Years ago, I visited my high school beard, who lives in New York City, for a long weekend of fun that I thought would center food. Our Southern California teen years were characterized by getting high and driving to the famed restaurant the Hat, where the god-tier order is the stacked pastrami dip, onion rings, and an Orange Bang. Though we were closeted in high school, we are both out now, him, a gay male, and me, a nonbinary dyke.
As we planned out meals for the trip, he shot down my requests for Balthazar and Momofoku, instead making a midday reservation for a now-shuttered Meatpacking District restaurant where his favorite dish was thinly sliced squash on porous pancakes. In the mornings he would religiously drink a green vegetable puree that was so foul that I spat it out in the sink when he shared it with me.
I didn’t understand at the time, but toxic gay diet culture had already reached him. It made more sense as I watched his Instagram grid populate with Fire Island group shots featuring other cisgender gay males with rippling six-packs and short-shorts. He adheres to what some degradingly call the “bottom’s diet” — a restrictive way of eating specifically designed to attempt to avoid what the community calls a “mess” in the bedroom when on the receiving end of anal sex. That diet usually involves a regulated intake that avoids rich foods including meat and dairy, cuts out cruciferous vegetables and other bloat-inducing foods, preps before sex with anal douching, and mixes in generous helpings of the fiber supplement Pure for Men. The goal of all this is not necessarily six-pack abs, but anxiety-free sex.
The idea that bottoms “need to” or “should be” adjusting their choices for a cleaner sexual experience inspired a viral meme: a picture of a plate of ice cubes accompanied by a knife and fork. In a culture that’s already squeamish when it comes to talking about our bodily functions, to greater extremes, bottoms anxious about a night of intercourse might even resort to starving themselves before sex. This kind of abstention still exists in the gay community, though conversation around bottom food has reached new heights this Pride season. Joel Kim Booster’s Fire Island inserted a joke that characters wouldn’t be bottoming as they chowed down on cheese. Earlier this month, Postmates launched a national campaign claiming to have created the “world’s first Bottom-Friendly Menu” that was criticized on social media for appropriating an intimate part of the queer experience for marketing clout and for stealing from the digital creator and chef Alex Hall, who popularized the idea.
But food personalities and chefs have been pushing back, in recent years, in favor of reinvigorating pleasure into the bottom’s diet. Hall, who founded the viral account The Bottom’s Digest in June 2021, cooks up bottom-friendly food year-round with the aim of empowering bottoms. “We created the Bottom’s Digest with our recipes doing one thing as top priority, and that top priority is minimizing bloating and gas,” says Hall. “For the people eating pastrami and such, have at it. As long as you don’t feel like a sack of potatoes afterwards and still feel your best, go for it. That’s the whole point.” Hall counts more than 132,000 TikTok and 28,000 Instagram followers, numbers that have only grown in support of his work since the Postmates debacle.
To understand bottom food today, we have to go back to San Francisco in the 1980s. Food writer, author, and sometimes bottom John Birdsall was freshly graduated from UC Berkeley and living in the Bay Area. He recalls how the gay community then, despite it arising because of exclusion from mainstream America, closely mimicked cisgender and straight sexual attitudes and body ideals. “There was anxiety about being thin enough and about having a small enough waist to be attractive,” he says. But this started to change as the AIDS crisis heightened and those affected were challenged to keep weight on at all, experimenting with cannabis to drum up an appetite and fermented foods to boost their immune systems. As a foil to the thin and hairless gay male trope, bear culture — where larger bodies and appetites reigned — began to emerge. Birdsall recalls a Starbucks in the Castro that was dubbed “Bearbucks,” where bears would congregate, sipping on rich, milky drinks and cruising for cubs.
There was no roadmap for bottoming or bottom food that Birdsall recalls, but service journalism from the still-publishing Bay Area Reporter (BAR) and book The Joys of Gay Sex filled in some gaps when public sex education was woefully inadequate, or rather nonexistent. Feminine behaviors and bodies have long been a target for degradation, and Birdsall shares that bottom-shaming was prevalent back then in misogynistic reverence for more masculine tops. A lack of education left the gay community to educate themselves, to the point of derision and discomfort. These are attitudes that the “Gaytriarchy” still wields today, which continues to reduce empowerment for bottoms.
Now, that narrative is changing. Fred Latasa-Nicks, the gay chef-owner of famed Provincetown restaurant Strangers and Saints, says the staff sees most of their reservations toward the end of the week, but he’s not sure whether to attribute that to partying earlier in the week or “bottoms being bottoms” by saving their dinners out for later.
