Lisa Hanawalt's fantastical sophomore book, Hot Dog Taste Test, opens with a string of disclaimers. Among them: It is not a cookbook, you won't find any recipes, and there is no actual food included.
What you will find are nonsensical baking tips (protect butter's reputation); bizarre advice on how to choose a wine (merlot makes you ask strangers for piggyback rides); and obsessive hand-drawn lists about sassy foods (Cool Ranch Doritos), earnest foods (hot dogs but not the buns) and food with good intentions (pickles, which also happen to be one of Hanawalt's favorite things to eat).
The collection of watercolor illustrations, comics and columns — some of which, like the Las Vegas food diary and the profile of New York City chef Wylie Dufresne, were first published in Lucky Peach — draws inspiration from the kind of mundane, middle-class American fare you likely won't find printed on the glossy pages of food magazines: Jolly Ranchers, halal carts, soft pretzels and Subway sandwiches.
Hot Dog Taste Test is so much more than merely a book about cooking or food culture. With its 170-plus pages of art and writing — including a page intentionally left blank for the reader to stain with food — it is both a playful critique of and a colorful contribution to the world of food writing.
The James Beard Award–winning humorist is admittedly not a culinary expert, but her lack of food sophistication is precisely what gives her work its strength.
“The way I eat in my day-to-day life is like very simple to the point of being absurd,” Hanawalt says. “Like, my boyfriend makes fun of me because if I'm eating a snack, it's often like a pickle and then a hard-boiled egg and then crackers and then maybe a carrot, and it's like I'm eating like a baby.”
The sad-looking, poorly lit food photos she occasionally posts on her Instagram account — reprinted in a two-page spread in Hot Dog Taste Test — can attest to that. In one image, a bun-less hot dog shares a plate with pickles, olives, two strawberries and a glob of ketchup and mustard. In another, a half-eaten apple and a spoon of sticky peanut butter aren't even worthy of a plate.
“A hot dog cut up with ketchup is like lunch for me, so I just think it's funny to Instagram it,” Hanawalt says. “I just don't want to put that much effort into cooking,” she says.
The illustrator is as comfortable drawing breakfast foods as she is bathrooms and the fantastical cabanas she's dubbed “menstrual huts.” She thinks often about what happens to food before, during and after human consumption.
Food becomes both fuel and amusement — it is at times delightful and at others grotesque. Some foods, like the hot dogs walked on leashes like canines, take on petlike characteristics. Much of Hanawalt's work, in fact, relies on the anthropomorphizing of objects and animals. This is in line with the Netflix series she designed and co-produces, Bojack Horseman, whose third season premieres next month; it's based on a washed-up TV actor (played by Will Arnett) who also happens to be a horse. (His agent is a cat and his rival is a golden retriever.)
A Palo Alto native who grew up devouring food writing from former L.A. Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold, Hanawalt graduated from UCLA's art program in 2006, where she jokes she subsisted almost entirely on boba tea.
After college, she migrated to New York, where she lived mostly off pizza, hot dogs, takeout from Halal Guys at 14th Street and Second Avenue, vegan dosas from the cart at Washington Square Park and tacos from the Tacos Morelos trucks in the East Village and Williamsburg (all depicted in her book).
Early last year, she moved back to L.A. to work on Bojack Horseman full-time. “My next report will be from the quinoa-paved streets of Hollywood!” she wrote in a Lucky Peach column, reprinted in Hot Dog Taste Test. But in reality, Hanawalt lives up on a hill in Echo Park, and she prefers taco trucks to quinoa.
“We have taco trucks everywhere that you can just stop at on your way home late at night and have one of the best tacos of your life,” she says when asked about how the L.A. food scene compares with New York's. “We have the San Gabriel Valley, which is just an embarrassment of riches of dim sum and Szechuan food,” she says, adding that Szechuan Impression is her current favorite restaurant.
What else does the L.A. food scene have to offer? “It's also a great place to — this is so lame — but just get a really good salad, which is what I eat most days.”
So maybe the streets aren't paved with quinoa and not everyone here is a washed-up TV actor — but at least some of the better stereotypes about Los Angeles still ring true.
Hanawalt will discuss Hot Dog Taste Test at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz, on Wednesday, June 8, at 7:30 pm.