. . .the art of gay cooking is the culinary equivalent of the joy of gay sex, or, to broaden the spectrum, the gay joy of sex: something we do for sheer pleasure
Born in Munich and raised in Munich and Paris I had grown from an avid young observer in my mother’s and grandmothers’ kitchens to a young adult who found joy and satisfaction in the simple task of preparing home-cooked meals – preferably for friends and family. By the time I reached my early twenties and readied myself to make the leap to New York, with show-business looming much larger in my mind than cooking, I had moonlighted but once in a professional kitchen – a six-month stint as a sous-chef in an Italian restaurant, a job I took on a whim to pay for my ballet classes and voice lessons. Like most of New York’s budding performing artists, I found easy part-time employment in the tuxedoed catering industry. A few years later, a summer job in the Hamptons serendipitously put me in charge of producing three meals a day for a group of demanding albeit appreciative gay executive types.
From the very beginning, I did this with the full awareness that preparing food was one of the most intimate things one could do for someone else. This was in the mid-Nineties, several years before America smelled the rosy rôti and catapulted its way into a food frenzy that to this day shows no sign of abating. The new obsession with food was propelled by a very American mix of enthusiasm and earnestness, marked by a gender divide that had its female proponents veer towards the precious and its male counterparts adopt a forceful swagger. When the movement hit critical mass in 2007, it became clear to me that something important had gotten lost along the way: the notion that cooking at its best is a deeply personal and generous offering. I watched as this phenomenal American food revolution, started in the Sixties as a counter-cultural impulse to make home-cooking once again a valued part of everyday life, was highjacked by commercial interests inundated by charlatans offering picturesque plates and easy shortcuts.
Meanwhile the media overhyped the movement’s ideals, pushing people to live out their new culinary dreams – but to do it vicariously, that is, by imagining to cook rather than actually doing it. Social media added momentum, starting an avalanche of foodies, do-gooders, self-ascribed restaurant critics and nutty nutritionists. That’s how trends and fads began to define American food instead of intimate, shared experiences around the table.
I asked myself, what could I possibly add to this culinary cacophony without falling into the trap of the aggressive self-promotion and competitive posturing I was observing around me? For 20 years, I’d worked as a chef, succeeding, emphatically, off the radar. I knew that I had a perspective; more than a few entertaining, food-related anecdotes; and a good number of recipes I had honed again and again. Perhaps the cultures and languages I had acquired in my childhood could offer some refinement, too. But how could I formulate all of it into a book?
I started to explore the idea that gay men may have a clandestinely particular approach to cooking that sets us apart from the rest. This became a five-part series of essays that took aim at the heteronormative exploitation of cooking as a new form of entertainment and proposed a gay alternative that was insouciantly non-commercial and fun. I called it "The Joy of Gay Cooking." It was published by Slate Magazine in 2015 and is now available as a short book, Queering the Kitchen, under this imprint. Only then did I begin to think about writing a culinary memoir.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant, my husband Filip Noterdaeme told me, quoting Emily Dickinson. You are gay, your approach to cooking is gay, why bother trying to write a conventional cookbook?
Back in 2013, Filip had written The Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart, a book about our lives that closely echoed Gertrude Stein’s famous memoir, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. What you should do, Filip said, is write a sequel to my book, just like Alice B. ended up writing a sequel to Gertrude’s. Naturally, he added with a sly smile, you should use that book, The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, as your model.
I tried to picture it.
Alice was, like me, a self-trained home-cook. From the moment she moved in with Gertrude, into the storied apartment on 27, Rue de Fleurus, she devoted her life to making it a safe harbor infused with the spirit of art while upholding the one value that was existentially critical to Gertrude’s and her sense of well-being: domesticity (or, as Filip likes to call it, dough-mysticity). Filip was right: I would not find a better role model. And writing my culinary memoir as a queer adaptation of a classic would not be all that different to what I had done in my last one man show, “The Importance of Being Elvis,” in which I had given the King of Rock ‘n Roll the Weimar treatment.
So, I decided to write my book as a literary homage to The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, adhering to her structure, mirroring specific passages, and echoing her magnificent voice throughout. I hope fans and scholars will appreciate the parallels. Using her book as a recipe also gave me the delightful opportunity to include, as she did, an entire chapter devoted to recipes from friends. It serves as a wonderful counterpoint to the ongoing popular obsession with the restaurant world, proving that, at least in my social circles, real and unpretentious home-cooking is not a lost art.
What this book does not do is analyze what the art of gay cooking is – it merely shows is by example. But if you were to ask me, I would say that the art of gay cooking is the culinary equivalent of the joy of gay sex, or, to broaden the spectrum, the gay joy of sex: something we do for sheer pleasure, driven by passion, backed by knowing what we like (and learning how to go about it), seasoned with a good pinch of curiosity and, most importantly, coupled with an enthusiastic commitment to pay very close attention to the other – in this case, the ingredients we are playing with to bring bliss to the table. It’s a joyful, sensual dialogue that, by definition, deserves to be slightly different every time, reflecting the present yet always aiming to hit the spot in delightfully unexpected ways. Incidentally, if I were to ask Filip about his favorite meal, I know what he would answer: Anything prepared by you and that we eat toget
Brittany, August 2017
Daniel Isengart is a writer, cabaret entertainer and private chef living in New York City. He has written on hidden gay culinary history for Slate Magazine, Jarry Magazine and elsewhere. Read more about The Art of Gay Cooking.
$18.50 paperback. $9 ebook.
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Daniel is also the author of Queering The Kitchen: A Manifesto.
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