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Queer as Food

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Fabulous Food


Queer food is hiding in plain sight. From kitchen camp to political plates, queer people have been shaping food culture for decades. There’s really no such thing as queer food. But once you start looking for it, you'll discover that it’s everywhere.

There’s nothing explicitly queer about the dinner series hosted by French chef Laurent Quenioux on a sleepy side street in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Called LQ “Foodings,” Quenioux adapts fine French cuisine to LA tastes, embodied in dishes like duck hearts cooked to a caramel consistency and chanterelles soaking in a pungent Roquefort creme fraiche. Word of the dinners passes like a decadent, beneficial social contagion among those with a taste for rare cheeses served on a back patio in the benevolent California night air.

 



And yet, as a gay man-ish person, I have always found these dinners to be an undeniably queer space, even if I couldn’t offer the exact reason why. Is it the fact that Quenioux is gay? That’s an important starting point, but plenty of events and restaurants run by gay chefs are not necessarily queer. Is it the decadent plates, each served by the chef with a pinch of backstory or a dirty little joke? Or the fact that you know you’re in when Quenioux sits down to sip a glass of wine, and whispers which cheese he smuggled over from Langres, the taste of which reminds him of an old lover? Or is it Quenioux’s expert social engineering? If the guest list is too heavy on newcomers and polite acquaintances, he will invite flamboyant close friends and previous attendees to shake things up.

It’s not any one of these things, but it is all of them, a merging of ambition, sensuality, and social enchantment which is undeniably, ineffably queer.

Queerness has become a useful blanket term for anyone on the LGBTQ spectrum, but it has radical roots as a subversion and redefinition of all aspects of society — including restaurant dining. When Quenioux approaches something as basic as a meal with an eye toward the unspoken bond only outsiders share, it’s a necessary act of unity. Queer people hail from every region, every state, every city; we exist across religion, race, and class; we have lived parallel to the mainstream, passing off dishes as normal when they are, in fact, bewitched. Of course, queer soup and transgender sandwiches don’t exist. No flourish of sauce makes a dish bisexual, nor does flambe make your duck or ice cream “homosexual”: these are terms applied to people, and ones that don’t transfer to food, even if an LGBTQ someone ignited that dish.

 

Though that may be changing. The restaurant world is full of queer people, and increasingly, they are demanding to be seen. In the New York Times, Jeremy Allen traces the flowering culture of queer restaurants, dinner parties, and pop-ups that suggest an emergence of explicitly queered restaurants and voices, ones left out of the story of American food for too long. Just as the gay bar is only the tip of the queer-nightlife iceberg, the explicitly queer food business is only the most visible aspect of a much larger, often unseen universe of queer food, one that’s been evolving in and shaping American culture for decades.

 



Like so much of queer culture, our food is often hiding in plain sight, which offers a frisson of exclusivity while occluding so much of what queer people have done to shape our culinary moment. The emerging queer food movement is necessary because our food is increasingly misunderstood. The one thing queer food isn’t is a rainbow cupcake — just ask the viral (and extremely straight) rainbow bagel. It is less about what is literally eaten, but it’s more than just the presence of queer people at the table. Queer food is the food of a temporary utopia, one where unexpected eating styles and culinary creativity thrive, where things that seem too weird to work actually do.

The vibe, impossible to fake and discovered almost always by chance, can reign in a restaurant for years, alight in a home for a few hours, or spark in the look a bartender serves alongside your drink. I found it when out queer woman Angela Dimayuga ran the kitchen at New York’s Mission Chinese, wait staff along the gender spectrum slipping my boyfriend and me colorful, spicy dishes with a side of flirtation, a playful nod we associated with gay bars a few drinks in, not trendy restaurants.

 

Loitering outside a West Los Angeles art gallery, old and new friends crowded a Coolhaus truck, dance music blasting, for aggressively aesthetic ice creams in flavors like french fries with chocolate and foie gras peanut butter and jelly, which felt as comfortable as a big leathery hug from a masc-identifying person: strangely, comfortably good. During sprawling dinners at my own apartment, my clique I call the “gay bros” call me the “Barelegged Contessa,” thanks to my fondness for the Food Network star’s recipes, served at a table bedecked with seasonal decor like dick-o-lanterns while I waltz through the kitchen in short shorts.

 

These are all moments where the culinary queer manifests as its own type of rainbow: It wasn’t just this or just that which made the meal a bit gay.  It was a little of everything, the magic of political lives lived with joy. Queer food is not the ingredients, the cooks, the diners, the labels. It’s in the make.

