There’s no such thing as queer food — but once you start looking, 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.
Exploring Identity Through Food
At the Queer, Vegan & Melanated conversation series, people of color explore the intersection of race, gender, and sexual identity with ways of eating, while sharing plant-based foods. Discussions center on self-discovery, and how participants craft a veganism that reflects their queerness, and their identity as people of color, with food traditions and palates sometimes left out of mainstream vegan recipes. Series founder Lani Sol says many QVM attendees describe themselves as “on the spectrum of being vegan” and, modeled after the big queer umbrella, these diet-flexible persons are welcome in her group. “It’s queer intelligence,” Sol says. “We can handle things being dynamic and ambiguous.”
It’s no accident that queer intelligence brings together a community of the vegan and the vegan-ish. The word “queer” is an indispensable catchall for a wide range of identities, originally reappropriated as a specifically political, radically left identity that challenged the white, hetero patriarchy. For some queer-identified people, to fully exist in their identities is to embrace a wide spectrum of radical ideas, including eating norms. Veganism has long been associated with queer women (and increasingly nonbinary and trans folks), who resist America’s obsession with meat.
The intersection of queer identities, especially lesbian ones, and veganism is complex. Greta LaFleur, assistant professor of American studies at Yale University and author of the forthcoming The Natural History of Sexuality in Early America, connects the queer politics of meat to a much older ethos: “You are what you eat.” In the 18th century, colonizers believed, in a predictably racist way, that indigenous staples like cassava were inferior famine foods because they are rooted vegetables grown in the ground, and meat-eaters possessed heartier qualities. The way queer people politicize food is a progressive echo of that approach, a means of demonstrating compassion and critiquing unjust structures. “[Food] is a conduit for articulating politics and care,” LaFleur says.
But stereotyping all lesbians and politically queer people as joyless vegans reinforces the belief that feminists and queer women are “hostile to pleasure,” according to Bonnie J. Morris, a lecturer at UC Berkeley who has written about nude dining at women’s music festivals. “That [stereotype] of being puritan is really demeaning,” she says, as it suggests that, without men, lesbians lack access not only to power but also to pleasure, something any lesbian would tell you is the opposite of true. And for every lesbian vegan, there is an accomplished and omnivorous lesbian chef — or simply a lesbian home cook who can sear a mean steak.
Regardless of what’s on the table, many LGBTQ chefs and restaurateurs understand hospitality is political, and emphasize an “all are welcome” ethos. When it comes to countering discrimination in restaurants, queer chefs are often at the forefront, such as when Ashley Christensen fought back against North Carolina’s discriminatory “bathroom bill” baring trans people from using the appropriate restrooms. The Trumpian backlash against the expansion of queer rights and the threat of white nationalism have energized queer people in the food world to provide a more radical sense of welcome. Queer Soup Night in Brooklyn was sparked as a means to raise money for groups like the Trans Women of Color Collective and the Center for Anti-Violence Education. Gay-owned Cupcake Royale in Seattle is known for their Gay cupcake, the sales of which benefit Gender Justice League in Washington. As restaurants across the country toss in some rainbow food coloring to capitalize on Pride, queer-owned businesses make much more meaningful donations — and that activism is part of what makes their rainbow cupcakes gay, and not just gay for pay, as Eater’s Adam Moussa writes.
Camping in the Kitchen
Britney Spears blasts across a room lined with sparkly vinyl booths, alongside a wall of very high heels. From the stage, a drag queen playfully heckles diners, who in turn heckle her back. Waiters suggest a Bossy Bottom cocktail or the Rainbow Dip to start. After a burger and a margarita and drag bingo, the bill arrives in a stiletto pump.
