Frivolous, flirtatious and fun: gay food culture in 1970s New York

Emer O Hanlon 26 February 2017

The ‘Nigella’ school of cooking and eating: the idea that cooking is not staid and based on a strict set of French rules, but instead something much more fun, playful, almost flirtatious. It’s accessible to everyone (not just those with Michelin stars) and it thrives on being indulgent and sumptuous. It is often thought that this type of cooking took off after the publication of Lawson’s 1998 ‘How to Eat’, but in reality, the movement had its roots much earlier, in the thriving gay subculture of 1970s New York.

Being in the military has always given men a chance to explore different cuisines, and this is exactly what happened during the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, when returning American veterans brought back tastes they had acquired in Italy, Korea and Vietnam. American food culture in the ‘70s was, as Daniel Isengart describes it, divided into two ‘increasingly polemic factions: the West Coast-based earnest camp… whose members wanted to change the world, and the frivolous East Coast camp, whose aficionados wanted to change themselves’. It was in this climate that a certain group of gay chefs emerged, who viewed food, not in a serious, culinary science light, but as something light, there to be enjoyed, and did so while exploiting camp humour to the max. This thriving subculture was cut tragically short in the ‘80s when many of its forerunners lost their lives to the AIDS crisis, but remnants of it remain today in the American chain Dean & DeLuca.

To call Dean & DeLuca supermarket is to misunderstand their whole vibe: speciality food outlet is probably a step further in the right direction, although ‘food museum’ has also been a term attached with it. Set up by three gay men in 1977 by Joel Dean, Giorgio DeLuca and Jack Ceglic (who was Dean’s partner), Dean & DeLuca revolutionised the idea of food store layouts: Ceglic, the designer, went for a minimalistic look, the store laid out more like an art gallery than anything else, with the food arranged in still-life displays. This art gallery aesthetic was to have a major impact on kitchen designs in the years to come, as they too strove for an open plan ‘loft look’ with startling white backgrounds and pseudo-industrial wire shelving. Ceglic said of his store design that ‘art, design and food became one’.

These three business partners considered their approach as a backlash to the rising popularity of frozen foods, which they believed were not only bad for you and filled with rubbish, but also represented a failure to connect with food. They were behind ready meals of the fresh variety (think pestos, patés and salads), pioneers of the gourmet take-away before it even became a known thing. They also introduced to the general American public items which are now considered staples, like extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, sun-dried tomatoes and radicchio. Dean famously refused to sell garlic crushers on the principle that chopped garlic tastes better. Although the store is now an international one (with a branch in Mayfair to open early this year), Ceglic was always adamant that their ambitions were never that big: ‘we sold good, healthy food—not a lot, but good’.

The deli has certainly proved influential in popular culture, with namedrops by serial killers Hannibal Lecter (who transports fried brains in one of Dean & DeLuca’s travel packs with foie gras, caviar and figs) and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman.

What’s the status of gay food culture now? There’s certainly a movement to try to re-establish its former prominence, especially among online magazines and journals. Two recent efforts, Jarry and Mouthfeel, are very conscious of going back to these laid-back, fun 1970s roots, with Mouthfeel’s mission statement declaring: ‘Filled with profiles, photos, love letters, recipes, essays and more, Mouthfeel is not a gay men’s Good Housekeeping, it champions the spirit, creativity and counter culture ethos of the world, which has historically defined gay culture and the best of culinary arts.’

If this is the insight into food that gay culture can lend us, then I think it nothing short of a triumph. Food is only as interesting as the chef preparing it, and I strongly believe that, for all that cooking and food writing can be seen as something conventional, it needs an independent and creative spirit to thrive, and if the gay community can bring this to forefront in their cooking, then I can only be supportive. I can only hope that this new wave of cooking allows for better vegetarian food than the 1970s did.