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What makes a cookbook queer?

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The Expansive Evolution of the Queer Cookbook

If Alice B. Toklas’s “Cook Book” and “The Queer Cookbook” represent two ends of the spectrum for how queerness once existed in cookbooks, today’s cookbooks take advantage of the vast middle ground

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What makes a recipe queer is simple, according to Donna Clark’s 1996 The Queer Cookbook: It’s “a recipe that’s been made for or by a queer.” The recipes themselves, sourced from “queers [Clark] met and queers on the Internet,” are pretty standard, but offer a specificity of context. Cocktails, Clark posits, are the “queerest drink.” The chapter on cupcakes is called “fairy cakes,” as they’re called in the United Kingdom, where the book was published, but a cartoon accompanying the chapter’s title, featuring “out and proud gingerbreadpersons,” pokes at a double meaning.

Clark’s book is for and by the queer community, she signals not subtly, writing that it is a “must for all self-respecting gay gourmets,” and suggesting that queer people are especially talented cooks and hosts. The language appeals to an “in-” audience: Surely the reader understands how Christmas is the “one meal that so typifies straightness,” while the Fourth of July cookout spread is intended to serve “as many queens as you can accommodate.” Clark’s book is a queer cookbook first and foremost because Clark says it is: It’s right there in the title.

In Alice B. Toklas’s eponymous Cook Book, published in 1954 and considered one of the most influential queer cookbooks as we understand that term now, queerness exists in subtler form. Toklas’s cookbook was among the first to blend memoir and recipes, and she writes at length about her life in Paris with author Gertrude Stein, with whom she ran the influential literary salon where such names as Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway gathered. Still, to recognize The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book as a queer cookbook is a perspective aided by hindsight. Today we know that Toklas and Stein were partners, but would every reader have at the time of the book’s publication? If they read closely, maybe. But a cookbook as overtly queer as Clark’s wouldn’t exist without a book like Toklas’s. And three decades later, the queer cookbook has evolved even further.

If Toklas and Clark represent two ends of the spectrum for how queerness can exist in cookbooks, today’s LGBTQ authors take advantage of that expansive yet mushier middle. When it comes to the idea of the queer cookbook, “Is it that the author is queer? Or is there something inherently queer about the cookbook itself?” Professor Alex Ketchum poses these questions among others in her 2021 McGill University exhibit tracing the history of queer cookbooks. (A detailed digitized version can be found online.)

It’s not only more possible today to be out as a chef, recipe developer, or author but to also get the backing of major brands and publishers. Buzzfeed published its own queer cookbook in 2020: Tasty Pride, edited by Jesse Szewczyk. Out authors from the LGBTQ community make bestsellers, not just niche titles: Let’s Eat by Dan Pelosi hit shelves last year as an instant New York Times bestseller, right alongside B. Dylan Hollis’s Baking Yesteryear, which spent over a dozen weeks on the list.

In those books, queerness is displayed as just another facet of a cookbook author’s life. Antoni in the Kitchen, the 2019 debut from Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski, centers Porowski, not Queer Eye; the latter takes up little space on the cover compared to the star’s name. A byproduct of celebrity chef culture? Perhaps. For Ketchum, an assistant professor at McGill’s Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies and an organizer of the recent Queer Food Conference, Porowski’s book fueled her interest in unpacking the meanings of queer cookbooks.

“I was like, Does this count as a queer cookbook?” Ketchum says. “He identifies as queer, he’s part of Queer Eye, it says ‘queer’ on the cover, but the cookbook itself didn’t feel that queer to me. I was like, well, why is that? How am I defining a queer cookbook? What counts? What doesn’t count?” Ketchum’s analysis, which goes as far back as Toklas’s book, suggests a Venn diagram between queer cookbooks and cookbooks by queer authors — not always overlapping.

In his newsletter, author John Birdsall, who is writing a book on the history of queer food, writes that “few cookbooks of the past 60 years specifically flexed their lesbian, gay, or queer identities.” A few of Birdsall’s examples include Lou Rand Hogan’s The Gay Cookbook (1965), Bloodroot Collective’s The Political Palate (1981), and Congregation Sha’ar Zahav’s Out of Our Kitchen Closets: San Francisco Gay Jewish Cooking (1987). In their time, Birdsall explains, most of these books “churned far from the mainstream.”

“Each places sex and sexuality — an explicitness about who we cruise, crush on, date, get sweaty, and build a life with — at the center of queer experience, and places those things at the heart of why, and how, and for whom, we cook,” Birdsall writes. “All pushed the culture in ways not open to prior generations.”

To many, queerness, as a term, speaks to political solidarity. To Ketchum, a hallmark of the queer cookbook is an emphasis on community. Clark’s Queer Cookbook devotes one section to cooking for people with HIV; queerness and food have an external, connecting quality. It’s even present, however surprisingly, in Buzzfeed’s Tasty Pride, which collected recipes from LGTBQ cooks and donated a portion of its proceeds to GLAAD.

The political solidarity of queerness is especially apparent to Ketchum in 2019’s Sweet + Salty by chocolatier Lagusta Yearwood. The author not only references queerness in her relationships; the book also “really talks about community, and she’s so explicit about her politics in it,” Ketchum says.