This is the scene at just about any location of Hamburger Mary’s, a national family of independently owned drag-themed restaurants founded in 1972. The restaurants were created by “a group of hippies in San Francisco” who “wanted to open a burger joint” that queer people could hang out at, according to Ashley Wright, co-owner of Hamburger Mary’s International. The restaurant grew into an unlikely chain, born in an era when gay bars were covert, closed to outsiders, and absolutely not destinations for bachelorette parties. Hamburger Mary’s bridged the gap, existing as a place for queer people to bring their straight friends. Over 40 years and more than 20 locations later, it’s considered to be the only national restaurant brand with an LGBTQ history.
Hamburger Mary’s is “taking something as all-American as a burger but making it gay,” Wright says. This isn’t accomplished merely by serving vegan Beyond Burgers but, instead, by presenting one of America’s most iconic foods in a decidedly gay context. “We’re a burger joint,” Wright says. “But there’s drag queens here and there’s trans people and gays, lesbians, all colors, all ages.”
Also, literally leggy cocktail glasses, burgers as large as the pecs of the hunky servers that deliver them, and a “No Hate” chicken sandwich parodying a certain homophobic Southern chain: All are a part of Hamburger Mary’s long, hard participation in the queer cultural aesthetic tradition of camp. In her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Susan Sontag describes camp as “a private code, a badge of identity,” whose contours are both obvious and indefinable, but can be characterized as a fascination with tackiness, naivete, and decadence. While her essay purposely bobs and weaves, Sontag declares that camp’s vanguard are homosexuals (her term) who consider themselves “aristocrats of taste.” To Sontag, the gay embrace of camp is an assimilationist tactic: Camp’s emphasis on playfulness thwarted the moral strictures of 1964, and allowed a gay sensibility to critique and permeate mass culture at a time when living an outwardly gay life was taboo. Hamburger Mary’s extreme camp serves the same purpose, speaking a queer dialect so overblown it’s understandable to all.
Culinary camp often manifests as the over-the-top embrace, and subversion, of heterosexual domesticity. Poking fun at mainstream culture is a coping mechanism, linking a near-secret language to otherwise accessible cultural creations, a tactic art critic Moe Meyer calls “queer parody.” Kevin Kopelson, a professor of English at the University of Iowa, points out that culinary camp’s obsession with mundane aspects of heterosexual life most heterosexuals couldn’t care less about is exactly the point. “A basic camp move is transvaluation, to take something that the culture doesn’t value and pretend to value it, to see what pleasure comes from that,” Kopelson explains. The surreal yet sincere domestic art of Amy Sedaris, which defamiliarizes yet celebrates homemaking by dividing American craftiness by self-aware absurdity, is a prime example.
There’s a long history of camp skewering of hyper-feminized images of home cooking. Stephen Vider, visiting assistant professor of history and museum studies at Bryn Mawr College and author of the upcoming Queer Belongings, has studied this phenomena as it relates to The Gay Cookbook, a 1965 volume by Lou Rand Hogan published amidst mainstream interest in gay subjects sparked by Sontag’s essay and an opportunity to frame gay male life as domestic instead of debased, though this domesticity included jokes about working with “a tough piece of meat” and recipes for “sorority-sized sausages.” “Food preparation, especially at this moment in the 1960s, was so gendered,” Vider says. Hogan’s book broke through by subverting social stereotypes with humor, which would appeal both to gay home cooks and heterosexuals who wanted in on the joke.
Over the decades many similar cookbooks emerged, leaning even more into the sexual underbelly of cooking. A 1983 effort, The Gay Of Cooking by “The Kitchen Fairy,” described creaming butter as “no different from most Saturday nights”; 1983’s LA Gay Gourmet by Carl Mueller is dedicated “To all our friends with oral fixations.”; 1990’s Lez Beans from Linda Leighton and Sharron Hugar-Leighton offered ridiculous recipes like the “tit sandwich,” “PMS goulash,” and “dyke balls.”
Soraya Sobreidad, a transgender cooking personality with her own food stand in Long Beach, California, is remaking the domestic ideal as more frankly sexual, emphasizing the aphrodisiacal powers of her food. “The kitchen is a very sensual place for me,” she says. Sobreidad, who spoke to Eater previously about being trans on Chopped, views food as a way to bond and build community while expressing oneself through an oral pleasure. “I’m a very strict believer in getting to a man through his stomach,” she says.
