John Birdsall

I Like to Eat Things
I live in Oakland CA. I write about food and places and the people who inhabit both. CHOW. Lucky Peach. Etc.
  • January 4, 2014 11:47 am

    America, Your Food Is So Gay

    I was ten in 1970, a shy kid growing up in a scrub-oak suburb south of San Francisco. Our house was pitched on stilts sunk in a steep hillside, looking out onto a little arroyo and into the house of two men I loved like uncles (and more deeply than some of the uncles whose DNA I shared).

    But besides me and my older brother, Walter, my mom, and my dad, everybody on our street despised Pat and Lou. At a time when it was still a crime in California for one man to give another man a blowjob, the neighbors hated them because they shared the same enormous bed, draped in a regal turquoise coverlet. Hated them because Lou stayed home like moms did, trolling Safeway for steaks and stuffed potatoes to fix for Pat when he got home from the office.

    (Why didn’t my parents share the general loathing for Pat and Lou, a disgust expressed through passive avoidance, active shunning, and the occasional high-pitched catcall? I discovered later that my mom, bless her, is a total fag hag. And my dad always hated bullies—it trumped his ambivalence about the gay thing.)

    Pat and Lou did cocktail hour nightly from a pair of velour bucket chairs, in their beam-ceilinged, ranch-style canyon house overlooking masses of scarlet and purple irises under the oaks. They put on matching poplin jumpsuits and corduroy house moccasins to sip Gibsons, tossing nuts to Kurt, their sleek miniature schnauzer, from fingers studded with big-jeweled cocktail rings. On nights when my parents would go to the Iron Gate restaurant for shrimp scampi and saltimbocca, they dropped us boys off at Pat and Lou’s for babysitting.

    On those nights, Lou would cook us crazy shit our mom never fixed, food so rich no adult should ever serve it to a ten-year-old. There were casseroles that used Monterey Jack as a suspension medium for olives, ground veal, and button mushrooms from a can. And there were Lou’s famous burgers, so rich and salty, so crusted with a mixture of caramelized onions, Roquefort crumbles, and Grey Poupon—a thick impasto gilded beneath the electric broiler element—I could only ever eat half before feeling sick. I loved every bite.

    Looking back, I recognize in Lou’s burgers my first taste of food that didn’t give a fuck about nutrition or the drab strictures of home economics. They were calibrated for adult pleasure, acutely expressive of a formalized richness— exactly the type of thing James Beard taught Americans to eat (for all I know, Lou’s recipe was straight out of Beard). I see them now, those burgers, as unflinchingly, unapologetically, magnificently queer.

    By 1970, America’s interest in food had finally progressed from the stale international haute cuisine of the 1950s— we were more curious about the world, and were willing to spend more on food and travel than ever before. Three gay guys—Beard, Richard Olney, and Craig Claiborne—would become architects of modern food in America. You find their influence in the cooking of Thomas Keller and Daniel Patterson, and in the food Alice Waters has overseen in four decades of menus at Chez Panisse. It’s food that takes pleasure seriously, as an end in itself, an assertion of politics or a human birthright, the product of culture—this is the legacy of gay food writers who shaped modern American food.

    I admit, it’s tricky pinning something as sprawling and amorphous as modern American cooking to anything as poorly defined as a queer point of view, and an exclusively male one at that. I first struggled with that task in the late ’80s, when I was writing about food for the Sentinel, a now-defunct gay weekly in San Francisco. My editor, the late Eric Hellman, would always ask, “Is there a gay sensibility? Can you see it in a work of art?”

    As I was falling in love with Lou’s Roquefort burgers, a gay activist in New Mexico named Harry Hay was launching a movement called the Radical Faeries— they’d go off for days-long Faerie Circles in the wilderness, like all-male mini Burning Mans, only with psilocybin-fueled circle jerks. Hay was a founder of the early gay rights group the Mattachine Society. By 1970, he’d come to the conclusion that gay men were spiritually different from straight ones—homosexuals had always been shamans and prophets, jeered, beaten dead or barely tolerated, living on the margins. (Hay, who died in 2002, was anti-assimilationist, meaning he would have been horrified to see the current struggle for gay people to achieve hetero marriage.) Gay guys were artists, form-givers, shapers of the broader culture that hated them.


