In the early 1990s, before the Food Network or Youtube had even been invented, I wanted to cook on camera. My dad installed the family’s camcorder on a tripod in our dining room to capture the making-of footage of our garden salad. These attempts hardly required much dexterity or culinary skill. I wasn’t tossing peppery arugula with shaved fennel and pear, or seasoning heaps of couscous with lemon, parsley, and mint. My salads all began with half a head of iceberg lettuce after the brown bits had been removed. The lettuce became the stage for a diorama I would compose with English cucumbers, chopped tomatoes, rounds of red onion, and shredded carrots. I remember assembling the salad into an ornamental mountain and telling the camera, as I sprinkled some desiccated parmesan over its peaks, that the cheese was meant to resemble snow, and—my voice curling up at the end—wasn’t it just delightful?
At seven or eight, my only food icons were the cooks I saw on PBS who were beamed into our Canadian living room from Channel 8 WQLN in Erie, PA. I remember Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, and Martha Stewart teaching me how to truss a bird or layer a wobbly terrine. Such unadorned instruction seems unthinkable in the bombastic era of Master Chef. Unlike today’s food stars, these television cooks were rather bland, even if their food was technically complex. The first-generation TV cooks shared an epicurean passion that belied a real respect for food and its potential scarcity, as they instructed viewers to save bones for broth or to prune a cauliflower in such a way as to consume more of its stalk and tender leaves. With the possible exception of Stewart, these cooks were less concerned with lifestyle envy than home economy. The latter is useful for the grown-up home cook, but why did I latch onto this rather dowdy cadre of PBS chefs, with television personae the equivalent of sensible shoes? Shouldn’t I have been voguing to Madonna like any other barely closeted gay boy of the early 1990s?
Several years ago, I visited Fan the Flames: Queer Positions in Photography, an exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario during Toronto’s 2014 World Pride festival. One installation, curated by Jon Davies, featured videos of effeminate boys vamping for their family camcorders or webcams, lip synching to the hits of their favourite pop divas or performing elaborate dance routines at their bar mitzvahs. The looping, limp-wristed routines proved the most affecting installation of the exhibit. I felt tenderness, shame, empathy, and joy for these queer boys who were still largely—likely—unaware of their own queerness, and caught on film in that brief and strange moment when everyone else seems aware of a secret they don’t even know they’re keeping. I remember the adults in my life passing the secret between themselves in winks and raised eyebrows, just as we adult spectators, many of us queer ourselves, were doing in the gallery.
I’m not sure if my own campy cooking video belongs to the same genre, or if it’s too coded to play alongside those shimmering spectacles. At that moment, I was still so far in the closet, I was in the pantry. But cooking provided a rare kind of cover, as it was one of the few domestic chores that hadn’t been gendered in any finite way. My parents generally practiced the post-war division of suburban domestic labour they had been raised with, in which wives made dinner while husbands mowed the lawn. But my dad cooked as much as my mom, and the celebrated professional chefs at the time were still by and large macho men like Wolfgang Puck or Emeril Lagasse, a fact that might have legitimated my presence in the kitchen in a way I never felt validated, for example, at my mother’s vanity. As a boy, I may not have been able to play with make-up, but I could makeover the face of a pizza. Cooking provided another way to make the ordinary beautiful, and to turn a quotidian act such as eating supper into a full-on spectacle. I was the type of kid who demanded Sunday dinner with candles on the table and my milk served in a stemmed wine glass. By high school, I might have stopped roleplaying celebrity chef (I had drama club to exorcize those delusions of fame), but I never stopped cooking for my family—even at the most misanthropic, leave-me-alone-while-I-listen-to-Fiona Apple height of my adolescence.
Then, at fifteen, I discovered the woman who would go on to become my Barbra, my Bette, my Britney all folded into one perfect pâte à choux: Ina Garten a.k.a. The Barefoot Contessa. During sick days and weekend afternoons, I became a devoted fan of her television show that began airing on the Food Network in 2002. The Barefoot Contessa provided a half-hour escape from adolescence, and I admired her rich, buttery food as much as the sunlit and taupe-hued interiors of her East Hamptons home. The Garten house radiated an elegance so far removed from my working class childhood in suburban southern Ontario that it became, in my adolescent mind, the domestic indicator of real success. From then on, owning a Kitchen Aid stand mixer and a bottle of tarragon vinegar would mean that I had made it, even if I didn’t know what “it” would, or could, be. Garten was my queen, and as the years went on I learned I wasn’t the only gay man to offer her a crown.
While Garten will tell you that very cold butter is required to make the best biscuits, the ingredients for making a gay icon are less precise. For years, I assumed that parsing gay iconicity, as opposed to general celebrity, was one of those things that a gay man just knows how to do, but can’t explain how or why he knows, as if after coming out of the closet one is handed a pair of rose-coloured glasses through which to re-envision the world.
