For a May Day picnic, Miss Eileen Dover recommends you serve a simple potato salad. Her recipe calls for boiled potatoes tossed with shredded carrots, cucumbers, yogurt, and vinegar with parsley to garnish. Miss Thelma Jo suggests a “Beefy Chili” with green chiles and “ranch style” beans, and to wash it all down there’s a family recipe for dandelion wine. “You’ll want to have plenty of party games, so be sure you know all the usual May Day events,” they advise.
The book is 1996’s The Drag Queen’s Cookbook & Guide to Sensible Living, written by drag queen Honey Van Campe. But ignore recipe submissions from folks like “Miss Venus de Migraine” or event descriptions like “an evening of transvestite channeling” and it could read like a cookbook from any Methodist church’s women’s group. It’s filled with recipes but also tips on hosting (“the ever-ready hostess will have snacks pre-arranged on serving dishes or cookie sheets, as the case may be, ready for microwave or broiler”), skin care (vitamin E and aloe are “as close as we’ve come to youth formulae”), and laundry.
The Drag Queen’s Cookbook & Guide to Sensible Living is just one of many books, TV shows, and other media that combine drag and the art of cooking and hosting. Drag queens Silky Nutmeg Ganache and Jeza Belle both published cocktail cookbooks. Ruby Ann Boxcar published numerous cookbooks and did cooking demonstrations on local TV in the early 2000s. Latrice Royale has given cooking classes and shared recipes with Entertainment Weekly. Mrs. Kasha Davis had a YouTube series, Kasha Cooks, and is one of many drag queens appearing on Hulu’s new drag cooking competition, Drag Me to Dinner. And one of the other contestants, Ginger Minj, is publishing her cookbook Southern Fried Sass in November.
American cookbooks have long doubled as guides to femininity, homemaking, and domesticity. It’s only in the past few decades that most cookbooks stopped assuming a female audience; the 1975 edition Joy of Cooking still refers to the reader as “she” and keeps mentioning her husband. These books were where women, especially white women, turned to learn what was popular, what was proper, and how to successfully execute womanhood. But drag twists, expands, celebrates, and overhauls femininity, and when combined with cooking, it challenges what it means to serve and to host — and what it might mean to, well, successfully execute womanhood (at least as it currently exists).
When Todd Heim was envisioning what would eventually become his drag persona, Steak Diane, he kept thinking of the food of his childhood in Iowa. Things like Jell-O salads and cheese balls rolled in nuts. “It’s this holdout of 1950s Americana,” he says. “But then, you’re surrounded by this community of people who don’t see the camp in that.” Drag became a way for Heim to play with camp — the aesthetic embrace of the unintentionally tacky, or as a character voiced by John Waters put it, “The tragically ludicrous? The ludicrously tragic?” — through the concept of the housewife, this avatar of perfect womanhood that was being performed all around him.
“In postwar America, the ‘50s housewife was born, and the expectations of her were so unreasonable. I think at that moment the camp of it all was born too,” Heim says. Here was a woman expected to raise children, keep a perfect house, cook three meals a day, and always look beautiful at the same time. “I think it’s really fundamental in that vision that you have this woman who’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown.”
But if much of drag exists to both play with and honor womanhood, then what better avenue for doing so than home cooking, an art that so often has been expected of women whether they wanted to participate in it or not? Heim was inspired by the image of the frantic housewife, but also by his own mother, a home economics teacher who taught him how to sew and cook. That knowledge led to Steak Diane launching a line of home goods like placemats and aprons.
Edward Popli Jr., aka Mrs. Kasha Davis, is a self-proclaimed “international celebrity housewife,” the campy, flamboyant queen of her household, catering to the beloved Mr. Davis. In her sketch series Kasha Cooks, part of Pandora Boxx’s Gay Show! on YouTube, Mrs. Davis floats, and then stumbles, around the kitchen as her martinis add up, teaching viewers how to make recipes like dump cake and “Kasha’s balls of love” in between plenty of bawdy jokes. It’s as if Sandra Lee’s show was on all-access cable, and also she was Italian.
Popli says his drag is all about appreciating the housewives who raised him, even if he’s poking fun at them at the same time. “You’re celebrating something that was almost a demeaning term for women, but I was inspired by these women who were running a household and able to maintain a social circle and maybe also a career,” he says. Because on top of everything else, these women were who first accepted him, who maybe saw someone else closed in by societal gender norms and understood. “As a child, I was very feminine and closeted,” he says. “They were willing to accept my fabulousness. That felt good as a child, whereas those stereotypical men in my life were saying, ‘Speak lower. You can’t cook, you can’t clean. Don’t do those things, those are for the girls.’”
Ginger Minj also writes about this dynamic in Southern Fried Sass. The book is an homage to the women who raised and inspired them — their grandmother, their theater teacher, Tina Turner — and who often afforded them space to be themselves when the rest of the world wasn’t accepting. “She gave me an example of feminine power, always put together with her hair and makeup and nails done and her flowy floral shirts. And she taught me about empathy,” Minj writes about their Granny, before delving into recipes for cornbread and chicken salad.
It makes sense that drag artists would be drawn to the culinary arts. “I think food and cocktails offer opportunities for expression not only visually but through our other senses as well, and the lot of us can’t help ourselves from expression in every form,” says Jeza Belle. Food and drink are canvases for self-expression on Drag Me to Dinner, in which teams of queens battle in the kitchen to create dishes for different dinner party themes, in a quest to win the Golden Grater. “We are celebrating the cooking shows of yesteryear,” says Popli, “and at the same time celebrating drag and comedy, and also celebrating good cooking and party planning.”
