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What is queer food? We asked LGBTQ foodies and chefs

It’s unlikely that two LGBTQ people will give you the same definition of “queer food.” 

The term has become increasingly popular with the rise of queer restaurants, including The Ruby Fruit, a restaurant and wine bar for the “sapphically inclined” in Los Angeles, and HAGS, a fine dining restaurant “by queer people for all people” in New York City. Specific foods and drinks have also been claimed by or marketed to the LGBTQ community, such as vodka sodas and sourdough bread.

For some, queer food is simply food made by queer people. Others say it’s about sharing food in queer community, while there are those who believe it should include serving marginalized people who have been excluded from fine dining spaces. 

So what is queer food, aside from a term slowly gaining traction in certain corners of the LGBTQ community? The question was the subject of the Queer Food Conference at Boston University in April, with workshops such as “Queer Food and Fundraising as Resistance” and “Nonbinary Botany: Cultivating Pollinator Community Workshop.” 

One of the founders of the conference, Megan Elias, the director of the university’s gastronomy program, declined to give a rigid definition, because, she noted, it can mean so many different things. “Which is lovely, right?”

For Elias, the term brings back memories of a restaurant she went to in the 1990s in San Francisco’s Castro District, one of the country’s first gay neighborhoods, called Hot N’ Crusty. 

“I was like, ‘That’s gay food,’” Elias recalled. “It’s funny and it’s tasty and it’s messy. But it was because it was being presented to me in the Castro, right? If Hot N’ Crusty had been out by the baseball stadium, it would have had a different feel to it, a different meaning.” 

What queer food means for Elias “is circumstantial,” she said, “and it’s up for conversation.”

NBC News asked a variety of LGBTQ academics, chefs and foodies across the country what queer food means to them. Though the definition of the term can vary widely, they all agreed that queer food in any form requires one nonnegotiable ingredient: community. 

Vanessa Parish

Executive director, Queer Food Foundation

Vanessa Parish co-founded the Queer Food Foundation in 2020 as a mutual aid fund to support food service workers who were being laid off at the start of the pandemic. Today, the group also conducts research and hosts events and educational panels. 

“We like to say queer food is us existing in spaces,” Parish said. “If you’re queer, your food is queer; that’s pretty much it. It’s not a rainbow cupcake or bagel type of situation. That’s fun, but that’s not what queer food is.” 

A rainbow cake, Parish added, isn’t inherently more queer than a regular cake created by a queer person.  

“If the person that curated it, their hands and their energy and their community building, is queer, then it’s queer food,” she said.

John Birdsall

Award-winning food and culture writer

John Birdsall started writing about queer food when “nobody I knew or read remotely talked about queer food,” he said. In 2013, he wrote an article for Lucky Peach magazine titled “America, Your Food is So Gay” about three gay men — James Beard and Richard Olney, both chefs and cookbook authors, and restaurant critic Craig Claiborne — who Birdsall argued were architects of modern American food in the mid- to late 20th century. The article went on to win a James Beard Award for food and culture writing. 

“For me, queer food isn’t necessarily focused on dishes or recipes,” said Birdsall, who is based in Tucson, Arizona. “It’s focused on those voices and those individuals who transformed cookbooks, for instance, transformed restaurant spaces, transformed how queer people could be visible in public spaces.”

Birdsall cited James Baldwin as one such transformational figure. Baldwin, a gay civil rights activist and one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, wrote about “shared hospitality being a queer virtue,” he said. Birdsall added that Baldwin’s distinctly queer philosophy of “complete acceptance” around a table marked “a really significant evolution in American food.” 

“James Baldwin had this sense of the specific food not mattering — it’s how you come to the table, who’s invited to the table, who’s considered family around the table,” Birdsall said, adding that Baldwin would host dinners at his home in France with a rotating cast of cultural icons, including dancer and singer Josephine Baker and singer-songwriter Nina Simone.

Elizabeth Blake

Assistant English professor, Clark University in Massachusetts 

Elizabeth Blake, a professor specializing in gender and sexuality studies, food studies and global modernist literature, said her book about depictions of queerness in modernist literature was inspired in part by “The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book,” written by the longtime partner of Gertrude Stein, a legendary lesbian novelist. Toklas published the cookbook in 1954, after Stein’s death, to support herself. 

“It’s this kind of very gossipy memoir, where she knew that a lot of people who would buy it would buy it not to make her recipes, but to get the dirt on [Pablo] Picasso,” who was friends with Stein and painted a portrait of her, Blake said. 

The recipes, Blake added, “are also totally over the top.” It has a famous recipe for hash brownies and a recipe for fish with three sauces arranged to mimic cubism that Toklas served to Picasso. Blake described the text as a “totally radical” and queer take on the cookbook. 

Alex Ketchum

Co-founder, Queer Food Conference 

Alex Ketchum, a professor at McGill University’s Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies and a co-founder of the Queer Food Conference, said she asks three questions when she’s deciding whether something should be categorized as queer food: Who’s creating it? Is it community-centered? Does it have roots in queer history? 

The Queer Food Conference held at Boston University in April. Queer Food Conference

Ketchum pointed to Mary Rathbun’s brownies as an example. Rathbun was a medical cannabis rights activist who became known in the 1980s as “Brownie Mary” for a weed brownie recipe she made for AIDS patients who experienced loss of appetite and severe weight loss.

Ketchum is also the author of “Ingredients for Revolution: A History of American Feminist Restaurants, Cafes, and Coffeehouses,” which is the first history of more than 230 feminist and lesbian-feminist restaurants and coffeehouses in the U.S. from 1972 to the present. She said queer community spaces that serve or provide food create unique spaces for both joy and political organizing. 

“I think food allows us this way to take on the challenging and the difficult and yet kind of reaffirm our own community and then create a space that reinvigorates us and literally nourishes us,” she said.

Liz Alpern

Founder, Queer Soup Night

Chef and cookbook author Liz Alpern founded Queer Soup Night in Brooklyn, New York, after the 2016 election. At the first Queer Soup Night, Alpern made the soup. Now, Queer Soup Night invites local LGBTQ chefs to make soup to help elevate their public profiles. 

The group has 13 active chapters across the U.S. that Alpern said are guided by the importance of connecting with local queer communities and the collective power of those communities, as Queer Soup Nights raise money for local nonprofit organizations.

“In my heart, for me, queer food is food eaten and enjoyed and produced in queer community,” she said. “Everything about queerness to me is about community. It’s about identity within community. When I think about being queer, I think about being queer with others. So if I think about queer food, it’s about eating with others.”

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