The queer studies scholar David M. Halperin argues that much of “gayness” is a cultural standpoint, and one that may be taught and transmitted to others regardless of sexual orientation. Halperin’s argument that gayness is a way of being that can be taught across a range of differences, even to the exclusion of homosexuality itself, might help explain Garten’s gay appeal (as well as the mainstream triumph of a show like RuPaul’s Drag Race.) I might have been born this way, but I was taught how to identify a gay icon, not by a single teacher, but over several years’ worth of lessons gleaned from books and gay bar conversations, magazines and TV shows—including The Barefoot Contessa.
So, how do I know that Ina Garten is a gay icon?
One ingredient becomes immediately obvious: iconicity, like learning to cook, requires mimicry. Unlike their more glamorous musical and film counterparts, culinary stars, through cookbooks and TV shows, provide an instruction manual for their fans’ careful imitation. I received my first Garten book, Barefoot Contessa: Family Style, for Christmas when I was fifteen. I even pencilled my name on the inside cover, as if I assumed my friends might ask to borrow a cookbook as they would borrow a Stephen King paperback. All recipe development depends upon parody. A recipe is only worth the Maldon salt it calls for if it can be remade with a certain degree of consistency, and the Contessa has been replicated over and over again. In addition to some of her most-loved recipes—her Perfect Roast Chicken really is, well, perfection—Garten’s mannerisms, catchphrases, and infectious laugh have also been reproduced in countless online memes.
Every October, a friend texts me a meme in which Garten stands in a witch’s hat during her Halloween episode. The revised caption reads: “If you can’t summon the fires of Hell on your own, store-bought is fine,” playing on Garten’s reputation for demanding only “good” ingredients and home cooking. Parody makes (and remakes) a gay icon. While Garten’s cultural role as a gay man’s diva may be common knowledge by now to most of the public who care about these kinds of things, how she earned her place in a pantheon that extends, at least, from Judy Garland to Lady Gaga, is less clear. In so many ways, Garten is not the obvious queen’s queen. How did a culture that wants me to hate my love handles come to embrace a woman renowned for her liberal use of butter?
To dispense with the obvious, Garten’s gay icon status does not rest entirely on the coterie of gay pals who frequently appear in the early seasons of her program. As viewers learn, Garten’s husband, Jeffrey, works out of town during the week, leaving Garten to entertain a dapper crew of florists, designers, decorators and other upscale retailers. These men frequently appear in chinos and pastel Oxfords, laughing uproariously over a cocktail-laden bridge table. The casual, if unspoken, appearance of gay men on daytime television, even in the post-Queer Eye for the Straight Guy era of the early 2000s, was certainly enough to catch my attention, but there’s something more at work than barely-there representation (especially considering these men never mention their sexual orientation).
For decades, gay male culture has been identified with taste-making in the popular imagination. At our best, the love of style is expressed through the cultivation of good taste and, at its very worst, through a judgmental meanness. One reason Garten’s persona might appeal to a gay sensibility is her devotion to fine-quality home goods and careful discernment when it comes to ingredients. In a Garten recipe, it’s not uncommon for her to call for “good ketchup” or “good olive oil,” and, of course, the method for determining the goodness of one’s ketchup is never disclosed. A real home cook, it’s implied, should have an innate sense for selecting the right label.
Whenever Garten makes a dish requiring chicken stock she informs the viewer that homemade stock is best, but “store-bought stock is fine.” She says the latter in a tone of voice that suggests store-bought stock is, in fact, a personal failing. Garten slyly enforces her own standards by already assuming we won’t meet them. Isn’t this approach the same reason so many gay men love the biting commentary of characters as diverse as the drag performers Bianca del Rio or Bob the Drag Queen, Ursula from The Little Mermaid, and Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada? One can imagine Meryl Streep saying “store-bought is fine” to Anne Hathaway in the same devastating voice she once said, “Florals? For spring? Groundbreaking.”
Adversity remains central to the narrative of gay icons because their hardships mirror the difficulties queer people have faced coming of age. While it’s true that Garten’s biography lacks a dramatic triumph over personal demons (a pattern exemplified by Dolly Parton’s ability to escape the rural poverty of her childhood, or Judy Garland’s public struggles with alcoholism, for examples), Garten has reached a level of fame through decades of hard work. The branding of her cookbooks and television shows as The Barefoot Contessa reminds consumers that her food empire began in 1978 in a single specialty food shop of the same name in the Hamptons, before it really became the ocean-side enclave of the rich and famous. In her books and television appearances, she frequently refers to the long hours she spent developing recipes and learning about food in the store. In a classic essay on why Judy Garland is beloved by gay men, Richard Dyer points out that Garland’s later films frequently recalled her days as a child film star. This self-referential, even self-mythologizing, quality contributes to Garten’s iconicity, too, in albeit less dramatic ways.
