A Toast to Wine Wednesday

Why the potluck is one of the most enduring and beautiful ways queer people make family.

A group of people joyfully sharing a meal together.
Franco Zacharzewski

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

You have to come every week. Every week. Some weeks the food is sparse. You don’t leave hungry, but you’re not impressed either; it’s dull those weeks. From the outside, you might wonder why this particular group of people, with their particular foibles, came together in the first place.

Some nights we argue, like actually argue: about monogamy, about marriage, about who sells out. About music and art and taste. About politics and identity and status and place. Sometimes it’s ugly, even if it’s usually fine by the next day. (Building family from scratch can be an arduous task.)

Then some nights it’s pure magic. The company is exactly right. There’s a buzz in the air telling you that it’s going to be one of the evenings you’ve been hoping would come back around. You walk in the house without knocking (because it sort of feels like your house, too), and people shout your name because they’re so glad you’re there, and you do it for the next person because you’re so glad they’re there too. You hug and kiss, get asked about your day, and you’re handed a glass of wine. Being wanted in a place that you love by people who really love you hits you in a place that’s too ethereal to describe.

There’s music on: Maybe it’s Diana Ross or Dusty Springfield or Gossip or Sylvester, gay stuff. You think, there’s a history here, to the ways we meet up and see each other through. Or maybe it’s old-school country—Conway Twitty or Waylon Jennings or Patsy Cline—and you feel your heart swell in tune with their bellows. (Southerners know that the heat of kitchens on an already-hot day is a true testament to love.) Or maybe Kiki took the reins, and it’s metal or ’80s synthesizers or lounge music or something you can’t even place; maybe it’s music for the theme of the evening—Greek or Cuban or Klezmer when it’s Chanukah. Whatever it is, it feels right.

The kitchen is bustling with smells, and steam, and laughter. There’s the promise that a truly exquisite dinner is coming, but probably in a couple hours; there’s still chopping, and frying, and tossing to do. People will need time, taking turns using the stove, and the oven, and the grill.

The waiting is more than all right because it’s part of it, the antidote to fast food. Waiting is alright because there’s wine to drink and stories from the week to share; it’s all right because the dinner that’s coming is better than anything any of you could’ve made alone, and because you’re with your people, and because someone brought cambozola cheese and pears as an appetizer.

On the magical nights, we play games after dinner and don’t leave until 3 a.m. How did it get so late? We talk about how hard Thursday morning will be. Sure, in a way it’s irresponsible, but it’s also the fruit of a weekly commitment you’ve made, and what’s more responsible than tending that soil?

That’s why you have to come every week. Because the slow nights are our penance for the good nights. You never know when the good nights are coming.

Here are the rules: You bring wine, or you bring food, or you do the dishes. Though, if you can’t bring anything that week because you’re low on time or energy or money, there’s still a seat for you.

Some of us are expert cooks, like Patrick, the only one of us who’s gone to culinary school, who if he makes you matzo ball soup, will grind the flour and make the matzo from scratch. But most of us are passionate home cooks. If you have someone visiting you, you bring them too and we’ll cater the theme for the guest. We’ve done spicy, fish, gluten-free Southern, and tacos for guests. “What’s your favorite food? My community will make a meal to welcome you” is a kind of generosity that’s rare, but shouldn’t be. There’s always a theme. Sometimes it’s Indian or Italian. Sometimes it’s a color like “green” or “black.” The holiday themes. The themes about cooking method—grilled, smoked, fried, stuffed, and raw. The decade themes—1950s, 1970s, or “old-fashioned.”

We keep a notebook that the artists in the group draw cartoons of the food in, and Mario keeps track of the witty things we say. On those magical nights we look through it and reminisce like it’s an old family photo album. With very few exceptions, over the years, it’s always at Kiki’s house—her table and patio are big enough to hold us when there’s 15 of us or more. More accurately, it’s always at Kiki’s because she’s the only one of us who’s loving enough or carefree enough to open her home to such a cataclysmic event every week. When her house was being remodeled and she had no floor in the living room, we went to someone else’s house. When she went to Thailand for two weeks, she left us a key and told us to clean up after ourselves.

Kiki is the kind of person you can’t believe you know in real life because she’s such a character. She grew up Seventh-day Adventist, got sent to a fundamentalist boarding school as a teen, lived in punk houses in 1990s-era San Francisco in her 20s, and still wears studs and leopard print at 50. The younger ones in the group sometimes call her Mom. She’d give most anyone the shirt off her back, and not just because she prefers the freedom of going topless. She’s the widow of Ria Pell, the legendary Atlanta chef who started Ria’s Bluebird café, a homey brunch restaurant known for its world-class pancakes and biscuits, and as a refuge and waystation for queers, vegetarians, feminists, radicals, and punks and outcasts of all stripes. Starting Wine Wednesday at her home was a kind of homage to her late wife: “For her, being a chef and making food for people was something that was almost sacred. It was definitely her love language, her way of showing love to people and to her community.”

