In April 2014, illustrator Lisa Hanawalt was invited to shadow master chef and gastronomic conceptualist Wylie Dufresne at his (now closed) Lower East Side restaurant wd~50, famous for its cubes of scrambled eggs and caviar atop ice cream. Fancy shit. She recounted the experience in an illustrated column for Lucky Peach Magazine, titled "On the Trail With Wylie," which earned her a James Beard Award.
What insights did Hanawalt provide after visiting the cryptic kitchen of one of the food world's greatest influencers? For one, the fact that "urchins taste like whipped semen and look like a million tiny fingers hatching out of a baby shit-colored brain." And also: "poop should be renamed 'doof,' since that’s food backwards."
This visual essay is but one gloriously weird gem in Hanawalt's new book Hot Dog Taste Test, a collection of comics, sketches and recollections that loosely converge on the theme of food. Flipping through its colorful pages feels like peeking into a stranger's snack closet, encountering the trivial yet intimate details that make up their unique belly and brain. Some things you'll encounter are delicious (Oreos), some more contested (kimchi), and others utterly bizarre (fingernail clippings.)
Hanawalt grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., the daughter of two scientists. Both had a deep appreciation for art, something they instilled in their child from a young age. As a kid, Hanawalt, inspired in part by the newspaper's "Sunday Funnies," began making comics, which she described to The Huffington Post as being "uncannily similar to my work now." They revolved around animals who looked and talked like people and wore patterned clothing. Anthropomorphized animals are still a prominent theme in Hanawalt's work. In an interview with The Guardian, she dubbed herself "technically a furry," though in a purely non-sexual way, she emphasized.
While studying art at UCLA, Hanawalt set comics aside for a while, focusing on large format paintings, photography and ceramics. "I made a lot of work based on conquistadors," she said. "I was very interested in taking that history and portraying it in a very surreal way. Conquistadors would be coming to shore on horses that looked like giant hats. We could do whatever we wanted."
After graduating, Hanawalt worked odd jobs at a dog kennel, as a secretary, and selling camera equipment. She also started making comics again. In 2013 she published her first book My Dirty Dumb Eyes, an illustrated tour of the animal kingdom of her mind, where iguanas where fancy hats, horses hate flying coach and penises abound. A year later, she became the production designer for Netflix's animated comedy "Bojack Horseman," which stars a cartoon horse, voiced by Will Arnett, who is both a washed up actor and an alcoholic.
And now comes Hot Dog Taste Test, offering a playful alternative to mainstream foodie culture. Hanawalt herself is no chef. In fact, she doesn't even consider herself particularly "into food" in the traditional sense. "Everyone has to eat," she put it. "It’s such a large part of life. I like focusing in on such a broad topic. There's just so much there."
The subject has served her well. Legendary LA Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold described Hanawalt as "the Matisse of the buffet line, the O'Keeffe of the fishball and the Vermeer of the pigeon with a hot dog in its beak."
So much food-centric content with a personal bent revolves around the nostalgic and emotive powers of food -- the transformative aroma of Mom's famous meatloaf, the warmth and sensuality evoked by a chocolate soufflé cooking in the oven. But rather than ruminating on the momentous, festive meals shared amongst family, friends and lovers, Hanawalt explores the funny, somewhat shameful feeling of delving into a measly dinner for one: perhaps, a can of black beans and potato chips, with a side of bizarre thoughts and daydreams.
One comic lists various trail mixes and energy foods, beginning with the strangely named gorp before riffing on equally nonsensical sounding non-foods like rilf, ferm and plah. In another, Hanawalt offers a suggestion to those grossed out by the prospect of sitting on a public toilet: build a nest. She then proceeds to illustrate, step by step, the process of actualizing such a dream, gathering and mounting your own personal twig toilet throne.
Her drawings are vibrant, sunny, impish -- their childlike desire to play a jarring contrast to the more explicit matters they occasionally address.
One recurring image in Hanawalt's book is that of a sassy toucan by the name of Tuca, who the artist describes as her plucky alter ego. Tuca has a bird's head and a woman's body, and seemingly enjoys shopping, flirting, singing karaoke, and cooking -- her specialty being bananas and ranch. "Sometimes I don’t feel like drawing myself because I want the drawing to capture a more universal experience or a fictional story with elements of truth," Hanawalt said. "Tuca is a way of me getting to my id. She often behaves the way I imagine myself behaving if I didn’t care -- the selfish, bratty part of me."
In real life, Hanawalt describes herself as "reserved and well mannered," her images providing her an opportunity to release her inner freak. "In my imagination I’m a little more wild," she said. "It's about finding the weirdest thoughts my brain has to offer and translating them into an image." Some of these thoughts come randomly -- when Hanawalt is taking a shower, walking her dog or dozing off at the end of the night. Others come from more purposeful brainstorming sessions spent mulling things over at her desk. In all cases, she whips out a notebook and jots down the idea immediately.
Through her artistic practice, Hanawalt has discovered an outlet for her silliest, most perverted inner musings. Rather than covering them up, she celebrates the weird, the gross, and the conventionally humiliating. "I do feel embarrassed a lot," Hanawalt said. "I've spent so much of my life feeling ashamed and embarrassed. I hope when people read this, they feel less ashamed and more understood. And also just realize -- it's funny."
Lisa Hanawalt's Hot Dog Taste Test is published by Drawn & Quarterly. Check it out on Amazon here.