    I don’t totally buy Hay’s theory of queer exceptionalism, but my editor’s question—is there a gay sensibility?—became a kind of koan as I struggled to navigate life in the kitchens where I worked (I was a food writer part-time; my main gig was cooking in restaurants). Even in San Francisco, gayest city in America, homophobic dicks got all the prime line positions in the places I worked. In one kitchen, it was a running joke that the salad station was reserved for women and “effeminates,” meaning gay boys like me. On the outside, I laughed along with everybody. On the inside, I told myself, I’m fucking better than all of you.

    If there was a gay sensibility, you could find it on the cold line when I was cooking, where every plate I put up had a fierce edge born of imposed isolation. The fish stews coming off José’s sauté station might have been technically perfect, but they were also mechanical. My salades composées were thickets of yearning, drifts of leaves and flowers, sprigs of herbs and tiny carrots that looked like they had been blown there by some mighty force of nature. I was fueled by sublimated rage, the outsider with something to prove, taking the ingredients I was handed and making sure they transcended their limits.

    I recognize that same conviction in Olney. He grew up in Marathon, Iowa, and expatriated to Paris to become a painter, a decade or two after great gay expats like James Baldwin famously escaped America’s racism and prudery. Olney turned out to be a so-so painter, but in a way, his art played out in the details of daily life. He bought a broken-down farmhouse in Solliès-Toucas, fifty miles east of Marseille, and slowly scrabbled the life back into it. He carved a wine cellar out of limestone, gathered serpolet (wild thyme) on its hillsides in summer for drying, made vinegars and jams. And from the reminiscences of plumbers and stonemasons who showed up to work on his property, he collected details on the rough-edged regional daubes, terrines, and matelotes that even in 1960s France were teetering on the edge of extinction.

    Just as Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass isn’t so much a single book as it
    is a living body of poetic theory, Olney’s Simple French Food (1974) has a heart that beats. Julia’s Mastering the Art reads like a technical manual you prop open when obliged to cook for your husband’s boss; Simple French Food is a manifesto for living. In 1974, you couldn’t just drive to the A&P and buy a bunch of ingredients to start cooking like Olney. You had to begin by changing your life.

    Olney mentored Jeremiah Tower, the first formal chef at Chez Panisse, and Olney’s lover for a time. Waters made pilgrimages to Solliès-Toucas, and the soul of it, the imperative to stand outside of a spiritless system, the immersive quality of the food, and the yearning for a personal cooking that begins with sourcing—they remain the model for every serious cook working in America today. Olney was the queer little quiet kid on the salad station who ended up making everybody want that spot.


    Claiborne was American food’s establishment figure, in blazers and tasseled loafers and an open table at Lutèce. Though he was officially closeted until 1982, the date of his rather strange, gimlet-soaked autobiography, A Feast Made for Laughter, Claiborne lived the life of the gay professional in mid-twentieth-century America: officially a “bachelor,” sexlessly flaunting his taste and discernment, the Mr. Belvedere of food. In 1957, he became food editor of the New York Times—a position without much cachet in the ’50s, when the Times’ food section was as dull and service-oriented as the ones in every daily in America. But Claiborne elevated food to the level of cinema or the ballet and made food writing matter, setting the foundation for a far better writer-critic like Jonathan Gold to have a platform as an observer of American culture.

    I remember poring over my mom’s copy of Claiborne’s the New York Times Cookbook when I was a kid, stopping on a black-and-white photo of what the caption called a “typical brunch”: glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice sunk into bigger glasses of crushed ice, near a silver basket of shiny, bump-topped brioches. I wanted that life: waking up in a sunny apartment to face the day, the taste of butter and orange sweetness on my tongue like a meditation. Claiborne gave us permission to respect pleasure in eating—even small pleasures—not as something guilty, but as the received wisdom of culture. Bitch, we’re eating brioche.


    Beard did something similar, though with a particularly American slant. In an era when McDonald’s Ray Kroc was shrinking the hamburger into something you could squeeze with your weak hand into a golf ball–sized lump of grease and starch, Beard convinced us that American food is something ineluctably large, hewn from ingredients as pristine as virgin forest.