There is something inherently drag about a themed dinner party, or Belle’s pink panty dropper cocktail, or Minj’s recipe for “strawberry pigs in a blanket,” a combination of fried smoked sausages and strawberry jalapeno jam. They’re all a little wacky but never off-putting. There is a warmth here, an invitation to indulge and have fun and do something you might not otherwise. Maybe it’s because you just want to have fun. Maybe you’re on the edge and you’ll break if you don’t have a release.
The earliest European and American cookbooks were also women’s guides to living. The English Huswife by Gervase Markham, published in 1615, was a book “containing the inward and outward virtues which ought to be in a complete woman” in a large rural household, which included cooking but also planning banquets and distilling perfume. Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery, published in 1796 and considered the first American cookbook, was a treatise “calculated for the improvement of the rising generation of Females in America,” Simmons wrote, especially those “who by the loss of their parents, or other unfortunate circumstances, are reduced to the necessity of going into families in the line of domestics, or taking refuge with their friends or relations, and doing those things which are really essential to the perfecting them as good wives, and useful members of society.” The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph, first published in 1824, has instructions for making soap and cleaning silver, and Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, published in 1861, includes chapters on caring for children, treating bone fractures, and serving dinner for 12 in any season.
I found this tradition lingering in The Drag Queen’s Cookbook & Guide to Sensible Living. Van Campe writes, “Any women’s book I found, especially those which were written in the years B.C. (Before Chanel), was often outdated and containing little relevance for the Transvestite of our age.” The advice is presented as for drag queens and trans people, sometimes funny and sometimes tellingly dark. There are tips on how to wash a wig and lunch date manners, but also how to come out to your family, how to avoid hanging your revealing laundry where your neighbors can see, and how to safely use a restroom in public (yes, we’ve been talking about this for a long time). It’s all written with a laugh and a hand-wave, though the gravity behind it is clear.
But the living and hosting tips specifically for those in drag are sometimes indistinguishable from advice for prim American housewives. “Root beer floats should be about as masculine as your imbibing gets” could be advice for an old-fashioned lady, or for someone for whom appearing feminine is higher-stakes. “You, as a Drag Queen, should be creative with food just as you would be with make-up and accessories” could easily be a tip for a cis woman who wants to please her husband.
The forthcoming Southern Fried Sass was written in a different time, one in which RuPaul’s Drag Race has made drag a part of straight people’s lives, and when drag and trans people are the focus of hostile legislation. Minj’s guides to living reflect that, offering tips on how to set boundaries and walk away from abusive people, how to interrogate one’s gender or sexuality, and how to properly contour a nose. But they also tie the home arts and drag arts together, emphasizing their similarities. “In every facet of my life, I strive to be a good hostess, whether that’s onstage or at home when I invite people over,” they write. “Part of the joy of cooking for me is having people enjoy their experience in my home, so I want to make them comfortable. I want to make sure it smells good, looks good, that the conversation is good, and that definitely everything they put in their mouth is delicious — whether that be my food or another guest at the end of the night.” They write this to introduce a recipe for “drag queen cupcakes,” topped with edible glitter to make them a “conversation starter.”
Themes repeat in these books and shows: Drag queens learned about womanhood from television, from Betty Crocker, from grandmas, just like so many women have. But then, these queens use these formats to expand on what womanhood means, who gets to participate, and why the whole concept is bullshit to begin with. “I think, like most things that we equate with gender, we need to stop deluding ourselves into believing these manmade, and often 1950s American-made, constructs,” says Belle. “Why must we try to fit everything into a box when those boxes are of our own making?” She notes that, while women are expected to cook in the home, being a chef is still seen as a man’s job. “We were already completely contradicting ourselves from the get-go.”
Home cooking is still seen as the realm of women. Cookbooks may not be written specifically for women anymore, but women are still handling most household tasks, and some slightly outdated data shows women buy cookbooks far more than men. By exaggerating these gendered constructs of homemaking, drag cookbooks and cooking shows blow them up. They show us it’s not just cis white women who can love, and thrive at, hosting a dinner party while dressed to the nines.
Is this yet another attempt to define camp? Drag is womanhood as it comments on it. It begins as a joke and winds up more real than the thing it’s joking about. Gender nonconforming people, whether drag queens or trans people or anyone else on that spectrum, understand the boxes we have made for ourselves. As Van Campe writes, in slightly archaic language, “think for a moment about how much a RG (real gal) goes through to look and act palatable; now imagine what a BM (born male) must endure and undertake to look and act like a palatable female!”
Drag began as “female impersonation,” an illusion of womanhood and all the norms and expectations that came with it, and success was deemed by how correctly it was performed. But drag was also done because it felt good to do. If regressive gender norms both require cis women to cook and assume it is naturally enjoyable for them, drag cookbooks and cooking shows express what it’s like when it actually is an act of joy, not just one of obligation. Popli knows that the idea of cooking and eating together being the great unifier has its limits. “I don’t think there’ll be a recipe that will be cooked at dinner and everyone will just suddenly look in the mirror and be like, ‘Wow, I’m in drag.’ I wish it was that easy,” he says. But drag cookbooks demonstrate how the rules we have set for ourselves can be poked at, laughed at, broken, and embraced at the same time.
Minj writes candidly about not being accepted by some of their family, but says that when they told family at an Easter dinner that they were writing a book, “several of my family members handed me their recipes for inclusion.” Maybe that’s not the same as breaking the gender binary and doing away with regressive roles. But it’s acknowledgment that a nonbinary drag queen can be the keeper of traditions, and someone who shows another generation — of women, of drag queens, of anyone — how to be. You can pick what you want and leave the rest. You can throw the party you want to have. And it can include your grandma’s pulled pork.