Girl meets butch next door. Butch next door offers to help lift heavy boxes, because, and I quote, “I can only watch a twiggy girl struggle to unload a van for so long before I want to see it done right.” Girl offers to cook butch next door dinner as thanks. Butch next door finds out girl is really into, err, bug cuisine?
A black-and-white graphic novel with one of the sweetest, most wholesome queer romances I’ve ever read, Meal is a friendly introduction to entomophagy as both a millennia-old source of protein and an integral part of the cuisine of many different cultures. Our protagonist, Yarrow, has moved cross-country to ask for a job at La Casa Chicatana, a new restaurant with a menu composed entirely of Asian/Mexican fusion insect dishes. The restaurant’s owner, Chanda Flores, comes from two cultures—Chicana and Khmer—with long histories of insect-based cooking. She is initially hostile and distrustful of Yarrow’s intentions, as she worries Yarrow is only into entomophagy as a new foodie trend. With passion, determination, and a little help from butch-next-door Milani, Yarrow must complete the challenge Chanda issues her in order to prove she belongs at La Casa Chicatana.
One of the immediate standouts of this book for me was its diverse cast of characters. La Casa Chicatana’s staff consists of general manager (not to mention Chanda’s partner and sub—the latter is not canon, but I am convinced it is true) Gonzalo Rivera, Black lesbian server goddess Salisbury, and cashier/busser Soledad, whose family has raised chapulines in both Oaxaca and Minnesota for generations. Chanda, as I’ve mentioned is biracial, as is Yarrow. Milani is an artist who specializes in murals and watercolors, making her simultaneous young Black entrepreneur and tender butch rep. Chanda, Milani, and Gonzalo are fat, drawn such that they all look beautiful in very different ways. The way Salisbury is drawn strongly implies that she’s trans, and there are so many jokes cracked about Soledad being immortal and/or undead that there is no way she’s not queer as well. Basically, there are no straight, cis, or non-POC in this story, except maybe the dishwasher/handyman/token white boy, Harris, who pops up every now and then to be weird, but not in a creepy or disrespectful way.
This is the reason Meal is a New Suns book. I mean, it’s not the only reason we chose it—the book does a great job of introducing the reader to entomophagy and some of the global culinary traditions that have long involved insects as a staple, complete with mouthwatering drawings of innovative dishes and four recipes that the reader can make on their own—but you’ll notice that the very first line of description on our website reads, “BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and international literature,” so we were excited to find a book that ticked all three boxes in such a unique way. Notable, too, is the fact that it includes an essay by chef, famous food critic, and self-proclaimed queer woman of color Soleil Ho. In it, she addresses some of the issues that surround common misperceptions of entomophagy: “Reducing insect cuisine to a spectacle, to a reaction to climate change or industrialized food production, erases the fact that it’s been a meaningful part of many cultures throughout the world.”
If you chose this book thinking it was primarily a queer romance, know that that isn’t quite true: the queer romance certainly underpins the plot, but the focus is very much on the bugs and all the work that goes into getting a restaurant—especially one that has to overcome social stigma to sell its food—up and running. But, if you’re just looking to learn something new with a side of hand-holding and wlw domesticity, Meal is full of warmth and fluffiness to lift your spirits and fill your heart.
P.S. If you have a phobia of insects or spiders, this may not be the book for you! I personally have a mild fear of bugs and had no problem at all, because they’re drawn in a gentle and not at all threatening way, and there are no jumpscares/insect attacks or anything like that. I’d say that if you can look at the cover of the book—which has some photorealistic insects and worms in the background (though they are not drawn photorealistically in the novel)—without flinching, you can totally handle this book. If you are super excited by the premise of this book but the insects are a dealbreaker, I’d recommend that you choose With the Fire on High for a similar YA vibe and quality Black, Latinx, and queer rep instead.