 

[Source: Kyle Fitzpatrick, Eater, June 2018]
 

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Famous LGBTQ Foodies

 

James Beard - Author, Chef, TV Personality, Culinary Icon

Susan Feniger - Chef, Owner of Border Grill

Ted Allen - Author, TV Personality, Host of Chopped

Kristen Kish - Authotr, Chef at Menton Boston
Cat Cora - Author, Restauranteur, TV Personality

Jennifer E. Crawford - Master Chef Canada Winner

Iliana Regan - Chef, Owner of Elizabeth

Antoni Porowski - Food and Wine Expert on Queer Eye

Martha Manner and Shelley Brothers - Owners of Wildrose
DeVonn Francis - Chef, Owner of Yardy

Adam Jacoby and Kris swift - Owners of Jacoby's

Angela Dimayuga - Food and Culture Creative Director, Culinary Curator
Deborah VanTrece - Chef, Owner of VanTrece Catering Company

Chad Palmatier and Anthony Sobotik - Owners of Lick Honest Ice Creams

Liz Alpern - Author, Founder of Queer Soup Night, Co-Owner of The Gefilteris

Abraham Salum - Chef, Owner of Salum

Preeti Mistry - Chef at Juhu Beach Club

Josie Smith-Malave - Chef, Owner of Bubbles+Pearls

Paula DaSila - Executive Chef at Artisan Beach House
Brian Hart Hoffman - Editot-in-Chief of Bake From Scratch Magazine

Emanuel Salinas and John Broady - Owners of Komali
Kristopher Edelen - Chef, Owner of Hot Pan NYC

Erika Nakamura - Chef, Co-Owner of White Gold Butchers
David Lebovitz - Author, Blogger, Pastry Chef

Jason Gehring and Ross Perkins - Executive Chef of Mason Dixon Biscuit Company
Frances Tariga-Weshnak - Executive Chef of Eden Local

Stephen Pyles - Chef, Owner of Flora street Cafe

 

 

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Culinary Icon: James Beard

 

James Andrews Beard (1903-1985) was a gay American chef, cookbook author, teacher and television personality. As a culinary icon, he pioneered television cooking shows, taught at The James Beard Cooking School in New York City and Seaside, Oregon, and lectured widely. He emphasized American cooking, prepared with fresh, wholesome, American ingredients, to a country just becoming aware of its own culinary heritage. Beard taught and mentored generations of professional chefs and food enthusiasts. He published more than 20 books, and his memory is honored by his foundation's annual James Beard awards.

 

 

He was born in Portland, Oregon to Elizabeth and John Beard. The family vacationed on the Pacific coast in Gearhart, Oregon, where Beard was exposed to Pacific Northwest cuisine. According to Beard he was raised by Jue-Let, the family's Chinese cook, who instilled in him a passion for Chinese culture. Beard reportedly attributes much of his upbringing to Jue-Let, whom he refers to as his Chinese godfather. Beard briefly attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon. He was expelled for homosexuality in 1922, having had relationships with one or more male students and a professor. However the college granted Beard an honorary degree in 1976. He traveled from Portland to Liverpool aboard a British freighter, spending subsequent years living and traveling in Europe. In 1923, he joined a theatrical troupe and studied voice and theater. He also spent time in Paris, where he experienced French cuisine at its bistros and central market, Les Halles. In France, he also had the opportunity to enjoy sexual freedom, having a short relationship with a young man. From this period and the widespread influence of French food culture, he became a Francophile.

 

 

Julia Child summed up Beard's personal life: Beard was the quintessential American cook. Well-educated and well-traveled during his eighty-two years, he was familiar with many cuisines but he remained fundamentally American. He was a big man, over six feet tall, with a big belly, and huge hands. An endearing and always lively teacher, he loved people, loved his work, loved gossip, loved to eat, loved a good time. According to Beard's memoir, "By the time I was seven, I knew that I was gay. I think it's time to talk about that now." Beard came out in 1981, in Delights and Prejudices, a revised version of his memoir. Of Beard’s most significant romantic attachments was his lifetime companion of 30 years, Gino Cofacci, and Beard’s former cooking school assistant Carl Jerome.

 

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Lock Down, Rise Up, Make Food
 

MasterChef Canada winner Jennifer E. Crawford on finding self-created joy in Queer Food.

