Too Gay an Oreo!: The Cultural Connotations of Queer(ing) Food
By Anil Pradhan
On June 25, 2012, a picture of an Oreo cookie with six layers of frosting corresponding to the colors of the rainbow flag accompanied by the captions “June 25 | Pride” and “Proudly support love!” was posted by Kraft Nabisco on their Facebook page in recognition of the Pride Month in the US. It was instantly met by polarized opinions from supporters and critics of LGBTQ+ rights; with more than 150,000 ‘likes,’ it quickly escalated into a lengthy debate of nearly 23,000 comments in the first 24 hours (“Rainbow-Colored”), turning into “a bakery-product civil war” (Gabbatt). The cookie company’s display of solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community was mostly met by positive feedback, but it also received blatantly homophobic criticism and denouncements. Many commenters openly expressed their abandonment of brand loyalty, while others threatened to unlike the Oreo page and boycott the products altogether (Gabbatt). The socio-cultural connotations of both the identification between food and ‘queer’-ness and the subsequent objection to such transgressive relations point out to the crucial importance of food as/ in sexual politics. The controversy ensured that Oreo was inducted into the hall of fame of ‘Gay Food.’ But what is ‘Gay Food’? And how does this relational politics play a crucial role in sustaining and/ or resisting non-heteronormative sexualities in the socio-cultural schema of culinary associations?
The process of highlighting how certain food items are ‘queer(er)’ than others renders the identification and sexualized re-presentation of food as a discursive mode of sustaining ‘queer’-ness. This speaks of an underlying cultural politics of how ‘queer’-ing food provides alternative narratives of sexual subjectivities. In popular media, discussions on ‘queer’ food pertaining to the voicing of resistance and solidarity include a number of vlogs like ‘gay family Mukbang’ and videos on ‘gay’ food recipes that have contributed to a strategising of identity and sexuality politics through food. Such ‘queer’ ways of discussing food provide for interesting insights into how the queer(ing) of food and its production, re-presentation, appropriation, marketing, and consumption reflect and influence contemporary literary and cultural discourses on food.
‘Gay Food’: Queering Recipes, Plates, and Palates
Referring to Bruce Feirstein’s bestselling satirical book Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche (1982), Cathy Crimmins draws attention to how cultural connotations of food and sexuality have transformed over time. She recalls how quiche that was “once considered an effeminate food [is] now served in airport restaurants” (24). The links among culinary preferences, food habits, and socio-cultural identifications relating to sexuality have become definitive in the assertion of non-normative socio-politico-cultural agency. From being identified as ‘queer’ to being accepted as ‘fancy’ or ‘gourmet,’ the socio-cultural politics related to both food and its consumer(s) provides for the question: why are certain food items ‘queerer’ than others?
The gradual process of asserting the queerness of food functions to bring LGBTQ+ issues into the cultural imagination of the general public in a way that makes eating ‘queer’ food look desirable. Gay/ queer food cookbooks have contributed greatly towards this positive strategy of queering food and culinary practices. One example is the openly gay food columnist Craig Claiborne whose New York Times Cookbook (1961) became one of the bestselling cookbooks in the latter part of the twentieth century (see Crimmins 46). This form of writing about ‘gay food’ has since been carried forward by several cookbook writers; Howard Austen’s The Myra Breckinridge Cookbook (1970), Rick Leed’s Dinner for Two (1981), Donna Clark’s The Queer Cookbook (1997), Victor J Banis’ The C.A.M.P. Cookbook (2012), and Daniel Isengart’s The Art of Gay Cooking: A Culinary Memoir (2018) are some examples.
But how does one ‘queer’ food? Queering culinary practices and food items entails projection and presentation of food as something ‘different’ from the ‘normal’ and/ or the ‘normative,’ while making it acceptable in the popular imagination of its consumers, admirers, and critics. For example, in How the Homosexuals Saved Civilization (2004), Cathy Crimmins notes that the use of ‘exotic ingredients,’ ‘flamboyant presentation,’ and ideas like ‘fusion’ and ‘gourmet’ inform the dynamics of ‘queer’-ing culinary practices. She supposes that such “culinary technique has its precedence in queer individuals experimenting with the culinary and the dramatic arts” (47). She also avers that many of such ‘exotic,’ queer culinary ingredients as “pesto, hummus, olive tapenade, balsamic vinegar, quinoa, sushi, caviar, wild mushrooms and arborio rice” (47) were “staples in gay kitchens and restaurants” (47) long before they became widely available in supermarkets for consumption by the public.