Still, Garten’s lifestyle appeals, paradoxically, because it’s out of reach. For too long, the term “gay culture” has been synonymous with an exclusively white, urban, and upper-middle class gay culture, and the culture’s icons reflect this bias. Garten’s Hamptons-meets-Paris lifestyle remains largely aspirational for most of us. Yet, the depiction of bright, open interiors, manicured gardens, and an elegant but easy—Garten’s favourite adjective— style of entertaining represent the pinnacles of how we’re often told a good gay man ought to live, even if such stereotypes are finally beginning to crumble. While Garten’s home reflects a bourgeois lifestyle aligned, in some ways, with a fading gay stereotype, her on-camera domesticity has transcended its homey particulars to become an almost camp performance of itself.
For nearly two decades, I’ve watched Garten and her husband cook, eat, and travel together. I’ve watched them kiss unashamedly in their backyard gardens or hold hands as they walk down a Parisian street. Their affection for each other is so blatant as to seem a kind of act, save for the fact that Garten’s frequently stated endearment for her husband rings so true. She even titled a recent volume of recipes Cooking for Jeffrey. Garten’s flair for meeting the throwback ideal of the devoted homemaker at the same time she pilots a powerful food media empire is a complex balancing act of gender roles many gay men would find oddly familiar in their own lives, if on a smaller and less public scale.
Indeed, the greatest lesson Garten has taught the gay men who worship at her kitchen counter is how to cultivate a life of domestic happiness that is not focused on the traditional heterosexual model, which positions children as the good home’s raison d’etre. Instead, Garten has built a full life with her adoring husband and several intimate friends, the men and women (some queer, some not) who gather over and over again at her generous table. There’s no guilt or shame in Garten’s pursuit of pleasure. The Barefoot Contessa shows us that building a home for one’s self or one’s partner, without the unspoken yet compulsory goal of childrearing, is a good and valid way to live.
Queer people, particularly those of us who came of age in the previous century, have few popular role models for making a marriage or a home. History and literature offer us other icons of less mainstream renown. I think of Alice B. Toklas cooking for Gertrude Stein and friends in their Montparnasse apartment, immortalized in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. Another American expatriate also made a queer home in France: the painter and food writer Richard Olney, who entertained the likes of James Baldwin and John Ashbery in Provence, as described by writer Justin Spring in his recent history The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy.
Yet, I didn’t discover these pioneers of queer domesticity until I was well into adulthood. I gravitated to Garten as a teenager because her public persona vacillated between the traditional and progressive when entertaining friends and family. Her life seemed familiar (as in, everyone eats) but also distant in so many ways, and the space in-between allowed me to consider what my own form of domesticity might become. Garten showed me that you could make your mother’s meatloaf and mashed potatoes but live a different life than the one she assumed you’d lead. Although my tastes have changed over the years and I’ve moved onto more diverse recipes, I continue to make many of Garten’s classics. I still pore over her cookbooks and re-watch old episodes of her TV show, and her careful instructions for making coq au vin or apple pie serve as a comforting balm on any bad day.
When I first moved in with the man who I’d later marry, we couldn’t be guided by the protocols our parents followed to determine household responsibilities along gender lines. Skill and preference have come to determine that I cook and he cleans, or that I pay the bills and file our taxes while he keeps our apartment stocked with groceries and bathes the dog. A recent study reported by The New York Times found that same-sex married couples indicated greater overall happiness which the researchers attributed, in part, to gay couples’ disavowal of gender stereotypes regarding household chores. It’s been over fifteen years since same-sex marriage was legalized in Canada yet my partner and I still receive questions like “Who wears the pants?” from well-meaning people of an older generation with less exposure to queer lives. The question suggests that domesticity is the same everywhere, naturally sprung and inherent to civilization, rather than the cultural construct given to the flux of place, time, and trends that it always has been. The latter realization, an unwritten maxim in that tomato-speckled library of rules for good living, may be the most important contribution queer people have made to domesticity, a fact that might free us all from the drudge work of gender norms.
Whenever I’m making a salad and artfully arranging vegetables in the bowl, even if it’s just for dinner in front of Netflix with my partner, I remember that video, now lost, that my dad recorded. I realize now that my cooking performance was less about fame and more an attempt to find a way to be myself at home. In her book Family Style, Garten advises, “If worse truly comes to worst [when entertaining], you can always order Chinese takeout and serve it on your best china with a glass of champagne.” The memories of our childhood selves playing house (or TV chef ) should remind us that domesticity is always to some degree a performance that we use to entertain ourselves and others well into adulthood. While drag queens interpret female celebrities like singers and old Hollywood movie stars, I need neither wig nor make-up to perform my Ina Garten routine. With a cast iron pan and a bottle of “good” olive oil, I can become like the Contessa for the length of time it takes me to roast a chicken with lemon, garlic, and thyme.
Cover photo courtesy of Becca Tapert.