Despite this, Latasa-Nicks says, “I hate to say this, but the younger queers seem less hung up on things in general. And eating is one of them. You see people eating and drinking and really living a more sort of balanced and pleasurable lifestyle, and then they practice preparation, if you will, rather than denying yourself a meal.”
Strangers and Saints sells thousands of its whole burrata dishes with grilled peaches, jalapeno, and arugula pesto by the end of the gay tourist town’s season. Cavatelli with homemade ricotta, Tuscan white beans, and escarole is another top seller, alongside the ham and cheese croquette — directly in opposition to what the toxic bottom’s diet preaches.
“Even within these subcultures of the gay community, there’s always this rulebook like, ‘Oh, I need to do this, or I need to do that.’ And what I see changing is the rulebook. For a lot of us, we don’t want to live by somebody else’s rules, we want to live by our values and our rules that we set for ourselves,” says Latasa-Nicks. “I think the ultimate goal is to seek pleasure. So you’ll eat good food, you’ll prep when you need to, you’ll be a top today, you’ll be a bottom tomorrow, maybe you’ll be in a threesome. Why not?”
Across TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram, Hall of the Bottom’s Digest shares cheeky recipes “for a peachy clean time” that are predominantly vegan and fiber-rich. The account’s most popular recipe is vegan queso, a food that would strike fear into some bottoms but allows many to reintroduce a “risky” item back into their diet. The account is also reintegrating consent and affirmation of bottoms into the equation.
“One of my phrases is ‘submissive does not equal weak,’” says Hall, who often speaks to the anxieties of bottoming on his account. He asserts that it should never get in the way of living your life. “I’ve heard people use the term ‘bottom’ as an insult. And now I’ve taken this back, like, ‘No, you have to ask for my permission to make fun of me, let alone put your dick in me.’ I’m not going to starve. There’s no consent with that, that’s just peer pressure.”
Hall takes the lore of bottom food a bit further on their account, directly addressing the dreaded “mess” that sometimes accompanies anal sex. Hall likes to say “shit happens all the time,” recently stitching together a video of a gay porn star saying he couldn’t bottom because he hadn’t cleaned up down there. Hall, who uses they/he/she pronouns and is nonbinary, made it a point from their first video that the identity of a bottom is not limited to the cisgender gay male. Every recipe that Hall’s account drops is tested by a 10-person team including trans individuals taking hormones and people experiencing IBS. They even have received messages from cis women from Hall’s home state of Texas trying anal sex for the first time for fear of unwanted pregnancy.
One thing that’s changed dramatically since the gay culture of the ’80s is who is using the label top/bottom/vers and who the bottom’s diet might apply to — and that includes people of many different orientations, genders, and kinks. Self-described “bottom supreme” and writer Chingy Nea told me her ex-girlfriend made a shirt that said, “Lesbians Love Anal Too.”
Disregarding all the preparation that a bottom can do, Nea says she likes to play it “fast and loose” with food, relishing in a meat- and carb-heavy diet. I’ve even seen her brag on social media about eating a Reuben and getting railed, and when I spoke to her by phone for this story, she shared an anecdote about getting spontaneously fingered in a Downtown Los Angeles gay club and coming out squeaky clean. “My girlfriend says I have an immaculate butthole and most of the time I can eat a bunch of food and do anal and like the toy will come out pretty much clean,” said Nea. “When I was younger I would try to be good about what I ate before but now you can’t always plan these things out.”
Consent is at the center of bottoms reclaiming their diet: consenting not just with your partner, but also with your bowels. Those reclaiming bottom food are filling in sexual education that had previously been taboo, and while food personalities and younger generations may be more permissive with attitudes around food and bottoming, one source reminded me that no matter what your diet, you’re still going to have to go to the bathroom eventually.
In the research for Birdsall’s acclaimed biography of gay American chef James Beard, he found materials referencing the first time Beard cooked for his partner of 30 years, Gino Cofacci, inviting him over for a meal of a poached calf’s head. Beard cultivated an image of eating massive amounts of extremely rich food, so the meal, in comparison, was quite sparing.
“I wouldn’t say spartan meal, but it was very restrained. There was a course of calf’s head broth. There was the cold calf’s head with bread and some cheese, and that was it,” says Birdsall, adding, “So, who knows, maybe he was thinking of the next step after eating.”
Rax Will (they/them) is a graduate of UC Riverside’s MFA program in fiction and is at work on a memoir exploring their multiracial identity through food. Jett Allen is a cartoonist and illustrator based in Los Angeles, California.