Building Their Own Table: The Ascent of Queer Food Culture

There was something in the air at Queer Soup Night on a recent Sunday in Brooklyn. Something beyond the alluring aroma of soup from a handful of local chefs. Tides of garlic from Woldy Reyes’ chicken sotanghon, a Filipino favorite, mingled with the kick of smoked tofu from Xzherieh Niquae’s take on split pea, cut through with lime from Holly Sheppard’s pozole.

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Queer Love in Color
Jeremy Allen
, New York Times

There was something in the air at Queer Soup Night on a recent Sunday in Brooklyn. Something beyond the alluring aroma of soup from a handful of local chefs. Tides of garlic from Woldy Reyes’ chicken sotanghon, a Filipino favorite, mingled with the kick of smoked tofu from Xzherieh Niquae’s take on split pea, cut through with lime from Holly Sheppard’s pozole.

But there’s something else — an energy. “There’s a moment, there’s a thing, it’s happening, it’s real,” said Liz Alpern, 33, the founder of this near-monthly gathering that kicked off, coincidentally, the weekend of travel ban protests at Kennedy Airport in January 2017.

“Our queer communities are embracing food more explicitly and intentionally and creatively,” said Ora Wise, the culinary curator of Queer Anga, an LGBTQ wellness collective in which movement practice and food rituals intermingle.

Food has become a trope by which the queer community has found commonality, sought visibility, championed diversity and encouraged activism. Be it intersectional supper parties, Puerto Rican solidarity efforts, dining spots that serve as neighborhood safe spaces or increasingly prominent queer culinary creatives, the food industry is mobilizing the LGBTQ community.

At 6:30 p.m. Alpern eyed the line of people snaking its way down Sackett Street, ready to trade weekend stories while cradling soup bowls like chalices. She cupped her hands: “Doors are open!”

Reclaiming History, Celebrating Diversity

The food industry has not typically been one that celebrates openness. In the summer of 2013, John Birdsall’s article “America, Your Food Is So Gay” whipped up something of a journalistic frenzy when it ran in the Gender issue of the now-shuttered Lucky Peach magazine. The piece highlighted James Beard’s homosexuality — not addressed publicly during Beard’s lifetime and omitted from many obituaries when he died in 1985 — for a new generation of foodies. In a moment of kismet, Birdsall’s article won a James Beard award.

“What I’m doing is to sort of find the traces of those erased lines in his story and to fill them in again,” Birdsall, 58, said about a coming biography he’s working on that recontextualizes Beard’s gay identity. “He didn’t feel like he was able to live in an authentic way, and so I feel like I’m kind of perhaps allowing him to do that, posthumously.”

Times have changed. On April 27, Michael W. Twitty, 41, an author and culinary historian, won two James Beard Foundation Media Awards for “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South,” becoming the first African-American author to win Book of the Year.

“I’m going to say this to his face: Thank you James Beard for making a fat, gay man a powerful thing!” Twitty said at the ceremony, his words captured in a tweet from the James Beard Foundation and tagged with the chef’s handle, @KosherSoul (Twitty is Jewish). Julia Turshen, 32, the author of 2017’s “Feed the Resistance” and more recently the expansive, diversity-promoting database for food professionals, Equity at the Table, said it was a full-circle moment for visibility within the industry. “I think the difference in the decades is in that direct kind of proclamation,” she said. “I think that sort of speaks to what’s changed. There’s a big gay man on either side of that.”

It wasn’t always easy for Twitty. He remembers the sting of being told, as an aspiring author, that “my identity was too controversial. That the gay part and the Jewish part were just too much. America was not ready for me.”

Ultimately, Twitty decided to ignore the naysayers. “You know what? If I’ve got to have a one-person pride parade, honey, that’s what we’re going to do,” Twitty said. “Listen, I have walked runway on a ball floor many a time. I can write a book, you know?”

Overcoming Bias

Kristopher Edelen, 27, known in the industry as Chef KPE, experienced similar bias when he first started working in restaurants. “I remember stepping into one New York kitchen and being told by one of the line cooks that I was one of the first black cooks that had been in this kitchen in a long time.” He added, “I wanted to prove their own prejudice wrong.”

Edelen, a forager and champion of “native, postmodern cuisine,” is now a private chef, with Beyoncé as a client.

He also graced Issue 4 of Jarry, a magazine begun in 2015 that bears the tagline “A queer food journal.” The editorial director, Lukas Volger, said he and his co-founder, creative director Stephen Viksjo, were partly inspired by the desire to share the lost queer culinary narratives that Birdsall was unearthing.

“I thought there was probably a lot more history there,” said Volger, 36. “To have a publication that would serve to explore that felt really important to me and interesting to me.” This year, Jarry was selected to partner with the James Beard Foundation on a June 22 Pride cocktail party at the Beard House, titled “Cheers, Queers!”

There has been change, but as late as fall 2015, when Birdsall was reporting his Beard Award-winning “Straight-Up Passing: The State of Queer Chefs in America” for Jarry’s first issue, a number of LGBTQ chefs did not respond to interview requests — almost as many as spoke on the record, Birdsall said.

“John Birdsall needs a lot of credit for having created a #MeToo movement within restaurants about homophobia,” Twitty said.

