Low Concept

What Is Queer Food?

Notes on camp cuisine.

“You can pick out fags in a diner because they always order BLTs.”

My friend Joe told me this when I was 10 years old. He had only just explained what “fags” were. Now he was telling me what they ate. “Of course fags will eat cheeseburgers, omelettes, pancakes,” said Joe. “But if they have a choice, they’ll always order BLTs.”

I remember feeling alarmed because I loved BLTs. Joe was nearly a year older than me and infinitely more sophisticated in worldly manners. Although I didn’t quite believe that foods could signal sexual preference, I had to agree that the BLT was a dubious invention: not quite a sandwich, not quite a salad, and showing suspicious shifts of register. As if to draw attention to its flamboyant self, the BLT was usually cut on the diagonal and skewered on toothpicks with curly plastic bits of frill. The more I thought about it, the more I believed Joe was right. The BLT was definitely queer.

Did my family know about BLTs? Perhaps they already suspected odd tendencies in my psychosexual makeup. I stopped ordering BLTs. They became an occult pleasure, something I made for myself. I took the BLT with me into the closet.

Baked Alaska is the archetypal queer food. Baked Alaska is 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.

Why is Baked Alaska queer? Because 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. It even gets a tan. What could be queerer than that?

I’m not suggesting that gay people invented foods like Baked Alaska, or that they eat such foods more often than straights. Yet there is such a thing as a queer mode of appreciation. Most of us will agree that, while gays and lesbians did not invent good or bad taste, they have always held the monopoly on the judicious mixing of the two.

In that spirit, here are nine principles of queer food:

1. Few raw ingredients are queer in and of themselves. The basic components of the American kitchen—meats, vegetables, fruits, sugar, flour, spices, and so on—should all be assumed to be “straight.” Queerness comes only after an effort has been applied, the food combined with other foods, or after the food is processed or transformed into something else.

Steak is the prototypical straight food. Its complete lack of artifice, its clear place in the food chain, keeps it straight. Even the most unkitchenly of eaters understands how steak is made. The same might be said for the baked potato. The baked potato is the rounded, feminine complement to the steak’s dominant male presence. Steak and baked potato walk hand-in-hand, a straight couple.

When steak is served in an altered form, its dominant masculine role is subverted. Steak acquires a new name and a newfound sexual self-consciousness: I think of Steak Diane, skirt steak, “Bachelor” steak, and the like. Lesbian poet Elizabeth Bishop preferred meatballs to steak. “Steak is so lurid,” she commented. Meatballs, in being made of “minced” meat, gesture toward queerness.

2. Contrary to popular belief, having a phallic shape doesn’t make a food queer. A hot dog is not queer, even a foot-long hot dog. But pigs in a blanket are queer because they have been altered more than just in size. They have been dressed up to play a role—in this case, a freakish bit part in a Mississippi picnic.

3. It follows that all food pretending to be something else is food in drag. The “tofuburger,” for example. Tofu is a fascinating substance because it takes on the qualities of whatever it is put with, whether in soup, sauces, or stir-fry. Tofu is a food that “passes.”

4. Why have gays been called fruits? Fruits are completely natural, even necessary to our health and well-being. But since the time of the Dutch masters, fruit arrangements have been considered symbols of vanity and cultural decline. The abundance of like on like, of fruit marching together, seems threatening and decadent. Fruit is not expected to raise its collective voice. And yet what could be more benign than Carmen Miranda’s hat, delightful in its cloying excess, in its insistent rainbow variety?

5. Queer food is camp food. Camp is about looking at old cultural relics with a contemporary sense of irony. There is camp film, furniture, and decoration. Why not camp food?

Camp is allied to nostalgia. What was banal in another era acquires—in a later, more liberated age—a high-gloss Technicolor beauty. We read Joy of Cooking, for example, as a camp classic. When we make these dated recipes, we appreciate the futile efforts our predecessors made to carve out a niche in the kitchen. Precisely because these foods fail by today’s standards, we are touched by their elaborate effort and detail.

All the highballs of the 1940s and 1950s are now queer, especially anything served with tiny umbrellas or in hollowed-out coconuts. Queer, too, is everything that grew out of the luau or “Tiki” aesthetic, with all those glorious maraschino colors not found in nature. Think of those elaborate spreads of ham and pineapple—queer, queer, queer—and all the sugary excesses of Southern picnic cooking, quivering in Jell-O molds. Think of all the fabulous hors d’oeuvres of the past, of finger rolls, of melon balls, each pierced with a toothpick. To make them today is to pay homage to those who went before us. It is to raise the dead, to honor and mock them all at once. With each toothpick, the gay or lesbian scorns the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and relives, this time in farce, the martyrdom of St. Sebastian.

6. Many foods seem queer just by virtue of their names: Pineapple Betty, Green Goddess dressing, mock apple pie (made with Ritz crackers), and all puffs, tarts, crumpets, pavlovas, and charlottes. So are all flaming desserts, for obvious reasons: Cherries Jubilee, Bananas Foster, Crêpes Suzette. Madeleines are queer (thanks to the writings of Proust); so is Hasty Pudding (thanks to Harvard University’s drag theatricals).

7. Some foods have always been queer. Twinkies, for example. You cannot “out” a Twinkie since it has never been in the closet. A Twinkie is to mainstream junk food what Liberace was to the 1950s: so obvious as to be beyond comment. Certain Twinkie-like junk foods are queer by proxy (Ding Dongs, Sno-Balls, Ho Ho’s, Suzy Q’s). But these are the exceptions that prove junk food’s heterosexual rule. In general, junk food is earnest and unironic, with little to decode and no secrets to tell.

8. Some mass-produced foods have an added-on queerness, a patina acquired from the advertising campaigns of my childhood (the early 1970s). I think of Trix, Fig Newtons, Chiffon margarine, and Rice-a-Roni. There are many others. Although few gays or lesbians in their right minds would actually admit to eating these foods, they remain our culinary mascots.

9. One final queer creation: Lobster Thermidor. Just thinking about Lobster Thermidor makes me want to put on a powdered wig and a fake beauty spot. On the 9th of Thermidor (July 27, 1794), the French reign of terror ended with the fall of Robespierre and the Jacobins. Social and political life was immediately freer. Aristocrats came out of hiding. People began to splurge again. Lobster Thermidor therefore symbolizes any battle against puritanism, terror, and cultural straitjacketing. It is Stonewall food. It cures what ails us.