    In the 1930s, Beard was booted from Reed College in Oregon after someone busted him for making out with another man. Beard’s cookbooks have the whiff of sublimated desire: the open-air fantasies, stout flavors, abundant fats, and tons and tons of gorgeous meat. Beard’s public persona was the bow-tied bachelor gourmand with an unquenchable appetite, and he remade American food in his own triple-XL image. Even before McDonald’s mass-produced them, burgers had always been cheap lunch-counter food. Beard made them seem as monumental as an Abercrombie model’s torso: three-inch dripping slabs of sirloin you’d ground yourself, grilled over charcoal, and hoisted onto thickly buttered homemade buns—they’re the burgers on menus of serious restaurants across America. Beard convinced us that burgers had always been that way, a reinvention that made the pursuit of pleasure seem like some timeless American virtue.

    Beard made it okay for Americans to be hedonists at the table. Even in his paid endorsements for brands like Birds Eye and Omaha Steaks, Beard convinced us there was no shame in aspiring to be gourmets, the way most of us aspired to drive Cadillacs. James Beard’s American Cookery (1972) was quietly subversive, a revisionist theory of American food traditions that argued we had always been a nation that embraced the pleasures implicit in scrapple, Boston baked beans, and cheeseburgers.

    Beard was called the “dean of American cookery,” as if this new doctrine of pleasure had the weight of scholarship behind it. He occupied a curious persona that combined decorum with total self-indulgence. On one of his regular trips to San Francisco in the 1980s, Beard ate at a restaurant where I worked, though on a night I was off. One of the bussers working that night was a young gay guy with boyish American looks. He mentioned to Beard that he wanted to be a baker, and the great man invited him to stop by his hotel the next morning to talk pastry. When the busser arrived, the dean of American food was seated in a chair in the hotel suite’s bedroom, wearing a silk robe; Beard’s assistant left the room. The aspiring baker told me he looked away at some point in the conversation, and when he looked back Beard, still talking pies and layer cakes, had opened his robe—underneath he was naked. The flustered kid looked away, kept his eyes averted. When he looked back, Beard had closed his robe again, still talking, like nothing had happened. That was the essence of Beard’s food: draped in a respectable Sulka robe that was always threatening to drop to expose unashamed hedonism.

    That embrace of pleasure—it set the stage for the luxury that defined American restaurant food in the 1980s and ’90s, when ahi tuna and caviar and foie gras, crème fraîche and mascarpone showed up on menus in even midpriced restaurants. I think it helped America embrace Slow Food, a movement that values taste over corporate expediency, and argues that the pursuit of pleasure at the table is a political act. But as for gays breaking out in American restaurant kitchens, expressing a queer point of view in their cooking—well, apart from a few mavericks like Elizabeth Falkner, that hasn’t really happened. Pastry—like the cold line I was relegated to back in my day—remains a safe space for gays in the kitchen. In a lot of ways we’re still on the fringes, even if queer food writers fundamentally changed the way we think about food in this country.

    I don’t recall the last time Lou made a Roquefort burger for me, but it couldn’t have been long after 1970. When I was in junior high, Pat suffered a heart attack and died—his mother and sisters came out from St. Louis and took the body back with them; Lou was not invited to the funeral. Pat’s mother and sisters took everything with them: the clothes, the cocktail rings. The irises under the oaks got patchy. Lou drank a lot. He found another boyfriend, a short Canadian who drove a purple AMC Gremlin and who nobody liked, not even my mom (she thought he was “too gay”). I lost track of Lou when I went away to college—my mom said he sold the house and was living in a mobile-home park near the ocean. She hardly ever went to visit.


    After college, I moved to San Francisco and got my own boyfriend. He continued my food education. We read passages from Olney’s Simple French Food out loud, and cooked, and studied each other’s pleasure like scholars.

    {This essay originally appeared in Lucky Peach 7.}

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      I love most of this piece but come on: "When the busser arrived, the dean of American food was seated in a chair in the...
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      I LOVE this!