffee! I tend to skip breakfast and have something at tea-time, around 10:30, instead, because there’s nothing to eat in the house until I’ve gone to the shops.

CS: You recently released a book entitled I Don't Like Chocolate. Can you tell us a little bit about the book's concept and how it came about?
JB: Michelle Matthews, who was the publishing manager at Oshun Books contacted me out of the blue to ask whether I wanted to do a graphic novel. We knew from the start how long the book would be, so I had to come up with content to fill it. I thought it would be fun to try to do ‘chick-lit’ in comic form, and to produce a book to interest people who don’t normally read comics, particularly as Oshun isn’t a comics publisher. I picked a topic that could provide me with enough material to fill 90+ pages: food. I’ve always been fascinated and amused by people’s strong and emotional reactions to food – I’ve lived in plenty of communes, so I’ve seen a lot….


It’s a book of short stories, based around a central character, and all on the topic of food – her experiences, thoughts and feelings about food. I found eventually that I was writing a book about a person, this central character, finding out more and more about her as I put her in different situations. Sometimes her personality suggested stories as well.

 

The title came to me quite early on, and I never thought of changing it, because it seemed too good. People react to it with surprise and sometimes horror. It’s quite interesting how anti-social something as trivial as personal taste can be perceived to be. But even with her ‘different’ stance, most readers seem to find some common ground with her.

CS: Are you formally trained in art and/or writing? Or self taught?
JB: I’m trained as a print maker. I started drawing comics during my Fine Art d
egree. Since then I’v
e had a few jobs drawing comic strips, but also carried on doing my own stories in my spare time, never expecting to be published. I contributed to various anthologies, and when I had a number of my own comics drawn, and some spare cash, I printed up 100 copies and gave them away to friends. Michelle saw one of these, I think, and remembered my name when she wanted to publish a graphic novel.

 

The training came from actually printing the comics, and thus being able to see them at a remove, and immediately seeing all the ways I could improve.

CS: How does it feel to see your own book in bookstore shelves and for sale online?
JB: Very strange. It doesn’t feel like mine, but I do feel proud and excited. It’s like seeing a friend’s book for sale.

CS: What food stories within the book were the most intriguing to work on?
JB: I liked doing the three “I Don’t Like Chocolate” stories in the book, as they’re among the longest. (A lot of the stories are one or two pages long, really just jokes with a punchline.) It was a challenge, but fun as well, to work out the timing of dialogue and have a lot of characters interacting with each other.

CS: Are there any artists or writers in particular who inspire you?
JB: Dan Clowes, the Hernandez Brothers, Marjane Satrapi in comics. I’m more often inspired by music…. I’ll hear a song and know that I want to draw a comic that does what the song does…. it’s very direct and indirect inspiration at the same time. And it’s not something I’ve ever managed to do, but it’s a starting point.

CS: Are you a full-time writer / illustrator, or do you work a 'day job'?
JB: I’m pretty much a full-time illustrator.

CS: Do you like chocolate?
JB: Ummm…. yes, sort of. I don’t dislike it, but I can leave a slab half-eaten for weeks. There’s some chocolate in my kitchen cupboard that’s probably too old to eat by now.

CS: What is your favorite dessert to eat?
JB: Fruit! Watermelon, peaches, berries… sorbet is good too. And Crème Brulee. And anything with honey. Ok, fruit sorbet with honey.

CS: What is your favorite dessert to draw?
JB: The frillier and fussier, the better. Almost completely the opposite of the kind I like to eat.

CS: How would you describe your personal relationship with dessert?
JB: I like small portions, just a taste, really. Most servings in restaurants are too much for me. But I do like leftover dessert for breakfast. Particularly trifle.

CS: How would you describe your heroine's relationship with dessert?
JB: Embarrassingly similar to mine.

CS: How was the experience of releasing a book different than you might have expected?
JB: It took a lot longer than I thought it would to get the book done, and it was a lot harder than I thought it would be! I didn’t expect to be able to look back and see how much I’d learnt, which is a very pleasant surprise. I got a lot more out of the whole experience than just a book.

CS: Any advice for artists / illustrators who are interested in breaking into the publishing world?
JB: Hard to say, because South Africa doesn’t have a comics publishing industry, so my advice wouldn’t necessarily apply to countries that do. But I think what does work is to do a lot of work, particularly your own work, and contribute to any anthologies, websites etc that you can find. Print your own and give them away if you have to, just to get your work out. The more you do the better you’ll get, and you’ll improve even more if you know that other people are going to see your comics. Just keeping them in a folder under your bed isn’t going to get you work.

CS: What is your next project (or goal, if more applicable)?
JB: Although I said ‘Never Again!’ when I finished the book, I do have some new ideas that might not stop bothering me. But right now I want to spend a bit of time making “I Don’t Like Chocolate” merchandise, using some of the images from the book that were incidental to the stories but could be fun to explore a bit further. I really just want to make some tangible objects for a change. And I realized the limitations of my drawing skills, doing this comic, so I want to spend some time just practicing drawing.

Want to learn more? Check out Jesse's blog at jezzeblog.blogspot.com. Ready to buy? Smart decision. 


Finally, feeling like you'd kill for a cupcake after reading about all this sweetness? Well then, we'll close this post out with one of Head Spy Jessie's recent illustrations, done as a custom commission for a very cool cupcake enthusiast and owner of the website Cupcaketastrophe. Enjoy!

Custom order--crime scene cupcakes

 

 

 

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Reader Comments (34)

Jesse B's book is a delight from cover to cover. Well worth getting.

Thanks for a lovely interview - and your cupcake illustrations are just wonderful!

Big Boys oven: Thanks!

Diana: Thank you very much, glad you enjoyed it!

Ren: You're welcome--yay for comics indeed!

Chou: I guess that is what art will prompt from within us: "What came before? What comes next?" :-)
Glad you liked the article too, I too am fascinated by that food relationship. You might really like the Joanne Chen book too!

EB: I am the coffee illustration too. :-)

Freshly found: How wonderful that it is someone you know, to boot!! It would be a sound investment I think.

Amy: Glad you enjoyed it! Isn't it interesting to see the different culture and read about someone else's food life?

Zen Chef: Thank you! Glad you enjoyed

Mary-Laure: Isn't that first one just lovely? Sugar CAN alter your world like that!

Obsessive Foodie: You should be, poor peeps. :-)
Glad you like the crime scene too. Jade (the person who commissioned it) deserves the credit and / or blame for the idea though!

Jade: You rule! Glad you liked Jesse's artwork and your artwork from me should be along in the next few days!

Kat: Glad you enjoyed it! Your site is so cool too!

Mrs. Tex: Thank you for your kind words! Glad you enjoyed it, and our illustrations too!

March 27 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

I just bought one of your paintings from your etsy site. It is just sooo adorable! I can't wait to hang it up somewhere. Maybe in my office :-)

The cupcake crime scene is entirely too sad!!! How awful!

Awesome interview, I love the illustrations.

March 27 | Unregistered Commenterslush

That was a great post!

Thanks for posting this. I have to get that book!

March 27 | Unregistered CommenterMallow

Preppy in Pink: Thank you for your order! Good choice! It is en route already.

Slush: Glad you liked it! I love her illustrations too!

Jessy: Thank you.

Mallow: Yes, the artwork is just fantastic!

March 27 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

Thotoughly enjoyed this post, thanks!!
ronell

I was attracted to your site, because of your name. You see, the last part is "espy"- my last name (hence my name "espionage". But, I then fell in love with this post. Excellent work!

March 28 | Unregistered Commenterespionage
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