Frankly sexualizing the experience of eating can take a less tongue-in-cheek form, too. Mac Malikowski and his magazine Mouthfeel bring a gay punk sensibility to the world of aspirational food media. Gone are hipster boy-girl couples toasting over lavish cheese spreads and quaint florals; banished are picturesque piles of uneaten fruit. In are scruffy, nude dinner guests sipping martinis, with ice cream cones and pie slices offering the cheekiest of modest covering for dicks. “It’s important for us to be fantastical and definitely silly,” Malikowski says. “We take food seriously but I think there’s an element of humor that we’re trying to really milk, no pun intended.”
That’s what queer food camp does: It mashes up classic archetypes — hamburgers and housewives — with otherworldly disruptions, most notably sex. That’s why a place like Hamburger Mary’s still feels imbued with a sense of risk when non-queer people walk in. Dishes like Mary’s Hot Legs and drinks like the Total Top Margarita can be read as careless fun, but the playfulness is a means of including the joyful aspects of queer life that straight culture often shames. “Being gay has been synonymous with some sort of struggle,” Wright explains. “At our core, we’re basically saying, ‘Hey, this is solid contemporary American food and we’re all Americans.’”
All in the Intentional Family
Since the early 1980s, the Boston Bisexual Women’s Network — a collective by and for bi+ women in the Boston area — has held monthly brunches. Ellyn Ruthstrom, former editor of the Bi Women Quarterly newsletter, has been involved with the brunches for over 20 years. “There aren’t that many spaces that are open for bi folks,” Ruthstrom says. “Even within LGBT spaces, we don’t always feel accepted and invited and welcome. I see these brunches as part of my queer family.”
Across the LGBTQ spectrum, people build non-blood family units for support — “families of choice” in sociological terms. D’Lane Compton, associate professor of sociology at the University of New Orleans, notes this behavior isn’t unique to the LGBTQ community: “Mormon students do this at college. Ex-pats do this for Thanksgiving in other countries.” But queer people have had an especially urgent need for kinship, since historically, many have been rejected or distanced from their families. And often, food is a key means of bringing that chosen family together.
Like many ephemeral communities, traces of queer intentional families can be found in the great American tradition of the community cookbook. From Sharing Our Best, a 1998 cookbook by FACT (Fighting AIDS Continuously Together) featuring celebrity recipes in the hopes of fighting AIDS, to Doomed Rabbit, a 1994 cookbook by and for the Seattle-Tacoma leather community, these cookbooks preserve the character of a long-gone chosen family through recipes like Pat Califia’s Sadistic Curried Chicken, offered with the note, “I never liked hot food until I started to do S/M.”
According to food writer and James Beard biographer John Birdsall, food nurtured queer cultures in San Francisco and Greenwich Village as early as the 1940s. “Intentional families, non-blood families, and intentional communities are where a somewhat expressive queer culture could exist,” Birdsall says. These mid-century urban cocktail parties were by and for LGBTQ people, and often more lavish and open to new cuisines, well before international foods were commonplace in the straight, steak-and-potatoes society. Imagine men in tweed slacks and smart sweaters mixing something called a “Margarita” while dancing to the latest Joe Tex bop: that was the behind-closed-doors gay urban pioneering that Birdsall speaks of.
The contemporary version of these gay family meals is the openly queer, community-focused restaurant. Lil Deb’s Oasis in Hudson, New York, is run by a queer family, for queer family. “Modern food culture can feel or be exclusive,” chef-artists and Lil Deb co-owners Carla Perez-Gallardo and Hannah Black explain. Perez-Gallardo and Black are artists and friends, Perez-Gallardo identifying as queer while Black is “straight but has a queer heart,” a combination that steers their work toward a lavender sensibility. They created a colorful, comfortable restaurant that became a hub for local queer community, both for their patrons and as their (predominantly queer) staff, all of whom are paid the same hourly wage, outside of managers. The menu of “tropical comfort” food furthers the family ties by offering cultural overlaps instead of borders, paired with a wine list written in poetic form by the staff.
