On Sunday afternoon, photographer Nigel Barker, fashion designer Cynthia Rowley, Eater co-founder Ben Leventhal, and socialite Bevy Smith gathered in a small sitting room to talk about salad. The four reality television personalities had been chosen as the judges of Maneesh & Andrew’s 7th Annual Salad Toss-Off, a salad-making competition that host Maneesh Goyal has called “the gay, urban version of a chili cook-off.” Among the contestants were a “twink salad” (balanced precariously on an unclothed inflatable doll), a “twerky salad” (containing turkey, natch), and an “I want your balls in my mouth salad,” which was just a bowl filled with doughnut holes. (Goyal and his partner Andrew Wingrove use a flexible definition of the term “salad.”)
Salad has long been considered a feminine food. The question is why it’s also seen as a food for gay men—a perception that some of them, like the Salad Toss-Off contestants, have embraced. Slate columnist Simon Doonan has argued, with his inimitable political incorrectness, that foods are inherently either gay or straight. In Gay Men Don’t Get Fat, Doonan writes, “Gay foods are nice to look at, but may contain little or no protein. For example: lettuce. As Diana Vreeland once said, ‘Lettuce is divine, although I’m not sure it’s really a food.’”
This quote, from the eternally svelte fashion editor, hints at one reason for salad’s image as a gay food. Among a certain image-conscious subset of gay men, excess body fat is anathema. As Slate writer Mark Joseph Stern puts it, “Fitness and sexiness continue to be of great import in the gay dating world.” Salad is the classic low-calorie diet food, just the thing one would brag about eating if one were trying to shed a pant size or two. (It’s perhaps worth noting that gay men are more likely to have an eating disorder than straight men.) Along those lines, Goyal explained to me that Salad Toss-Off, which always occurs the Sunday before Thanksgiving, is meant to symbolize abstemiousness before an indulgent holiday.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that salad has coincidentally shown up in more than one slang term associated with gay men. The name of Goyal’s competition is a clear reference to a sex act that’s traditionally assigned to gay men, although it’s catching on with straight guys, too. (The etymology of the phrase “salad tossing” isn’t clear, but it seems to have been popularized by an interview in a 1996 prison documentary, with some help from a somewhat homophobic bit by Chris Rock.) There’s also the less explicit but more potentially hostile phrase “fruit salad,” sometimes used to describe a diverse group of gay men. Neither of these phrases has anything to do with gay men’s appetite for greens and vinaigrette, but they may have strengthened the association between salad and male homosexuality in the public mind.
The contestants in this year’s Salad Toss-Off were less interested in parsing the gay connotations of salad than in showing off their recipes with as much irreverence—sometimes bordering on offensiveness—as possible. A man wearing a sombrero and a fake mustache offered tequila and beer along with a Tex-Mex salad. There was a bowl of Breaking Bad-inspired southwestern chicken salad, surrounded by baggies of “blue meth” candy, and presented by a group of men dressed up as characters from the show (including a bewigged, high-heel-wearing Skyler). My colleague J. Bryan Lowder suggests that it might make the most sense to think of the Salad Toss-Off as a sort of edible drag show—a send-up and inversion of the hypermasculine performances one sees at a chili cook-off. When you accept this reading, it makes sense that two of the judges, Rowley and Barker, are figures in the fashion world—who better to evaluate salads that are more about style than substance?