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Food plays a central role in LGBTQIA+ culture and it deserves its place at the table

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Konkani sea bass (or prawns) à la Ashok — I still have the recipe, handwritten in an exercise book that’s now falling apart. Ashok Row Kavi, one of India’s pioneering gay activists, was visiting California in the 90s. I lived in San Francisco at the time. It was the first time I’d met Ashok. He was already a famous name in the fledgling South Asian LGBTQIA+ community, having just launched Bombay Dost, India’s first gay magazine. But Ashok didn’t want to talk about the challenges faced by the movement in India. He wanted to cook homestyle Indian food. He made himself at home in my kitchen and dished up advice, gossip and prawns with equal relish. The seafood curry, he said, could be made with or without coconut milk but the tamarind was a must. I dutifully wrote down both versions. And he offered a tip — “shake that pan instead of stirring.”

Ashok also told me something else I’ve always remembered. He said gay men would be the inheritors of family recipes because they were the ones who, like him, stayed back home with their mothers and grandmothers while their heterosexual siblings married and moved out. Sitting in San Francisco, far away from home in Kolkata, I was not sure how true that was. Now living in India, every time I cook while my mother narrates a prawn recipe, I remember Ashok in my San Francisco kitchen and smile.

June is celebrated as Pride Month with all kinds of stories that fit under the new rainbow of post-Section 377 India — Pride reading lists, LGBTQIA+ movies, stories about legal challenges, corporate diversity — all very worthy topics. But there is also a story about food and queerness that deserves its place at the table.

Queer pleasures

In an article in Slate, David Mehnert writes that you can always tell gays in an American diner because they are the ones ordering the BLTs while others stick to cheeseburgers and pancakes. In American gay folklore, steaks are prototypically straight fare according to Mehnert, while “queer food” has an element of camp — ham and pineapple together, jello moulds, fussy hors d’oeuvres or a baked Alaska, an oddball dessert which “breezily mocks the threat of damnation, goes to hell and back, and lives to tell the story.” Food writer John Birdsall says it’s no coincidence that three architects of modern food in America — James Beard, Richard Olney and Craig Claiborne — were all gay. The legacy of gay food writers, he says, is they “gave us permission to respect pleasure in eating — even small pleasures — not as something guilty, but as the received wisdom of culture.”

Gay culture knows a thing or two about guilty pleasure. The LGBTQIA+ movement, in many ways, is about liberating pleasure from that guilt. No wonder food, so closely tied to the pursuit of pleasure, feels so important. I remember old South Asian gay e-mail list servers sharing not just coming-out stories and HIV anxieties but recipes for Syrian Christian beef and besan ka pitla. A current private Facebook group called Quitchen, a “safe space” for LGBTQIA+ cooks and foodies, shows food and queerness are still intertwined. It’s as if we share recipes to create a patchwork quilt of a community, disparate lives stitched together by food. The late gay designer Wendell Rodricks would share all kinds of colourful stories on social media about fashion and high society. But he also shared his mother’s recipes and I saved those. When he died suddenly, I made Greta Rodricks’ prawn curry in his memory.

Building community

When I first visited Arvind Kumar who co-founded Trikone, the world’s oldest South Asian LGBTQIA+ group, at his home in Silicon Valley, his partner Ashok Jethanandani rustled up dal-sabzi and hot chai for everyone. That sizzle of tadka, its familiarity and everyday-ness, made me feel at home in both my Indian-ness and gayness, parts of me I had struggled to reconcile. Trikone would march in San Francisco Pride Parades every year, but it really built community through its monthly potlucks, where people forged friendships over food and drink. Food was both a memory of the past and a promise of future friendships. In a community that had grown up knowing the sting of loneliness all too keenly, a welcoming kitchen felt as warm as a hug. We were hungry in more ways than one.

A gay friend once told me his family had a hard time accepting him. His mother could not bring herself to call his partner her son’s boyfriend. But one day after dinner at home, she handed him a container of leftovers to take back to his boyfriend and he realised that baby steps toward acceptance do not have to always come with a rainbow flag. A simple tiffin carrier can be a beginning.

Sandip Roy, the author of Don’t Let Him Know, likes to let everyone know about his opinions whether asked or not.

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Printable version | Sep 19, 2021 12:45:10 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/food-plays-a-central-role-in-lgbtqia-culture-and-it-deserves-its-place-at-the-table/article34961765.ece

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