Sweet + Salty is guided by Yearwood’s belief in a better world: one in which she can give people in her community good jobs and also make “junk food that tastes just as good as mainstream, conventional junk food but is made with lefty weirdo heart-on-sleevey radical politix — unfashionable ideas like fairness and equality and people not dying to harvest cacao beans or cut sugar cane.” Yearwood is upfront about the tension of opposing capitalism while also owning a business, and writes of her desire to “renounce power over all others.” Yearwood’s self-described “weirdo lefty anarchist values,” are influenced by having worked at Bloodroot, the feminist collective behind The Political Palate, which linked lesbian feminism, environmentalism, and food.

That’s aligned with how several queer cookbooks, like Political Palate and the Cincinnati Lesbian Activist Bureau’s 1983 Whoever Said Dykes Can’t Cook?, came into existence. The Bloodroot Collective, which was born out of a National Organization for Women meeting, was a project in political solidarity; its cookbooks, of which it published six, are both an affirmation of the collective’s political beliefs and a way of educating readers on the intertwined threads of Bloodroot’s philosophy. There is a sense of joy and pride palpable in communicating their beliefs: “For us at Bloodroot, the most important truth lies in the act of our bonding and creating together,” The Second Seasonal Political Palate, published in 1984, reads. Similarly, Birdsall notes that several older queer cookbooks were fundraisers for local faith groups or community health organizations — joint projects built around shared belief.

Some older queer cookbooks are marked by the overt expression of sexuality and even an embrace of raunchiness. In his 2018 The Art of Gay Cooking, Daniel Isengart writes, for example: “The art of cooking is the culinary equivalent of the joy of gay sex.” The Kitchen Fairy’s 1982 The Gay of Cooking has recipes titled “A Paté on the Ass” and “Cock O’Van.”

I ask Ketchum why this approach — of choosing not to shy away from sex — seems less common in cookbooks by queer authors today, because while it might seem isolated, its de-emphasis also suggests something bigger. “Part of it has to do with the politics of respectability, in part to get certain kinds of political rights for some folks within the queer community, like gay marriage and domestic partner benefits,” Ketchum says. This also meant a certain kind of representation of homonormativity, like ‘we’re just like you,’” she explains. To her, it’s part of a broader “push for palatability.”

What was once loud, upfront, and even alienating in its politics has been somewhat defanged. Put another way, it’s also transitioning into something subtler and which relies on understanding the personal as inherently political. If the previous school of queer cookbooks told us what its politics are, the current school of queer cookbooks — more like Toklas’s — leaves more open for interpretation.

Why have queer cookbooks changed? “So many of the earlier queer cookbooks are community cookbooks because it would be really hard for queer authors to get published while being out and having the book be about queerness,” Ketchum says. In recent years, the shift has gone from niche, community-driven books to more mainstream releases with a focus on individuals; cookbooks by queer authors now tend to be more Antoni in the Kitchen than The Queer Cookbook.

This is not a shift specific to queer authors: Every cookbook is a memoir now, as Tori Latham wrote for Bon Appétit, because with the general increase in recipe content online, readers need stories more and more — and now, queer authors can more safely and even more earnestly tell their stories.

That approach is clear in Edy Massih’s recent debut, Keep It Zesty. While people might know him in passing from his popular Brooklyn grocery store, Massih wanted to introduce himself more clearly with his book. Keep It Zesty is a commemoration of Massih’s personal journey, meant to be a balm for his younger self. Through an essay dedicated to Oprah, for example, Massih writes about how he “found the strength to come out to [his] parents and finally face [his] fear of identifying as a ‘Gay Lebanese Chef.’”

“I wanted to show people my true story and tell them how hard it is to come out and be who you want to be — especially as a Middle Eastern person, especially being born and raised there and being taught not to be gay or that’s wrong or that’s something that you can go to jail for,” Massih says. That Massih’s book has since been promoted by Oprah herself speaks to the way that out cookbook authors have gained broader inclusion and recognition.

This shift toward personal, individual storytelling might have broader upsides. Ketchum notes in her exhibit the tendency of some older queer cookbooks to perpetuate stereotypes, for example, like the sexual innuendo recipe titles of Skylar Blue’s 2011 The Gay Man’s Cookbook that could be seen by some readers as “playing into stereotypes of gay men as being over-sexed” or the broad claims of Clark’s book that “queers [are] into cuisine.” A cookbook that centers a single author’s experience isn’t making the same kinds of categorical generalizations.

Queerness can also infuse today’s cookbooks in quieter yet still inextricable ways, with queerness woven into more than just the text. Rebekah Peppler’s new Le Sud presents the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure, but with a queer, sexy, modern lens that felt true to her own experiences there. “I wanted to see that expression,” Peppler says.

At the beginning of Le Sud is a shot of two people by the sea, taken from behind. Each is topless, their hair damp and their bare, tan skin speckled with water. There are the queer overtones, yes, but also the subtext: On the left is Iris Marchand, the French artist who illustrated the book and Peppler’s former girlfriend; on the right is Peppler’s wife Laila Said, who Peppler brought on as a culinary researcher. On the page facing the image is a handwritten dedication to Said and an illustration of an oyster, by Marchand. Together, the spread feels, to Peppler, the most representative of the whole book.

