Sunday, May 18, 2014

Queering Cuisine?

Some years back, after watching Julie & Julia, I was disappointed to learn that Julia Child was a bit of a homophobe, though later in life she did moderate her aversion somewhat. This might be thought of as the scorched béchamel of Julia's life. Laura Shapiro, in an excerpt of her biography of Child in Boston Magazine, wrote that
Homophobia was a socially acceptable form of bigotry in midcentury America, and Julia and Paul participated without shame for many years. She often used the term pedal or pedalo—French slang for a homosexual—draping it with condescension, pity, and disapproval. “I had my hair permanented at E. Arden’s, using the same pedalo I had before (I wish all the men in OUR profession in the USA were not pedals!),” she wrote to Simca. Fashion designers were “that little bunch of Pansies,” a cooking school was “a nest of homovipers,” a Boston dinner party was “peopled by 3 fags in an expensive house…. We felt hopelessly square and left when decently possible,” and San Francisco was beautiful but full of pedals—“It appears that SF is their favorite city! I’m tired of them, talented though they are.”

And so it's an irony that three gay men were Child's comrades-in-arms in improving American cooking. And she knew all three. The writer John Birdsall has just won a James Beard Award for his essay, "America, Your Food Is So Gay." (Which I saw referenced on Andrew Sullivan's blog, which he saw on Daniel Fromson's blog at the New Yorker.)

Birdsall remembers dishes cooked up by gay neighbors when he was a child:
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.
as an introduction to how three gay men, James Beard, Richar Olney, and Craig Clairborne, transformed American cooking. Not only did Child know all three, but Beard and Olney were at a 1970 dinner party, that Child hosted and cooked for.

Their approaches were somewhat different, though. Birdsall writes that
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.
Child was willing to compromise on some things. Can't get lardons? Simmer the salt and smoke out of bacon. In watching the first season of The French Chef, I've heard her note a number of times how you could get a certain item in France, but in the United States, here's how you substitute for its unavailability.

Child may have been right that San Francisco was the favorite city for gay men. Birdsall writes of an encounter a co-worker in a San Francisco restaurant had with Beard in the 1980s. The coworker was a busser who hoped to become a baker. Beard invited him to stop by his hotel for a chat.
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.
Although when I reflect on how much butter goes into a meal cooked from Julia Child recipes, maybe Child had her own brand of unashamed hedonism. She just kept the robe on.
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