“Queer Food is like cold butter sliding across a hot pan: just when I think it’s somewhere, it melts away.” Like that butter, 38-year-old Jennifer E. Crawford is perpetually on the move—and moving others. They explain that they only appear to be constantly in motion: “I have what feels to me like a languid pace, but probably looks fast, because my limbs just know how to be efficient in the kitchen, the way a computer always has background programs running.” Crawford exhibits laser focus on a given task but remains open to the pleasure and surprise of distraction, pointing out the delightful way that sunlight lands on crumpled tinfoil and showing me a particularly pleasing jar of their Mom’s pickled beets sitting on a shelf. Crawford bends down to kiss Taiga, the dog who “is never more than a few feet away from me. She's my sous chef and chief R&D quality control specialist.”

 

Crawford (refreshingly forthright, fierce, and funny) was a stand-out contestant on season six of MasterChef Canada in 2019. In a competitive roster comprised entirely of home cooks, Crawford’s queerness was rewarded on the show, where they quickly garnered fans across Canada for their imaginative and enthusiastic self-expression both in and out of the kitchen. They earned the MasterChef title along with its cash prize of $100 000. Notably, Crawford was the first non-binary person (they prefer the term “gender creative”) and the first Maritimer to win the competition.

I’ve turned to this self-identified “food freak” to help me ponder the question of Queer Food. “Trying to describe Queer Food feels as slippery to me as trying to describe my gender; it’s always getting away from me.” This lack of precision inspires an attendant frisson: “that’s what I love so much about Queer Food, its lack of fixedness.”
 



There have been seismic shifts both globally and on the home front. I fear that contemplating Queer Food as we live in and through multiple interconnected crises is indulgent. Crawford allays my fears, reminding me that dismissing our own interests and instincts as frivolous is precisely what the powers that be want us to do. “Historically, times of strife have been awful to those on the margins. It’s repeating itself in real time, with a velocity so powerful it knocks me off balance. Anything not considered the ’greater good’ (the economy, the status quo) gets dismissed as simply frivolous, a distraction or a luxury to be considered expendable, including Black and Queer lives.” Crawford continues: “The horrors of police violence exacted on Black people, various states passing numerous transphobic bills, rampant food insecurity (who knows how many lives will be lost to this?). Not just to COVID-19, but to the exhaustion and anguish of continual loss and injustice?”

 

For Crawford, Queer Food is inherently political, “forever expanding and challenging ideas about what’s normal. Nothing is free from politics,” Crawford argues. “What masquerades as apolitical is usually complacent enjoyment of privilege. Queer Food has the potential to expose those sneaky things, hold them up to the light, with a dash of camp and community-supported agricultural realness.”

Crawford believes that Queer Food matters more than ever in the face of calamity. Organizations such as The Okra Project are on the frontlines of this work every day, providing free-of-cost meals both for and by Black Trans people. Crawford enthuses: “Queers have always known how to make something out of nothing, because we’ve had to. That’s what pantry cooking in times of scarcity is all about. When you’ve been told repeatedly that your gender, your desires, your relationship configurations are unlivable, even subject to legal recourse and police violence (yet here you are, living them anyway) you know in your marrow that the rules are made up and the game is fixed.”

 

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Crawford talks about the relief and healing they experience by embracing freedom from restriction in the kitchen, by creating their “own delicious utopia of ever-expanding techniques and flavors, whether or not they’re ‘supposed’ to make sense.” Crawford’s capacity to see beyond kitchen convention is part of how they won the MasterChef title: combining ingredients that “aren’t supposed” to go together, flaunting the so-called rules, imagining other ways of making: mint cotton candy and lamb shanks, Nova Scotia donairs dressed up as a pâté croűte, elaborate “treat cereals” with smoked milks—possibilities proliferate.

Beyond survival, Queer Food is “a daily reminder that we need and are deserving of nourishment, joy, care and love, and that we can create those nurturing moments for ourselves and others.” Crawford is beautifully candid about their own mental health challenges: “2018 was wild. I hit bottom and got sober in February. I had to do something with my hands to keep them off booze, so was perpetually in the kitchen. The more I healed, the more my creativity and capacity for feeling regrew. In August, I started a trauma treatment program.” Halfway through that program, and with newfound courage and strength, Crawford successfully auditioned for MasterChef Canada 2019.


Today, Queer Food is keeping Crawford sober, one meal at a time. “It’s soothing the usually well-managed PTSD that’s been banging at my door, every day, since quarantine started.” Crawford also worries about “all the queer kids in lockdown with homophobic and transphobic families. Most media paints an idyllic picture of domestic bliss, meal prep with your kids, and gathering around the family table. For lots of people, a full table is the loneliest, scariest place in the world.” It’s not hyperbole, then, to claim that organizations such as The Trevor Project and the LGBTQ Youth Line are doing life-saving work. Food banks, too. Queer Food is a call to nurture and sustain queer bodies.