More recently, Simon Doonan’s Gay Men Don’t Get Fat (2012) has advocated the usage of terms like ‘gay food’ in contemporary parlance. In the chapter titled ‘Macaroons are so gay!,’ he provides distinctions between ‘straight food’ and ‘gay food’ as such: “Straight foods are basic and uncontrived. Gay foods are fiddly and foofy. Straight foods are dark of hue. Gay foods are brightly colored” (63). Doonan also ‘queers’ food items in transnational contexts. He considers sushi to be the “gayest food on earth” (63) as “Sushi chefs are basically taking sloppy bits of fish and magically reworking them into exquisite bonbons” (63). Similarly, commenting on Italian desserts, he declares that gelato is “always a big gay hit” (64) while guessing that “Stracciatella simply has to be the name of a drag queen from Puglia” (64). The queering of food that Doonan talks about entails two elements of the appropriation of culinary practices: firstly, the process and the art of creating something edible and simultaneously different symbolizes a response to hegemonic homophobia; secondly, the idea of transferring the culinary art of one culture into the culinary parlance of another and producing a consumable piece of novelty denotes hybridity, symbolizing the pride of being variedly ‘queer’ in a polarized hetero-normative society.
David Mehnert, like Doonan, provides another interesting insight into the idea of ‘queer food’ through his claim that “[q]ueerness comes only after an effort has been applied, […] or after the food is transformed into something else.” Commenting on Baked Alaska, Mehnert claims that it “is the archetypal queer food.” Technically, Baked Alaska is a combination of ice cream and sponge cake, spread with a coat of whipped egg whites, broiled at 500 degrees for several minutes. The meringue insulates the ice cream, so there is no melting. What makes it queer though? Mehnert provides an answer:
It breezily mocks the threat of damnation, goes to hell and back, and lives to tell the story. Baked Alaska’s very identity, in fact, depends on having suffered an accusation of weakness, on surviving a trial by fire. What could be queerer than that?
The association of the process of creating food and the factual suffering of queer individuals is a way of asserting how certain food items can be definitive representations of queer cultures, and also speaks of an agential appropriation of culinary styles. As such, the connotations of sexual politics and culinary practices are colluded to present ‘queer-ious’ cases of food-sexuality dynamics and praxes.
‘Queer Kitchens’: Cooking Food the Gay Way
In the contexts of gay food, the processes of making food queer and more specifically, the idea of ‘queer kitchens’ plays a crucial role in re-presenting, sustaining, and celebrating both queer culinary cultures and queer sexual expressions. In Queering the Kitchen: A Manifesto (2018), Daniel Isengart claims that the influence of gay men on culinary arts is a topic largely overlooked (1); he informs that his understanding of a “gay approach to cooking” reveals the cultures of gay cooking that has remained in the closet and needs to have a “grand coming-out” (2). In effect, Isengart hints at a long-running tradition of queering food and writing and discussing gay culinary politics. The concept of the ‘queer kitchen’ has been quite popular and raging in contemporary times when LGBTQ+ activism and liberalism have helped shape and reconstruct queer politics. Such experimental spaces of culinary cultures have provided consumers, both queer and non-queer, an opportunity to participate in an appreciation of the non-normative through food.
Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen’s article, reporting a conversation among queer kitchen restaurateurs and gay men’s food critics, recalls chef John Birdsall’s commentary on the “queer aesthetic in modern food culture” rooted in the work of three American food writers: James Beard, Craig Claiborne, and Richard Olney. In Birdsall’s own words: “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” (qtd. in Klassen). Furthermore, discussing about Elizabeth Faulkner and the San Francisco queer scene of the 1990s, Klassen notes that her “cakes were architectural, pierced with sugar shards, piled with kitschy frosting, shag-carpet deep. They were disruptive, deconstructed, even a little bit dangerous.” The strategic voicing of queer identities and sexualities through unconventional, often surprising or even offending, techniques of culinary production and presentation is agential in both a creation of a queer subculture in culinary culture and also sustaining it towards an assertion and activism of LGBTQ+ issues via food.
Similarly, in his award-winning article titled “America, Your Food Is So Gay,” Birdsall reflects that the creation and popularity of queer kitchens and their food speaks of transgressive acts of identity assertion, resisting homophobia related to queer stereotyping of food cultures and showcasing a pride in queerness in general. Queer styles of cooking adopted and developed by ‘queer kitchens’ not only sustain novelty in the food market but also provide for a whole new strategy of queer expression in terms of claiming experimental culinary practices as a niche of the queer culture and lifestyle. For example, in a conversation between gay food writer Simon Doonan and New York Times correspondent Jeff Gordinier, Doonan points out to the menu of a ‘queer’ restaurant they visit in Greenwich Village in New York:
It’s actually a very good mixture of gay and straight. Just the words ‘baby arugula salad’ — you know you have some gay options. A gentleman might succumb to meatloaf, sure, but instead of pairing it with mashed potatoes, he should ask for a salad as a substitute […] because the Black Angus meatloaf, that’s a whole lot of hetero to digest. (Gordinier and Doonan)
Evidently, the connotations of queering food traverses mere queer identification and enters into a discursive assertion of not only eating habits and preferences but also the accompanying sexual politics, all of which can be discerned and accessed through a keen reading of a ‘gay food’ menu in a ‘queer restaurant.’
Queering Food Fictionally and Digitally: The Indian Scenario
In the context of literary fiction, the representation of food and its symbolic connotations in ‘queer’ ways has gained much popularity in recent times. Novels such as Sierra Riley’s Comfort Food (2016) and Rick R. Reed’s Dinner at Jack’s (2016) have gay protagonists who fall in love through intimacies that are focused on the transformative powers of cooking and eating together. A similar concept of the utilities of ‘gay food’ has been employed by Fumi Fumi Yoshinaga in her manga series titled What Did You Eat Yesterday? (2014-2018) that portrays the casual romance between two middle-aged men and/ through the many meals they share together.
Literary fiction related to queering of food in the Indian contexts, however, has had older and more culturally-pervading contexts. Ruth Vanita informs that “food is a central metaphor for same-sex desire in Indic texts” (“Chaini” 155). She provides the example of the Kama Sutra where oral sex between males is depicted through the figure of sucking a mango (see Vanita 155), in the context of the chapter that discusses auparishtaka (see The Kama Sutra 67-68). Similarly, in charting a history of desires in India, Madhavi Menon’s Infinite Variety (2018) provides the example of the paan in its (homo)erotic contexts (see 273-285). Menon discusses the seductive character and narratives of its consumption in regional literature such as Bankim Chandra’s Indira (1873) where, in an attempt to show Indira how to feed paan to her husband, her female friend Subho ends up kissing her on the lips by way of example (see Menon 280-281).
Another similar example can be found in the short stories of Pandey Bechan Sharma ‘Ugra’: “Kept Boy” and “Waist Curved Like a She-Cobra,” for instance (translated by Ruth Vanita from their 1927 Hindi originals) where ‘Ugra’ portrays young urban men like Mahashayji and Harnarayan who are prone to the addictive habit of desiring men as much as they are of consuming paan and making their beloveds consume them (see Sharma ‘Ugra’ 19-29, 34-46). Paan and its consumption by such men is represented as connotative of same-sex desiring between men and boys, sometimes depicted in the audacity of kissing them with, and on, paan-stained lips (see Sharma ‘Ugra’ 42). However, ‘Ugra’ is better known by having symbolized same-sex desiring between men by another edible item with a more explicit connotative politics – chocolate.
