My Daddy was not very happy with Mama's choice of holiday gifts for three-year-old me. Seeing my penchant for all things culinary, she bought me a Fisher-Price toy kitchen set. This particular toy lasted me a good five years of my childhood. Its fake ranges were where I enacted the kitchen rituals I'd witnessed since my first cup of potlikker and cornbread (my first food after milk and formula). I played at making greens, frying chicken, and stirring morning pots of grits. I hoped for a toy oven, too, so that I could make hot rolls and biscuits like my grandmothers did—one born and raised in Virginia, the other in Alabama.
It wasn't that the men in my families didn't cook—they certainly did. But my Daddy was old school, and to him, despite my action figures and love of toy guns, the play kitchen was a sure sign of my coming homosexuality and thus an unsuitable toy for his only son. For once, he was half-right: Although I wouldn't really fully know it for about seven more years, I was to be a gay male. I knew then and I know now that the play kitchen was nowhere near the culprit. I think the first dead giveaway was the fact that I gave my toy records the identities of Donna Summer and Blondie, but nobody really seemed to pick up on that.
I can't really blame my Dad—he was from "a different time”—but being gay has nothing to do with whether or not you will be a man drawn to cooking. Unfortunately, our American experience pretty much limited the black male cook to the sphere of professional/domestic servant unless it was something that had to do with poultry, meat, fish, or shellfish—in which case the idea of a "master cook" of an animal protein or a pot of stew was not uncommon. Go further back into our West and Central African homelands and men do just that—roast, fry, barbecue, boil en masse—but they did not by and large practice domestic cookery; this was the work of women. To be fair, I did inherit my barbecuing skills from my father, who got them from his father—something did come down the Southern masculinity pipeline after all. A love of barbecue, horse-racing, and making homemade liquor—that's about all I got from the ones who came before.
Fast-forward to now and I've made the cooking of enslaved people my niche, bringing to life the experiences, skill sets, and knowledge bases of enslaved cooks who prepared food for themselves and their slaveholders on rural farms, plantations, and in urban residences. At first glance, embracing my own gay identity seemed to be at odds with that niche: I often get asked how exactly queerness fits into my brand and the story I'm trying to tell about both the past and the present. There is a dialogue in the world of food about homophobia in the industry kitchen and little whispers about queerness and food—but what happens when you sit at the crossroads of gayness, Blackness, and faith and do this sort of work?
A little history lesson: The kitchen has always been a great place for gay men, a place for them to use the things that made them unique to their advantage. Across cultures, it's a place where we've often hidden ourselves in plain sight. We crossed the borders of genders determined by sexual identity; even in West Africa, there were men like the gor-digen (men-women) in Senegal who pre-dated Islamic culture and were known for their dancing, culinary skills, and aesthetic sense (sound familiar?). On the plantations of America—where Western European culture associated masculinity with superior mastery in the kitchen and femininity with domestic cookery—many enslaved cooks in gentry households were male. Most were likely heterosexual as we would understand it, and many proudly used this position of authority in the defense and protection of their wives and children. But even when we look back, there is evidence that people we might think of as gay were present.
Combing through records left behind from slavery days, we see at least two Black male domestics from the Chesapeake region who sought their freedom by running away disguised in women's clothes, and both were noted for their effeminate nature and excellent cooking. There are journal entries about "saucy and impudent" Black male cooks who would have been sold off had their cooking not been so superior. The voice of free Black caterers of color comes across in old books with a mixture of Little Richard, the disco icon Sylvester, and Anthony from "Designing Women." The history of homosexuality in the enslaved community is complicated stuff, and I'm just scratching the surface—but I've found that a person like me, without a question, existed in multiple places across the long life of American chattel slavery.
Bringing that visibility to life has always made me consider the clothes I wear for my cooking demonstrations—waistcoat to tights to brass-buckled shoes—as a sort of historic "drag." Sometimes I'm scruffy and look the part of the beleaguered enslaved cook, but I prefer to be fierce in a historic kitchen and give that livery life. Most enslaved Black cooks commanded high prices as human chattel and they took this dehumanizing fact and turned it into a "read" of the society they lived in. Their attire alone inspired in them a feeling that they were a culinary aristocracy that was worthy of respect. I prance that energy every time I go into a kitchen—it's the start of reversing the narratives of both historic gay invisibility and of unchallenged victimization.
The contemporary push-pull of LGBT life in the United States, between greater acceptance and the backlash and recent hate crimes against the increasing of legal protections and social tolerance, has amplified what I'm doing in the kitchen. Over 150 years ago, more than one Black man wasn't afraid to be himself; to use that power within him, a certain strength that comes from embracing your difference and uniqueness; to do the unthinkable; to challenge the wealthiest institution in the American democracy; and to turn everything on its head by leaving it with the sort of ferocity that would make Ru Paul blush? To quote the Diva, "Ms. Roj" from George C. Wolfe's play The Colored Museum, "that's power baby!" That's my heritage staring me in the face challenging me to stand up and represent—because I can.
But it's not just the social justice activism that comes into the kitchen with me: It's a pride in how the food should taste, look, feel, and what it communicates. Gay men have been culturally written out of history because we are often branded as individuals who will not contribute to the reproductive flow of the generations and therefore have little or no investment in normative tradition. And yet, so many of my colleagues in living history, historic preservation, and food history are very dedicated gay men with a mission to honor our collective heritage. In the same spirit, I want to honor the food past and ensure it is part of the cultural inheritance of everyone who loves the food of the African Diaspora and the American South. I embrace the idea that honing certain gay sensibilities helps me to appreciate the aesthetics of the Southern meal. I take a special pride in golden shimmering custard pies and chicken fried to perfection, in okra soup that will restore your faith in okra. Our food is spicy, saucy, sensual, and gendered and I'm standing on the seesaw in the middle trying to play on those themes and keep things in balance.
The African in both "Southern" and "Soul" is not just the colorful splash of the food but also its musical notes and spiritual force, hidden moral lessons and the commitment to making the food communal. I love that I was born into two very potent ways of experiencing and appreciating food. Intersectionality may be the buzzword of 21st-century identity-speak, but it's nothing new. In my kitchen, from the toy stove to the wood-fired hearth, it really always been my signature ingredient.
Editor’s note: We started working with Michael on this piece before the horrible, recent events took place in Orlando. We publish it now with everyone who’s been affected in mind.
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