 



Our queer bodies will, for the most part and out of necessity, spend this Pride apart. I keep hearing people lament that Pride is cancelled. But that’s only partly true, only one version of this year’s Pride story. Rather than crowding into bars and parks, onto streets and parade floats, we must re-invent and re-imagine Pride. Crawford wonders playfully, promisingly: “Can we cruise while at home, food pics the new hanky code? Landscape orientation, left pocket. Portrait orientation, right pocket. Sourdough, switch. Pride 2020 has the potential to be so campy, intimate, and revolutionary.” Crawford goes further: “And there’s no Pride without queer liberation for all. For me, Queer Food feels powerful in this context because not only is it invited into homes; it’s invited into people’s actual bodies. It very literally transcends the spaces between us, and don’t we need embodied connection now more than ever?”

Pride is an opportunity to rethink and re-create family, community, activism. As Crawford muses, “I’ve been thinking about how a lot of us don’t have those handed-down, learned-at-grandma’s-knee legacy of family recipes.” But we create our own culinary legacies as an act of queer love, “every recipe a portal into someone’s queer story of survival, vulnerability, and pantry. And with ample notes in the margins, where so many of us feel most at home.”

 

[Source: Kerry Manders, 2020]

 

 

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Gay Food is Here

 

Pride Month comes but once a year every June, and with it comes rainbow-colored sprinkles, rainbow layer cakes and, well, rainbow everything. But beyond kaleidoscopic novelties, the food world has long played an important role in both the establishment and progression of LGBTQ communities.

Queerness has always had a place in the culture of gathering to eat, drink and be merry. After all, the gay bar may be the most quintessential archetype of what it means to meet up.

Dining establishments were the place where many of the first protests for LGBTQ equality began. From Stonewall to the Compton’s Cafeteria, spaces where the gay community of the 1960s gathered became sites of ardent fights for their right to come together and enjoy one another’s company.

 



In the Western dining tradition, restaurants have often been places of privilege, whiteness and heterosexual norms. Historically, restaurants and bars were a place to take a date, a place to meet ― a place, for those with the privilege to do so, to escape and dine. Before the Stonewall riots and other protests during the civil rights era, restaurants and bars where the gay community would gather were policed, with guests harassed and owners threatened for simply existing.

While the Stonewall riots brought a wave of progress and gay bars and queer-friendly establishments have become commonplace, we still live in a cultural climate where discrimination and prejudice still exists. This month saw the Supreme Court ruling that bakeries are allowed the right to refuse to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples. We saw a straight white man who was accused of sexual harassment and aggression able to continue his successful businesses.

Among this cultural reckoning appear small signals of change, such as the appearance of self-described queer and gay restaurants. As Pride Month comes to a close, let’s ask how we can move the food industry forward and how the idea of a queer restaurant can be a potential site to spark a revolution for the restaurant industry and beyond.

 



What is a queer restaurant and why does sexual orientation matter?
 

A gay restaurant doesn’t necessarily have to be a bar with a rainbow flag waving outside its door and a poster for drag bingo in the window. Instead, to actively queer a space means challenging mainstream culture and our assumptions around dining out.

Carla Perez-Gallardo and Hannah Black, the owners of Lil’ Deb’s Oasis in Hudson, NY, explained they’d wanted “a restaurant/community space that felt deeply inclusive to all kinds of people from all walks of life.” They wanted the restaurant to be imbued with “the energy and vibrance we associate with the food we love to make and share — bright, bold, overwhelming.” To bridge the gap between restaurant and customer and build a true community was something they believed in from the start. They did this through intentional details such as “always having a $10 plate that provides a nourishing, full meal — so that we can always guarantee having delicious food at an affordable price point.” 

 

The idea that nobody should be turned away because of the price allows for Lil’ Deb’s Oasis to feel inclusive and inviting to anybody who wants to enter. The power and potential of a queer restaurant lies within this idea of inclusivity. Describing themselves as a “woman-powered business” and restaurant, the restaurateurs say the intention behind a place like Lil’ Deb’s is not only to feed a customer but also open them up to new experiences. To challenge one’s assumptions, a queer restaurant works to progress antiquated views of how restaurants should be, both for a customer and its staff.

