How can gay cooking help you in the home kitchen?

A Guide to Cooking Gaily in Your Own Home

A Guide to Cooking Gaily in Your Own Home

Outward
Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
July 17 2015 3:37 PM

The Joy of Gay Cooking: The Art of Simplisissyty

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Gay cooking is for everyone!

Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

When the American food revolution began in the 1950s and ‘60s, it was something of a gay little pond filled with epicures (many of whom were actually gay) who loved to cook and had very clear, if divergent, ideas on how to approach food. A couple of generations later, the American food world has expanded into a wide-open sea populated by all kinds of creatures who want to feed and be fed, from sardine schools that meekly follow the mainstream to tyrannical sharks who rule its precious coral reefs. Sometimes a hurricane rearranges this ecosystem, as we saw with the arrival of competitive cooking and butch posturing, and one imagines that peaceful gay islands can still be found. But where? And what does it all mean for the home cook? After all, the entire raison d'être of the original food movement was to change the way Americans eat at home!

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

I have already extolled the uselessness, as far as home-cooking is concerned, of the macho badass chef: The home kitchen should not be a battleground. A fairly new and somewhat related phenomenon is the “doodie,” a fitting new term coined and hilariously described by Jessica Pressler in Grubstreet. If these guys—who have high-jacked kitchens across America with a testosterone-fueled tech nerdism previously reserved for sportscars, model train sets, or gardening gear—are mostly concerned with their output, their feminine equivalent, the obsessive-compulsive dieter, is forever obsessing over input, blacklisting any number of potentially harmful elements from the diet (be it salt, fat, sugar, red meat, carbs, or the culinary black sheep du jour, gluten). Naturally, both of these end up engineering or cutting out one of the most important cooking ingredients of all: pleasure.

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As I see it, American cooking is plagued by a hangover from the country’s uptight origins, an impulse to control that expresses itself in the doodies and dieters—we are beset by an overwhelming will to do the right thing. One can trace this pernicious trope back to an American cookbook classic ironically titled The Joy of Cooking. First published in 1931, the book keeps getting reissued as a complete and comprehensive guidebook, a bible of sorts for all the eager culinary star students out there. Its earnestness foreshadowed the tone of the contemporary food scene, living on today in the myriad food magazines that crowd the shelves along the check-out counters of Whole Foods, the countless food blogs vying for our attention, and the cooking shows steeped in nostalgia for a time of home cooking perfection that never existed. The recipes that come out of these kitchens and clever corporate offices are as smothering as an overbearing mother. I call it the Terror and Tyranny of Straight Cooking.

I am sure Julia Child, the midwife of modern American home-cooking, meant well when she dutifully obsessed over the accuracy of measurements and dimensions in her recipes (her ratatouille, a rustic Mediterranean vegetable stew, asks the busy home cook to “peel the eggplant and cut into lengthwise slices 3/8 inch thick, about 3 inches long, and 1 inch wide”). But perhaps American home-cooks would be better served if they found inspiration at the hands of a couple of gay uncles. Artists at heart and rigorously independent thinkers, these men articulated a free-wheeling and sophisticated approach that is worlds apart from the literal-mindedness that dominates the food world today.

How far from molecular cuisine was Richard Olney, for example, whose goal was to teach the reader how to cook without recipes. And how ludicrous must the zealotry of today’s earnest culinary do-gooders seem to Jeremiah Tower, who describes in his no holds barred memoir, California Dish, how he came of age in the wild, preparing meals on a hotplate in his dorm-room; roasting a stolen ribeye for a white mink-clad Margot Fonteyn, the reigning diva of the Royal Ballet; and enjoying a life-changing naked lunch with a couple of gay Californian artists who insisted on having him for “dessert.” Tower did not set out to change the world; he set out to follow his own passions, striving to cook “the way Balenciaga cut clothes—simple in form, without ornamentation, always in harmony with the lines of the body.”

Wouldn’t you rather learn from these two fabulously eccentric gay men than frantically fumble around with a knife and ruler? And don’t even get me started on the most recent trend of pre-portioned, ready to cook meal delivery services, marketed as lifestyle upgrades but really just another entrepreneurial business model that rakes in profits while infantilizing customers, offering them an experience that is akin to painting by numbers. Instead of surrendering to coloring-book cooking, I suggest that challenged home cooks who have fallen victim of culinary tediousness spend some time studying—whether virtually via a cookbook or in real life—with an experienced cook who cooks gaily. He will show them a different approach that is not about following fastidious rules, but about indulging in a liberating sense of permissiveness. This kind of cooking—my kind—is intuitive and insouciant, stylish but not precious, with a healthy sprinkling of camp. Relax! No one will go home hungry.