For other queer persons, cooking can be a means of navigating and transforming their relationship to their own family history. At Preeti Mistry’s restaurants — Navi Kitchen and the now-closed Juhu Beach Club — the chef innovates by combining the ingredients and techniques of California and Indian cuisines, resulting in dishes like kheema kale pizza and vindaloo sticky wings. “Feeling outsidership in your own family creates this difference that I think comes through in my food,” Mistry says. “In my culture, there are a lot of dutiful daughters out there and that’s not me.” Her inventive and playful dishes result in a feeling of freedom she attributes in part to her outsider status. “There’s no rules,” Mistry says. “To me, that comes a lot from being queer.”
Mistry’s cooking connects her to her family traditions; other queer people use food to connect with family even more directly. Fred McConnell, a Guardian journalist, says a shared meal connects him, an openly transgender man living in London, to his traditional family in a small, coastal Southern England town. McConnell says, “We all can connect, even at times when I’m not feeling particularly understood by one of my parents.”
Nik Sharma, San Francisco Chronicle columnist and author of the forthcoming book Season, explains a similar experience via a recipe for squash and lentil stew. Soon after he came out, a friend’s mother, who like Sharma is Indian, welcomed him with this stew without questioning his identity, offering a surrogate of acceptance from his own family. “They didn’t know anything [about me],” Sharma says. “But they just welcomed me in and that was one of the flavors I tasted in their house.”
E. Patrick Johnson, professor of African American studies and performance studies at Northwestern University, sums up the familial crossovers in a glass: tea. For black gay men, “tea” can take many forms — a slang term for gossip or a suggestion of social (and sexual) get togethers — but, unlike camp food styles, invoking tea isn’t strictly about parody. “Growing up in black families, sweet tea in particular is a staple for Sunday dinner,” Johnson says. Black gay men adopted and repurposed the togetherness of tea into their families of choice. As for the actual tea, Johnson notes, black gay men riff on family recipes, often making them boozy, queering the more sober versions from their youths.
Queer Food Is a Thing, But It’s Not a Trend
Queer food’s expansiveness, and its suppleness, is also why it seems absurd to imagine Grubhub or Seamless featuring, say, an LGBTQ cuisine option. As much as I wish my parents would prepare a tray of hot dogs covered in sparkly whole-grain mustard in honor of my queer ass, that’s not where I see queer food going. Flamboyant dishes aren’t enough — they must, in some way, nod to struggle, and to the unique way our identities are a beautifully complex cassoulet of seeing and being. A (straight) chef could write “Love Is Love” in multicolored coulis on a unicorn plate, but that’s not queer food — it’s pandering.
Joseph Hawkins, director of the One Archives at USC Libraries, puts it best: “This isn’t about queer culture becoming a trend as much as it is being in dialogue with other kinds of cultural currencies.” Hawkins explains that cooking, like any other creative industry, attracts queer talent. But, in Hawkins’s eyes, the queer approach to food is a variation on a common theme in queer lives: It’s a means of coping and improvising, adapting a facet of life to reflect an interiority few truly understand.
“We are doing what we’ve always done,” Hawkins says, “which is getting our hands dirty and crafting culture on the fly.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the dishes served at the Queer, Vegan, & Melanated conversation series, and mischaracterized the focus of the group.
Kyle Raymond Fitzpatrick is a writer based in Los Angeles who has been published by Playboy, Los Angeles Magazine, Popsugar, and more. He loves dogs, champagne, and short shorts.
Angie Wang is a Los Angeles-based illustrator, animator, and game developer. See more of her work at okchickadee.com.
Fact checked by Pearly Huang
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