 



As John Birdsall wrote for Vice’s Munchies, “For workers, restaurants are manifestations of power in the rawest sense. They use socially acceptable forms of coercion and domination to enforce certain standards of performance,” and for a long time, this was to be expected. From the early European beginnings of the kitchen brigade system, restaurants were run in a hierarchical system that favored authoritarianism. It is no wonder bullying and harassment among restaurant workers is commonplace. To many, it just came with the territory of working in restaurants. But with more restaurants like Lil’ Deb’s defining their space as queer and progressive, the culture is changing. With the advent of the Me Too movement and the fall of many a male-chef empire, female chefs, restaurant workers, and writers are trying to answer the question of how to create a sustainable environment for hospitality that extends from dining guest to chef to server.

Another dining establishment challenging the status quo is MeMe’s Diner, which owners Bill Clark and Libby Willis have described as “a very, very gay restaurant.” While most of the restaurant team self-identify across the spectrum of sexuality and gender, Bill and Libby make it clear that it’s not what having a gay restaurant is all about. They emphasize that queerness in a restaurant extends to expanding our traditional notions of hospitality.
 

Both of these restaurants, and many more, are working hard to dispel the old misconceptions of masculine kitchens and of restaurant culture being raunchy, sweaty and just plain abusive. Hiring queer staff, demonstrating “an awareness of the potential for our verbal and nonverbal communication,” and creating a warm, hospitable environment for the staff as well as the customers is an integral step in queering restaurant norms. Servers are trained to not assume the genders of guests with greetings such as “good evening, ladies,” while Clark and Willis aim to maintain a work culture that is comfortable for all.

 

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But most important, how’s the food?
 

The food served at these restaurants is meaningful, as much of it honors personal roots and heritage. Gay food can, is and should move past being thought of as a rainbow-colored novelty served one month out of the year. Gay food isn’t rainbow sprinkles on an ice cream cone. Gay food is attentive, engaging, and pushes our notions of what dining can be.

In much of Birdsall’s work, he explores what “gay food” can be. He thinks of food as “a galaxy of potential stories;” food has the ability to tell a story, share a culture, and honor who we are or hope to be. Gay food, he believes, is food that not only sustains, but brings joy. Joy and pleasure, to exuberantly and unabashedly be you in the face of systemic oppression, can be an act of resistance. Gay food can show us that “the pursuit of pleasure at the table is a political act.”

At MeMe’s Diner, brunch guests are welcomed with complimentary bowls of familiar cereals such as Lucky Charms or Trix. This helps set a tone for what’s to come: a homey place where hospitality and kindness greets each customer, providing a sense of ease. Their menu has been described as veering “towards comfort food as camp” with nostalgic, Americana references in dishes like BBQ meatballs served with toothpicks to beautiful layer cakes. The flavors are familiar but elevated, like an Everything Bagel Babka or a fluffernutter sandwich. These menu choices are meant to include, not to intimidate, and “to bring you joy.” And isn’t that what dining should be?

 



Lil’ Deb’s Oasis also serves comfort food, by way of Perez-Gallardo’s belief in “honoring maternal lineage and skillsets and sharing from it.” The food, from llapingachos to salchipapas, has an Ecuadorian inflection as an homage to her mother and reflects the artist-chef’s belief in the idea that “maybe we [queer establishments] look to ‘comfort’ in our cuisines because comfort has been made so inaccessible to our communities by larger social structures (in terms basic rights, access to health care) and simply our personhood.”

In the past, at places like Stonewall Inn and other gay establishments, food was less on the forefront, but the same search for comfort held true. Stonewall, while originally an inn and bar, was also more than that. Guests and patrons of any age or background were able to enter and stay for the price of admission. Young people seeking the comfort of others went to Stonewall Inn to be recognized as people, making it a “de facto community center.”

And in many ways, this is what places like MeMe’s and Lil’ Deb’s Oasis are striving for ― to be a beacon of comfort and community for those who need it. The goal of a queer restaurant becomes clear: to create a culture where anybody can express their identity proudly. In the end, it’s not necessarily queerness that is at the forefront to bring about a “gay restaurant,” but rather, a new movement of pride in the service of comfort, compassion and kindness toward others.  And you can leave the rainbow sprinkles at home.

 

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Larry's Lounge - DuPont Circle, Washington DC

Therapy - Hell's Kitchen NYC

Hamburger Mary's, West Hollywood, Los Angeles CA

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Bourbon Pub & Parade - Bourbon Street, New Orleans LA

Club Cafe - Boston MA

Roundup Saloon - Dallas TX

Al's on Seventh - Birmingham AL

Moby Dick - Castro District, San Francisco CA

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Pecs Bar - San Diego CA

Hunters - Fort Lauderdale FL

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