In his short story “Chocolate” (1924), ‘Ugra’ first brought ‘homosexuality’ to the fore in colonial India but did so in a way that negatively portrayed the possibilities of homoeroticism and homosociality among men. He wrote: “‘Chocolate’ is a name for those innocent, tender, and beautiful boys of our country, whom society’s demons push into the mouth of destruction to quench their own desires” (Sharma ‘Ugra’ 13). ‘Ugra’s story implicitly locates the ‘corrupting’ desires, practices, and sub-cultures of same-sex intimacy through the metaphors of the foreign/ anti-national, addictive, and dangerous chocolate. More than the general consensus about their (homo)erotic and aphrodisiac qualities, the symbolic representation of paan and chocolate in his fiction by ‘Ugra’ speaks of the ways in which narratives, cultures, and politics of ‘queer’-ness and food are, more often than not, intertwined. On similar lines, Suryakant Tripathi Nirala’s Kulli Bhat (1939) and Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf (1941) also portray same-sex eroticism through symbols of day-to-day consumable items such as sweets and chutney respectively, as discussed by Vanita (see “Chaini” 158-163).
Apart from the politics of narrativizing ‘gay food’ in fiction, the politics of accessing food for/ by LGBTQ+ individuals has become an issue of much focus and contestation in recent times. Indrajeet Ghorpade’s experience in Hyderabad earlier this year, when he and his boyfriend were denied entry into a restaurant by the staff on grounds of being a ‘gay couple,’ caused a shift in how consuming food is perceived in contemporary India. After the incident, Ghorpade’s online petition, in April, asking restaurant discovery and delivery platform Zomato to influence restaurants to be LGBTQ+-positive and to take actions against anti-LGBTQ+ restaurants received over 10,000 signatures in just over a month (Joshi). A month later, Zomato (that had welcomed the reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code on September 6, 2018 through its display picture of a rainbow-colored burger with the words “Let’s Get One Thing Straight. Love is Love”) announced a new tag titled ‘LGBTQIA Friendly’ on their mobile app for individual restaurant pages in key cities in India (Joshi).
However, in a post-Section 377 context, this move to include the queer-specific tag by one of the leading food search and delivery companies bears specific politico-economic connotations. In understanding how commodification of identity is deliberated and negotiated in the politics of consumerism, the socio-economic constructs of consumable queer-ness and ‘pink money,’ as a product of modern ‘conscious capitalism,’ provide for insights into the possible ways in which LGBTQ+ politics can be and have been problematically co-opted in recent times. Ghorpade’s next online petition, that urged Zomato to be stricter in terms of its homophobic allies, brings to the fore the discontent that the ‘LGBTQIA Friendly’ tag entails in terms of certain double-standards, non-disclosed criteria, and lack of proper actions against restaurants that continue to be anti-LGBTQ+.
Nevertheless, the numerous ‘gay’/ ‘queer’ inclusive/ friendly eating spaces that now function in many Indian cities stand testimony to the increasing intersections between food, sexuality, and spaces. ‘Queer’ restaurants and cafés have sprouted that function as ‘safer’ spaces facilitating non-heteronormative same-sex interactions, camaraderie, solidarity, and community-building. Examples such as Amra Odbhuth Café in Kolkata, Chez Jerome – Q Café in New Delhi, Third Eye Café in Mumbai, The Humming Tree in Bengaluru, among other, function as ‘queer’-positive spaces offering coffee, company, and community, and continue to testify to the intimate relations that food has with non-heteronormative sexualities and queerness.
 Richard F. Burton translates ‘auparishtaka’ as ‘mouth congress’ comprising of oral sexual acts (See The Kama Sutra 66)
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Anil Pradhan is pursuing a PhD at the Department of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India. He received his MPhil and MA in English from Jadavpur University and his BA in English from Presidency University, Kolkata. His areas of interest include cultural studies; queer studies, literature and films; diaspora studies and literature (with focus on South Asian queer diaspora) and Indian queer literature in English. His research articles have been published in Jadavpur University Essays and Studies, Lapis Lazuli, and Impressions. He has presented several papers on LGBTQ+ issues and themes at conferences in India, Singapore, the U.K. and the U.S.A.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.