Finding Inclusion

Charlie Anderle’s first-person account of being a queer, trans, black line cook, published on Bon Appétit’s website in May, reignited the conversation. Addressing on-the-job harassment, Anderle, 23, wrote: “Hiding any emotion under a facade of cool, I’d invite someone outside with a cigarette as an excuse, and I’d explain nonchalantly as possible why it’s inappropriate and harmful to ask questions about my genitals, make jokes about rape or promote racist stereotypes.”

Anderle ended up finding an inclusive, affirming home at Lalito, Gerardo Gonzalez’s Chinatown spot. Gonzalez, 35, began hosting a summer party in July 2017 called 3Leches in collaboration with his “queer, New York Latinx kind of staff that was craving this vibe and this energy,” he said.

Guests can count on a $29.95 all-you-can-eat buffet before the blinds are drawn and dancing on the banquettes is encouraged. “The most important thing to me right now is starting to build foundations within myself, and then within my friends, and within my community,” Gonzalez said.

The same can be said for Angela Dimayuga, the former executive chef of Mission Chinese, who recently announced her new role as creative director of food and culture at the Standard International. “The food that I think is most interesting is food that’s being driven by personal identity politics,” said Dimayuga, 32. “There’s so many ideas to put into motion.”

One idea is Haute Pot, a party thrown at Le Bain at The Standard’s Highline location in Manhattan in collaboration with a queer Asian night life and art collective called Bubble_T.

A series of dinners in partnership with the ACLU and featuring collaborators like Gonzalez and the Jamaican-American chef and artist DeVonn Francis is next on Dimayuga’s agenda.

“I think it’s extremely important for queer people, for people of color, for trans people to take up space and create that space for themselves,” Gonzalez said.

This is the spirit in which the nonprofit Dream Cafe and Community Food Hub, which ran from June 14 to 19 at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit, was born. While not exclusively a queer space, Queer Anga’s Ora Wise served as the culinary director of the conference, envisioning the temporary takeover of Detroit’s Cass Cafe in the midst of the 20th annual media gathering as “literally a multieverything convergence.” The cafe was not just a physical space. It also served as a forum for culinary experiences helmed by marginalized communities. There were pop-ups such as the couple Le’Genevieve Squires and Brittiany Peeler’s Relish Catering curated by the group FoodLab Detroit; dinners by visiting chefs; a Food Justice Network Gathering by the group Interlocking Roots for the QTBIPoC community (queer and trans black and indigenous people of color); and a track of sessions called Ferment focusing on the potential to reimagine food systems.

The scope of the programming seems staggering, but for Wise, it’s a need realized. “This is what it looks like when we dream up a culinary space,” she said.
Dinner Parties, Dining Spaces

Cleopatra Zuli also felt the need to create an experience that reflected aspects of her identity as “a black, androgynous, genderqueer person.” Zuli, 32, was raised by a queer mother and her gay brother, and she grew up immersed in vibrant dinner parties “reflective of our multifaceted African diaspora community.”

Inspired by the memory of these meals and, later, stumbling upon research illuminating the queer-friendly parties thrown by A’Lelia Walker at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Zuli started BLK Palate in December 2017. The production company and collective, co-founded by Travis Young and Kendra Clarke, engineers dining events designed to honor and empower the black queer community through food and conversation.

BLK Palate is among a crop of reimagined dinner parties geared toward the LGBTQ community in and around New York City. JaynesBeard — a private monthly supper club at city residences founded by Sabrina Chen, 39, and Alana McMillan, 32 — encompasses everything from cocktail parties to seated, plated meals by chefs such as Kristen Kish.

Big Gay Supper Club beckons guests out of the city to Megan Jo Collum and Jess Emrich’s property in New Milford, Connecticut, for homespun barbecues, potlucks and performances. And Babetown, a roving party for queer women, as well as trans and nonbinary people, sold out its first dinner in September 2016 in 48 hours. It is run by Alex Koones, 29, whom Alpern, of Queer Soup Night, credits with being one of the first to ignite the current dinner party craze.

On a recent Monday night, Alpern could be found greeting Bill Clark and Libby Willis at their monthly “queer industry night,” Family Meal. As owners of the self-described “very, very gay” MeMe’s Diner in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, Clark, 30, and Willis, 27, have become linchpins of the LGBTQ-centric New York food community since opening in November 2017 (Cuties, a rainbow-fronted coffee shop with a community tab program and monthly “Queers, Coffee & Donuts” sidewalk cookouts, is a hub for those in Los Angeles).

“We’re big fans of MeMe’s,” said Jarry’s Volger. “That was one of the first times we saw articulated what it meant to be sort of a queer restaurant.” Volger, too, was at MeMe’s Diner’s party, and as the room began to swell and guests began to double-fist vegan peanut soft serve and Rainbow Kiss cocktails, the elusive concept of a “queer restaurant” began to crystallize. It wasn’t about a particular type of cuisine (despite the rainbow sprinkles dusting the ice cream). It wasn’t about symbology or décor. It was about the people in the room: industry insiders and outsiders who had largely felt, at one point or another, marginalized by a world that they had begun to reclaim, meal by meal.

“If you essentially don’t have a seat at the table,” Lalito’s Gonzalez said, “just build your own table.”

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