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‘The Gay Cookbook’ Was of and Ahead of Its Time

Lou Rand Hogan’s 1965 book dared to say that gay men could be perfectly happy cooking and eating together, just like straight people

The cover of The Gay Cookbook, which features an illustration of a person in chef’s hat putting a piece of meat in a pot Photo illustration by Lille Allen

According to the pop culture of the 1960s, gay men lived busy and complex lives. So much secrecy and skulking and sinister scheming! So much time cruising in seedy bars and public bathrooms! So much plotting to seduce the boys of America through subliminal messages in comic books! How could they possibly have time to experience any of the basic pleasures of life, like eating?

Even if there were gay men who were happily cooking and eating for each other, there were plenty of laws that prevented them from going public about it. The Comstock Laws, first established in 1873, prevented “obscene” material from being distributed through the mail. “Obscene” applied to anything related to sex. By the early ’60s, a series of court cases had changed the definition of obscenity, which meant that, among other things, books and magazines about gay people would no longer be seized and destroyed. A good thing, too, because according to the latest research of the time, one in six American men was gay.

In 1964, Susan Sontag published a popular essay called “Notes on ‘Camp’” that attempted to define campiness. Sontag observed that gay men were especially good at it: “the vanguard — and the most articulate audience — of camp.” Suddenly, it was (sort of) chic to be gay, though the gay community itself was ambivalent about campiness: Some gay men felt it would be safer, and better for the nascent gay liberation movement, if they embraced conventional masculinity.

This was the cultural moment, Chef Lou Rand Hogan writes, in which “a mad, mad Editor … coyly suggested, ‘Oh hell, May, why don’t you people have a cookbook? After all, you’re supposed to be “one in six” and that’s a lot of cooking!’”

And so Hogan, previously the author of a mystery novel called The Gay Detective (described by the lesbian pulp novelist Ann Bannon as “so flaming you could roast marshmallows over it”), whipped up a guide for that 16.6 percent of the male population. Published in late 1965, Hogan’s The Gay Cookbook was a self-proclaimed “complete compendium of campy cuisine and menus for men . . or what have you.” The front cover featured a drawing of a fashionably dressed young man wearing a chef’s hat and a floral apron, wrists limp and hips aswivel, preparing to drop a bloody steak onto a grill. The back showed partygoers enjoying drinks, one in a cocktail dress and heels with a visible five o’clock shadow. Forget blending in: This was a book that fully embraced the campy side of gayness. David Costain’s illustrations added to the spirit, depicting the chef capturing a merman in a fishing net, performing the cancan with two other men in flouncy dresses, and dancing on the table during a drunken dinner party.

Ironically, if you subscribe to the idea that queer food is “food that is inventive and mold-breaking and made by queer people,” as Jaya Saxena put it in a recent Eater essay, many Americans in the 1960s were already exploring queer cuisine; at least, two of the most popular cookbook writers of the day, James Beard and Craig Claiborne, were gay. But although their sexuality was an open secret in the food world, both men were officially closeted — Beard’s biographer, John Birdsall, writes in The Man Who Ate Too Much that Beard’s publishers attempted to create a more manly image by encouraging him to write about grilling meat and referring to him as “Jim.”

The Gay Cookbook was not completely out. This was still three and a half years before Stonewall, four and a half years before the first Pride parade. The name “Chef Lou Rand Hogan” was a pseudonym.

And yet, that December, Doubleday Book Shop ran an ad in the New York Times that featured The Gay Cookbook, calling it “the answer to your holiday gift shopping problem” for “that very special man in your life or for the jaded hostess whose soufflés no longer stand on their own.” (See what they did there? Welcome to the world of The Gay Cookbook, where no innuendo goes undropped!) The book went on to sell a respectable 10,000 copies.

Clearly, Hogan’s mad editor was onto something. As Hogan points out in his introduction, a gay man “has no ‘little woman’ to greet him at the door…. No smell of a scorching stew, either.” Still, “in that magic hour ‘tween day and dark, after effacing the ravages of the day’s toil, and before the night’s serious cruising, ya gotta take on some food.” Without a little woman around, what’s a fella to do?

This was, as Stephen Vider wrote in a scholarly essay about The Gay Cookbook, revolutionary. Before The Gay Cookbook, nobody had written much about gay domestic life, not even gay men. “Placing a homosexual, let alone a happy one, in the home, was more radical in 1965 than one might expect,” Vider writes. “Social scientists, journalists, and filmmakers of the 1950s typically depicted gay men as outsiders, if not threats, to the ideal heterosexual household.”

The Gay Cookbook openly challenged this notion. “Guess what?” the book declared. “Gay men have homes! They have kitchens! They are human beings! Human beings that eat! Just! like! you!”

So what did gay men eat in 1965? For Hogan, food was food. If he ever stopped to ponder the nature of queer cuisine, he didn’t do it in The Gay Cookbook, except for a brief (and fascinating) digression about gay social life in 1920s San Francisco, where formal banquets were a regular occurrence. “A really elegant person entertained local royalty to dinner,” he writes somewhat wistfully, “serving among other things, a very contrived salad. This was fashioned of upright banana sections set in bases on pineapple rings on cream cheese. There was a garniture of jumbo olives, etc. It was certainly a conversation piece, with much camping and tittering among the tiaraed guests.”

