American food culture started out gay. So when did it get so straight?

When Did Food Culture Get So Straight?

When Did Food Culture Get So Straight?

Outward
Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
July 15 2015 11:06 AM

The Joy of Gay Cooking: The Gay Party’s Over

150714_OUT_Joy2
Why did America lose interest in gay cooking?

Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker.

Throughout the 1970s, thanks to the rising popularity of cookbooks, food magazines, and the increasing frequency of instructional cooking shows on public television, interest in home-cooked food continued to rise in America. But interest doesn’t always translate into action. Many a working mom who picked up a food magazine and read it on her cigarette break doubtlessly felt a tinge of guilt, knowing that she was not able to offer her family the kind of perfect, lovingly home-cooked food these unnervingly cheerful magazines were advocating—and that tonight’s dinner would once again consist of takeout food or a microwaved TV dinner, served with bad conscience.

Chapter 1
The Child, the Bear,
the Queen, and the Artist
Chapter 2
The Straightening of American Cooking
Chapter 3
The Terrible Reign of the Iron Chef
Chapter 4
Cozy Lesbians and Colonialist Bros
Chapter 5
The Art of Simplisissyty

But there was a large contingent of gay men among the precious few who had the time (and disposable income) to actually try out those recipes for sole meunière or coq au vin. Unlike aspiring female home cooks who might feel pressured to appease a demanding husband or impress their friends, colleagues, or mother-in-law, gay men had nothing to prove in the kitchen. They could simply indulge in their domestic fantasies with a playful approach and treat it all with a grain of salt or, as it were, fleur de sel. After all, they had always known how to appropriate things that were originally intended for women—high heel shoes, makeup, wigs, melodrama, and Playgirl. In fact, they actually designed most of it. Why not take up Gourmet as well? In New York, they also found their new culinary temple in 1977, when Joel Dean and Giorgio DeLuca, two passionate gay food connoisseurs, opened Dean and Deluca. Designed—or rather curated—by Jack Ceglic, Dean’s lover, the high-end food store was the first to link the world of fine foods to the art world in the way it mimicked the austere aesthetic of the emerging SoHo arts scene, launching a revolutionary trend in modern kitchen design that would become known as the “loft look.”

Advertisement

Gay men have a history of home entertaining dating back to at least the 1950s, when socializing among their kind was safer behind closed doors—the only place where they could be themselves and let their hair down (or wear that wig). Many of them first discovered their interest in fine foods during the time they served in the military and travelled the world, getting a chance to taste the foods of France and Italy (and, later, Korea and Vietnam). Though the dinner party is no longer necessarily the locus of gay culture, there remain documents from the period that demonstrate how crucial it once was.

The most famous (and controversial) example is the excellent film adaptation of Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking play The Boys in the Band, but a less known and way more amusing (if harmless, and a few years older) example for the coded gay subculture of the past is an outrageously funny book aptly titled The Gay Cookbook. Published in 1965, four years before the queens of Christopher Street rang in the gay liberation movement by bitch-slapping a raiding police squad, the book was written by one “Chef Lou Rand Hogan.” It’s hard to find these days, but for those who can get their hands on it, the book offers a glimpse into a nearly forgotten, coded gay world of camp (“All rights reserved, Mary”), playfully sexual allusions (“Be more selective in the meat that you bring home. Another thing to do would be to beat it”), and risqué double-entendres (“What to do with that tired old fish”). (For a thorough and fascinating academic look at the book, see Outward contributor Stephen Vider's 2013 analysis.) Compare that with current copywriting of the New York Times’ food section: “A simple bowl of cherries can be lovely. But these three desserts are simply delicious,” and, “You don’t need to be Italian to make fresh pasta.” The adjective straightforward has never been more accurate.

Of course, camp has always been integral to the way gays interpret the world around them. One popular food authority who unwittingly offered fodder for camp appropriation was the doyenne of cooking shows herself, Miss Julia Child. Her mannish stature, hyperventilating vocal mannerisms, and oddly coquettish banter inspired both high- and low-brow homages such as a legendary skit on Saturday Night Live, a brilliant interpretation of the witch in a Metropolitan Opera production of Humperdinck’s Hänsel and Gretel and, more recently, an article by Outward contributor Jordan Alexander Stein that defined Child herself as a queer character, pointing out that she was “queer in the particularly academic sense of the term: She was promiscuous with her attachments.” One notable non-gay male exception who understood the inherent comedy of food was British television host Graham Kerr, whose brilliant but short-lived cooking show The Galloping Gourmet was witty and entertainingly subversive, taped in front of a live audience years before an American chef adopted the formula and, as he liked to say, “kicked it up another notch.” Kerr was a delightfully campy host, flippantly treating cooking as a comic routine, using food and kitchen tools as mere props, and never veering off into the dreadfully earnest tone that, unfortunately, has become the hallmark of the cooking shows we watch today.