Ria’s biological daughter, Amanda, was adopted by a lesbian couple, Jacquie and Arlene, when she was a baby. As an adult she began a long search to find Ria. In one of those mind-numbing, how-can-life-be-so-cruel moments, she located her just as Ria died from a sudden heart attack in her 40s; she came to the funeral but was never able to meet her. She ended up moving from Baltimore to Atlanta, and for her, Wine Wednesday is her “way of staying in touch with Ria.” It’s also “an intentional time every week to spend with chosen family. It’s a time to be creative in ways we aren’t always able to the rest of the week. Wine Wednesday is the community I lost when I left the church. It’s a safe and sacred space.” Amanda called our potluck sacred in a completely separate conversation from Kiki, telling me that Ria saw making food for her community as sacred. Isn’t that one of those mind-numbing-how-can-life-be-so-miraculous moments?

Someone once told me that food was like sex: There’s a basic premise to it, but humans have expanded it into poetry with countless moves and techniques. What you can do with food isn’t always about the recipe itself, but about the social dance around the meal. Mara says that the food is only a small part of what we do at Wine Wednesday, “It’s a little bit of feeding each other, appreciating each other, showing up for each other in times of need, challenging each other to live up to our potential.” For her, the potluck is the thing we do that builds a larger responsibility to the group, because food doesn’t happen in a vacuum. “You know, like when I had surgery and you brought soup and we sat on the back porch and ate it together, to me, that healed my leg. And when Patrick broke down and I went and waited with him for AAA until they came, that made him feel less alone.” She continued, “To me, that’s lesbianism. That’s lesbian practice.”

In some ways I knew exactly what she meant, but it was still a bit confounding because not everyone in the group is a lesbian. She continued: It was like the lesbians who cared for gay men with AIDS in the 1980s, “Lesbianism, how I was trained up, is about showing up for people.” She lived on a lesbian commune called the Gaia Dwelling in the 1990s. There the gatherings were about food, but they were also a time to say to someone, “What’s going with you right now? Really. Let’s take time and space for that.” She laughed, “I’ve always tried to tell my parents that being gay isn’t a lifestyle, but it is kind of is a lifestyle! It doesn’t just exist in sex, you know?”

Food is part of how we do the work of community, part of how we belong. You’re in the group when you know the familiar smells, when you know the ritual around the meal, and when you’re handed a plate. Maybe people who aren’t part of LGBTQ communities would be surprised that our culture includes food. Once, a co-worker overheard me mention several gay restaurants in Atlanta, referencing their gay clientele. An inquisitive sociologist, he lowered his voice and privately asked, “Do gay people have their own food?” I told him no, but Steven Kates and Russell Belk, writing in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, have argued that pride celebrations are our public ritual of togetherness, with markers that mirror other cultural rituals: memorial ceremonies to remember our dead, the “gay apparel” of drag, bright colors, and leather, and special foods— brunch.

Lesbians, especially, have their own cultural history of food. As Reina Gattuso has recently written, “lesbians have been known to potluck everything from protests to sex parties.” She details how the first lesbian organization in the United States, the Daughters of Bilitis founded by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon in the 1950s, began with sharing food to build community. It made sense. Lesbians, compared to gay men, have had less access to public space, make less money, and have less capital to create public meetings places. In the 1970s, lesbian activists balanced their low-wage jobs with exhausting activism, finding that “both politically and culinarily, they had more if they banded together.”

Food fills a need, but it also serves a cultural purpose. Like Kiki said, “It’s that thing where the gathering over food is a way that you’re building culture together, like making art or music together.” And because you’re making it with your own hands, “it feels bigger and more important than just eating or just having dinner at a restaurant.”

A few moments ago, I texted Rahash and asked him what our group means to him.

He answered, “Wine Wednesday is almost a last name, like the houses that drag queens belong to, or a surname that straight people give their children. It’s a family of people that help each other clear out the shed, move apartments, travel the country to celebrate one another, console a broken heart, dig a hole in the backyard in the rain to bury a dog that was put down, fight, laugh - and all while sharing food and drink.”

For all of us, for different reasons, home is a nebulous place. Kath Weston’s renowned work, Families We Choose, paints a picture of why queer people build “fictive kin” networks. The simple answer? Because we have to. Historically, being queer meant your family of origin threw you away: Today, too many of us still have the same experience. When our families do accept us, even in the most loving ways, we feel lucky because we know it could be different. Perhaps we search for family with a group of people who don’t make us feel lucky to be loved?

Once, when I missed a Wine Wednesday because I was out of town, Rahash texted me that there’s a saying in Arabic that roughly translates to “Your seat was empty.” But there’s more to it, he said. It’s more like saying no one could take your place, that your presence left a gap. Everyone deserves to feel like their presence would leave a gap; everyone deserves a village. Queer people, especially, yearn for that kind of belonging.

Wine Wednesday might be explained by Mara’s version of lesbian practice, a descendant practice of nourishing your community through reimagining the gendered patterns of women’s work— cooking, caring, and showing up. It could be explained by Rahash’s version of a drag house, a way of loving based in performance, family-building, and sharing a name. It’s both of them really, all of us taking strands of queer history to build old and new ways to convene in a hostile world.

Mara finished our conversation about the potluck by offering an explanation of what we do, a sage piece of wisdom that’s been shared from gay bars to gay kitchens: “Life is hard outside these walls, let’s have fun and lift each other up.”