But, alas, banquets, along with tiaras and priapic salads, had gone out of vogue by the ’60s, and Hogan was not the man to bring them back. Despite all the innuendos, all the callouts to Mary and May and Ermintrude, even the inclusion of “Swish Steak,” The Gay Cookbook is, at its heart, deeply practical. Hogan was writing for men who were living in city apartments with limited kitchen space, limited incomes, and limited culinary experience who needed to feed themselves and maybe a guest or two. Unlike cookbook writers who directed their instructions at female homemakers, he did not encourage his readers to pursue aspirational cooking projects: “Old (and well-seasoned) chefs will know that a simple dish is quite often more satisfactory than something that costs a lot, and is a lot of trouble to make.” His shellfish recipes carried content warnings: “Once again we advise you to adjourn to a good seafood restaurant for crab dishes.” He advised buying bread instead of baking it and avoiding artichokes altogether. For a dinner party, he recommended a big pot of chili — “It is hearty MAN food” — or curry, if the host really wanted to seem impressive. Most of his advice would not have been out of place in a cookbook intended for any other novice in the kitchen. The food wasn’t gay. (Not a single mention of ice cream cones, the world’s gayest food, according to Fox News.) But the camping around it was.

Lou Rand Hogan was actually Louis Randall, a native Californian, born in Bakersfield in 1910. In his younger years, he had aspired to be an actor, but, like James Beard, found his way into the kitchen instead. He spent the ’30s working on cruise ships, which turned out to be a congenial environment for a young white gay man: of the 500 stewards, Hogan wrote in a memoir, “probably 486 were actively gay!”

The Gay Cookbook owes a lot to that other kind of cruising. Most of the food is in the style that cooks of the ’60s would have described as “continental” — that is, dependent on stocks and sauces and sometimes flames. Hogan has an entire chapter devoted to the wonders of Mornay and mousseline “and other Brownish Delights.” He was on the Pacific route, so there’s representation from Hawai‘i (pineapple) and east Asia (soy sauce). There’s also a lengthy discourse on wine, including rosé. And there are a few kitchen tricks: Hogan’s not above suggesting that a cook add a drop or two of food coloring to make the meal look slightly more appetizing. All the recipes are written in an anecdotal style, and Hogan likes to ramble: the chili recipe, his pride and joy, goes on for nearly five pages. Occasionally, he even seems to wear himself out, noting that certain chapters have gone on long enough. This is a book that could have really used more editing.

Still, if you’re interested in minute details of food history, this is a pretty good place to mine for information about the 1960s. Imagine a time when ground beef was 35 cents a pound, half chicken was 50 cents, and a whole steak was $1.50! And imagine a time when a cookbook writer advised his readers not to buy fresh vegetables: “In most cases, we (at Happy House) use frozen rather than fresh if there’s a choice.” Bizarrely, Hogan also suggests boiling those frozen vegetables in sugared rather than salted water; he claims salt is a “chemical bleach” while “sugar is a known food and fuel.” But maybe that says more about the state of vegetables during that decade, even in California. As Hogan wrote: “Say, there’s a thought: maybe guys don’t eat vegetables because they’re often pretty unappetizing.”

There is very little that’s remarkable about these recipes. The majority are meats covered in some sort of sauce. (Yes, there are plenty of “beat your meat” jokes.) I made broiled chicken because it reminded me of a recipe my mother used to make, though Hogan’s is slightly fancier: Instead of just salt and pepper, he recommends adding paprika and rosemary. (Or maybe that was just for color, too.) It tasted like something one would eat on a cruise ship, or at an awards banquet or any similarly boring occasion where no one expects the food to be especially good.

But Hogan was ahead of his time, culinarily, on at least one point: In his guacamole recipe, which he describes as authentically Mexican, he urges his readers to forget the chile powder and oregano and appreciate the “wonderful, nutty, buttery, but delicate” flavor of the avocado, which needs no other accent besides lime juice, salt, and a tomato. True, he does suggest serving it on a lettuce leaf or mixing it with sour cream for a dip, but that makes me wonder what Hogan would have written about if he’d been guided by his palate rather than the demands of a cruise ship.

In a way, this is an inverse of Beard, who was creative in his recipes and repressed in the manner in which he wrote them. According to Birdsall, Beard dreamed of writing something like The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, in which he would be free to tell his life story, with recipes, as campily as he pleased. But that was too much, even for the so-called Dean of American Cookery. You couldn’t be famous and openly gay. It would take a more obscure chef to open that closet door.

It’s likely that no one ever valued The Gay Cookbook for the food, or even most of the jokes: By 1965, campiness was going out of style among younger gay men. What people all over the world did value was its bravery in showing the world that gay men could be perfectly happy cooking and eating together, just like straight people. This idea is still comforting: “Food normalises life, because we all must eat,” wrote the Indian food writer Vikram Doctor in a 2021 appreciation in The Economic Times of New Delhi. “So many people, still coming to terms with their sexuality, have been helped by meeting other LGBT people, in a café or restaurant, or just invited home for a meal.”

Or as a writer for the Argenintian news site Infobae put it, “Who would have imagined that a book born in the kitchens of a cruise ship could revolutionize inclusive literature? Definitely no one.”

Aimee Levitt is a freelance writer in Chicago. Read more of her work at