As the American home-cooking movement continued to gather momentum in the early '80s, philosophical differences became more and more apparent, dividing it into two increasingly polemic factions: the West Coast-based earnest camp (led by Alice Waters) whose members wanted to change the world, and the frivolous East Coast camp, whose aficionados wanted to change themselves. The latter group was perhaps best represented by the combative and wildly entertaining cookbook author Barbara Kafka, a former ballerina and James Beard protégée whose perspective on cookery was decidedly cosmopolitan and abhorred preciousness and whose instinct for drama, nursed by years of collaborating with gay men, never allowed for earnestness to dull any given moment. But home-cooking was still seen as very much a woman’s domain, and gay men, who had in the meantime become more outspoken about their identity, were not allotted a place at the public round table at which its advances were debated.

Advertisement

Disaster struck when the AIDS epidemic erupted in the '80s and swiftly slayed an entire generation of gay men who had insouciantly basked in the sexual freedom of the '70s. In the following years, gay culture became more conservative and restrictive, with body image and health consciousness as its predominant new obsessions. The joy of gay sex, excessively lived out in a decade of Liberation, was subdued by anxiety-charged rhetoric of “safe sex,” and sexual fantasies were increasingly lived out vicariously via porn, watched, thanks to the new and timely commodity of VHS tapes, in the safety and privacy of one’s home. As for the joy of gay cooking, which had been celebrated in past decades among multitudes of gay men who routinely entertained each other with extravagant home-cooked menus gleaned from Julia Child or Craig Claiborne’s cookbooks, it became largely a thing of the past as countless gay cooking enthusiasts succumbed to the plague. The traumatized survivors, in response to the health scare, developed an obsession with dieting and health food, adopting a boring and earnestly tasteless diet of turkey burgers, alfalfa sprouts, wheat grass juices, bland macrobiotics, and, later, protein shakes, all of which—because they emerged from a gay milieu—became incongruously fashionable as a result.

As the dust of the AIDS crisis began to settle in the mid-1990s, cooking had moved fully to the forefront of mainstream culture. But it did not happen at the hands of the progressives who had paved the way—or their disciples, for that matter—but at the hands of a string of savvy businessmen who launched a television station that was entirely dedicated to cooking and food-related matters. And, to everyone’s surprise, it was the station’s most unlikely show host, an inarticulate restaurant chef from Massachusetts with an impish swagger, who made the nation perk up.

I remember seeing Emeril Live for the first time, watching in disbelief as he whipped his studio audience, composed of “regular folks”—housewives, mechanics, out-of-towners, and children—into a state of euphoria with a recurring skit that involved flicking dashes of hot spice at food while shouting “Bam!” I was flabbergasted. With one gesture, an entire movement of culinary refinement was being erased and replaced with a lowbrow circus for beginners. It was a major shift. Up until that time, the food world had been ruled by writers and connoisseurs. Restaurant chefs had largely kept to their pots and pans in the kitchen, which had up until then been a decidedly blue-collar and unglamorous world that no one cared to know all that much about. Via the new Food Network, Emeril became the first to introduce the testosterone-heavy, super-straight vibe of professional chefs to the American audience. And they loved it.

A few years later, America would get more than it bargained for when it elected, under rather strange circumstances, a Texas governor who bore an uncanny resemblance to the TV chef as its 43rd president. The country as a whole became more militant, setting the stage for the next phase of cooking in America. This time, it would not happen in simulated home kitchens or even in a studio kitchen that faced an impressionable studio audience, but in front of a military-style tribunal. The long period of gay sensuality and playfulness that had elevated mundane cooking to a way of celebrating life was decidedly over; cooking TV and a growing public obsession with everything related to food and cooking were transforming the culinary world into a cut-throat business. Almost overnight, a new, aggressive breed of chefs invaded the public kitchen, ready for war.