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Call it simplisissyty. After all, gay men know instinctively that breaking the rules can lead to pleasure and that there is no one right way to do something magical. My friends Scott and Trac have created the equivalent of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s legendary vegetable garden in Bilignin, about which Toklas wrote in the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook that “the first gathering of the garden in May of salad, radishes, and herbs made me feel like a mother about her baby—how could anything so beautiful be mine?” Their version is on the flat tar rooftop adjacent to the bedroom of their Chinatown flat, a clandestine oasis of planters overflowing with salads, vegetables, and herbs where they host delectable dinner parties that are gay in the best sense of the word. Sometimes, it takes a gay man or two to create (or find) pleasure in odd places. As Voltaire’s Candide says, “let us cultivate our garden.”

As a gay man, free of certain duties and conventions tied to straight folks or, we might say, straight lifestyles, I am free to focus on the joy of it all. But it seems that what is happening in many American home kitchens is, at best, more akin to enthusiasm. The distinction is crucial: Enthusiasm is the sentiment of the follower, joy the privilege of the trailblazer. Joy happens at the creative intersection between tension and relaxation—in the kitchen as well as in bed. As noted gay writer (and Joy of Gay Sex co-author) Edmund White put it to me, gay cooking is about serving distinguished food in an informal setting. A gay approach to cooking, seasoned with playfulness and free of inhibitions, offers a way out of the tight-fisted seriousness of enthusiasm-based cooking—and, what’s more, it will produce better food.

Perhaps, then, the time is ripe for a gay sensibility to reassume its proper place in the kitchen. Naturally, in the end, no one “owns” what I call the joy of gay cooking, which is more an approach than an exclusive privileging of sexual orientation. There are plenty of examples of straight chefs who fall into this category, like the gentle and highly refined Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the mad artistic genius Jim Lahey, and the culinary rock star-turned entrepreneur Mario Batali, whose early cooking shows had a deliciously contagious and genuine joy and looseness to them. What’s more, there are new kids on the block who may be straight but whose breezy approach to cooking balances seriousness and fun to great effect, like the cute boys from Chefsteps.

Meanwhile, the notion of a history of gay men in food is being gradually introduced to the mainstream, via literary works like Luke Barr’s gorgeous Provence, 1970 (which shows Olney, Beard, and other food luminaries mixing at a pivotal moment), and a series of delightfully entertaining panels at the New School about James Beard and Craig Claiborne (both of whom, notably, had made a point of coming out publicly in their memoirs, as had Olney, whose memoir was published posthumously.) Cultural critic and food writer Betty Fussell, one of the participating panelists, is especially eloquent in describing the cultural revolution (including food and sex) in which these men were instrumental.

As for the gays themselves, we are beginning to reclaim our connection to food. John Birdsall’s James Beard Award-winning article “America Your Food Is So Gay” searches for a unique relationship between American cooking and gayness, looking to figures like Olney, Claiborne, and Beard for a lineage. There is a also a quite explicit new cookbook for gay “bears” called Cooking with the Bears–Healthy Recipes by Hairy Men, a sprinkling of very gay cooking videos on YouTube (that may or may not be about food), and, most exciting, a new gay food magazine called Jarry (a coded gay slang or “Polari” word for “food”) that will hit newsstands this fall. There is no question that highlighting the subject of, as Jarry puts it, “Men + Food + Men” in a national magazine is a huge step forward—or better yet, given our history, a proper correction.

A few months ago, three generations of gay men from the worlds of Broadway, music, dance, film, art, journalism, and academia convened in the art-filled loft of Jock Soto and his husband Luis Fuentes in Williamsburg to celebrate a gay wedding. Mixing in the glow of hundreds of candles and the smell of dainty flower bouquets, the men enjoyed an elegant four-course dinner, lovingly prepared and served by the hosts themselves, and indulged in the never-ending flow of choice wines and champagne. There was no staff: It was a laid-back family affair, and the party lasted into the wee hours. I had brought the wedding cake: an eight-layer beauty of alternating flourless almond cake and Italian Genoise, filled with apricot jam and an orange buttercream, covered in white marzipan and stylishly tied up with a big pink bowtie made of fondant. I had never made a wedding cake before. While I was preparing it earlier that day, I had suddenly been filled with emotions that went beyond anything I had ever felt in the kitchen. It was as if I was infusing this cake with everything I had to offer: my history as a gay man, my experience as a self-taught chef, my passion for my bohemian life, all my love, and all my joy. Did I mention it was my own wedding?

Daniel Isengart is a private chef and writer living in Brooklyn. His forthcoming culinary memoir, The Art of Gay Cooking, a literary appropriation of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, as well as his culinary manifesto, Queering the Kitchen, are scheduled for release in the summer of 2018, published by Outpost19.