“I always want my books to feel like a personal document to me, and my personal truth is that I am queer and so naturally, the books follow that,” Peppler says. “I’m interested in writing from that voice and not hiding that side of myself.” Whereas the cookbook space can feel “narrow,” she says, she wanted to make a cookbook that felt expansive.

For Ketchum, this is one promising aspect of the current opportunities for queer cookbook authors. Queerness “doesn’t have to be hidden, but it [also] doesn’t have to be the only reason [for the cookbook],” she says. When it comes to representation politics, isn’t that the hope: for differences to create a space of expanding expression, not a box in which to become stuck?

Food, and thus cookbooks, exist in a curious position when it comes to communicating difference. On one hand, in line with the glut of starry-eyed “food unites us” messaging, there is the idea that, through food, we’re ultimately more similar than we think. Our differences in sexual orientation, political belief, or ethnic background are smoothed by the basic shared desire to enjoy a good meal. That people who are not “like us” — however we define “us” in a given context — eat similarly is often used as a case for that group’s humanization (the reverse, however, is also true).

With a Southern charm and approachable recipes, Matthew Bounds, known on TikTok as @yourbarefootneighbor, uses the seemingly innocuous medium of the cooking video to advocate for inclusivity. Last year, he released Come Fix You a Plate, a book of recipes that is otherwise sparse in the kind of storytelling we’ve come to expect from cookbooks. He avoids detailed headnotes where most authors offer explanations or share snippets of their lives. Yet Bounds’s husband’s presence is felt throughout the book, whether in a recipe for CJ’s Grown Up Brownies or a reference to all the dishes he and CJ get asked to bring to gatherings. Inspired by a rude comment, he released a Pride edition of his cookbook, too. It features rainbows and the additional line “...unless you’re an asshole!” on the cover; inside, following a call to be “unapologetically you” is a recipe for “Salmon a la F*gg*t” — a nod to the comment he received.

Still, Bounds has picked up unexpected fans. “One guy in particular was like, I’m not gonna lie. I was very homophobic,” he says. “[But] I’ve been following you for a while now, and I realize that you and your husband are just like me and my wife: You’re just living your life, trying to put dinner on the table.” Food is such a compelling entry point for changing people’s minds because “everybody’s got to eat and, yeah, we’re just cooking normal stuff,” Bounds says.

As Latham wrote about cookbook memoirs, “where cookbooks of the past tried to draw boundaries around cuisines and delineate which foods belonged to which people, today’s center our commonalities.” This, she argues, gives them a “unique power to transmit ideas and cultures.”

On the other hand is the competing desire of some authors to reject the “just like us” perspective. Some cookbooks, especially older ones, lean into difference — even at the risk of boosting stereotypes — to say, no, there is food that is distinctly gay. There are ways of cooking, hosting, and existing in a kitchen that are undeniably, inseparably queer. This approach still cares about commonality and the possibility of communion over food, but sees the distinct qualities of queerness as worth mining.

As Daniel Isengart writes in The Art of Gay Cooking, “I started to explore the idea that gay men may have a clandestinely particular approach to cooking that sets us apart from the rest.” He continues, quoting his husband Filip Noterdaeme: “You are gay, your approach to cooking is gay, why bother trying to write a conventional cookbook?” The difference cannot be elided or ignored because it is formative.

Birdsall’s aforementioned newsletter post was written in a favorable review of a recent release that, to him, feels clearly of the older school of queer cookbooks — books like The Gay Cookbook and The Political Palate. That’s the colorful, political, sensual, experimental Please Wait To Be Tasted (2022), co-written by Lil’ Deb’s Oasis’s Halo Kaya Perez-Gallardo, Hannah Black, and Wheeler. (The book notes that by the time it went to press, Black and Wheeler had moved on from the restaurant, which has been a hub for the queer community).

The authors of Please Wait To Be Tasted bring in a politics concerned with community, colonization, and ecology; with making food that isn’t limited by borders or expectations; with centering pleasure and sexuality. Its chapters are themed: Lubrication, Foreplay, Arousal, Climax, Pillow Talk. When it comes to both flavors and politics, its boundaries and borders are queered. It is unconcerned with the stuffy, palatable establishment. Instead of picking from the typical tasting vocabulary for wine, for example, it offers “wine poems”: A wine might evoke “slap and tickle” or “calfskin gloves” or “horse hair brush, sun showers, ear lobe.”

Birdsall likens Please Wait To Be Tasted to Nigella Lawson for “children of alternative queer liberation and reclaimed Pride.” It’s a book that is, to Ketchum’s previous point, deeply enmeshed with community, featuring Lil’ Deb’s workers and friends in pictures, stories, and writing excerpts. It’s a book that embraces duality, letting pleasure and politics coexist and carrying a sense of anachronism while also being of-the-moment. It feels like the best of both worlds.

Additional photo illustration credits: Cookbook cover images courtesy of the publishers


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