With marriage equality a hotly debated and fiercely political issue in Australia and internationally, and also in light of my work in progress about one of the world’s most famous gay “marriages”, it seemed timely to have a look at cooking equality.
What sparked the idea of this topic (in addition to my interest in Alice Toklas) was a series of articles Daniel Isengart wrote in Slate Magazine entitled The Joy of Gay Cooking. His articles deal with the influence of gays on the culinary arts, which he says is under-acknowledged in comparison to other areas of the arts, such as the performative and the decorative . While not suggesting there is a definitive gay cuisine, he does contend that there is a recognisably gay approach to cooking, which I’d never considered.
Whether or not you agree with him, as he rightly points out there were three gay American men who were jointly responsible for the transformation of that country’s cooking culture from earthy-folksy into one that ranks alongside the world’s best. James Beard, the namesake of the legendary James Beard awards, was one and the others were Craig Claiborne, for many years the food editor of the New York Times (sometimes referred to as the Truman Capote of food writing), and Richard Olney, an expat artist and food writer who lived in Provence and became a godfather to purist chefs in both America and Europe.
Isengart (who is a gay chef himself) attributes their iconoclastic approach to food to their common gay identity, for example their “obsession with the preparation of food”. He says:
Each of them did what gay men do intrinsically: They broke the rules to create interesting lives for themselves in the new field of food writing that, at least in America, had been the domain of women
While the other articles look at different aspects of a specific gay culinary identity, his common theme is that gays (both male and female) bring a refreshing note of playfulness, light heartedness and willingness to break the rules to what has become a seriously self-obsessed and overly earnest area of creation. He rightly pours scorn on the rise of the dreaded “cooking as gladiatorial competition” craze where recent years have seen a spate of dubiously billed reality shows such as My Kitchen Rules, Masterchef, Top Chef, Iron Chef and the like foisted upon us in the guise of entertainment. (If you’re a devoted fan, feel free to differ.) These shows and their other incarnations all bear as much similarity to reality as Jane Fonda does to an average seventy-seven year old woman. But I digress.
An interesting observation Isengart makes is that one of the attractions of the chef’s profession for lesbian women is the opportunity to wear a uniform at work. A friend of his is quoted as saying that for many lesbians “the no-frills uniform of a chef is very much in sync with their lifelong refusal to conform to gender ideals that call on women to appeal to the male eye”. I wondered if this might apply to gay policewomen, defence forces personnel and so on. For myself (decidedly not gay) when I was part of the workforce, I’d have loved to have a uniform, mainly so I could avoid the daily chore of deciding what, out of the motley contents of my wardrobe, would be the ensemble of the day.
Having never given the issue of gay cooking much thought before, I can’t say whether Isengart’s claims are valid. What does strike a chord with me is his appeal that cooks should stop taking themselves so seriously and learn to cook “gaily”. Whatever your sexual preference, cooking should not be about slavishly following rules. It should be, as he says, “intuitive and insouciant, stylish but not precious“. Above all, it should be fun. In that regard, perhaps we do have something to learn from gay cooks, who have long indulged their domestic fantasies as they have their others, with a well refined sense of irreverence, play and entertaining subversiveness. The preparation and serving of food is one of the great celebrations of life, and as Alice B. Toklas wrote so eloquently in her cookbook, it should always be the lively expression of the creative instinct.
by Anne Green