Garam Masala

They have Made More than 377 Contributions to All Sections in India!


It seems like any other sandwich in the café’s display case until you notice the small label: LGBT sandwich. What’s in it, you ask. Lettuce, Gouda cheese, Basil oil and Tomato, says the person behind the counter, deadpan. LGBT also stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender, a group of people that a Supreme Court bench recently dismissed as a ‘minuscule minority’ whose rights were not worth protecting. Someone at this café, part of a national chain, seems to be more supportive. I won’t name the chain to prevent this quiet gesture from gaining controversy, but if you ever see the sandwich, consider ordering it in tasty solidarity (though I wish instead of boring iceberg lettuce they had used lively, peppery arugula which would better suit the lesbians I know). Fashion is the stereotypical gay profession, but food isn’t far behind, and rather more inclusive of the rest of the alternate sexuality spectrum. LGBT people have long found sustenance, salaries and solace from all parts of the food business — as chefs, wait staff, food writers, farmers, food entrepreneurs and just cooking up multitudes of delicious meals. The Alice B Toklas Cookbook, which famously first popularised a recipe for hash brownies, is as much a memoir of Toklas’ life with her life partner, the writer Gertrude Stein. MFK Fisher, the best, most luminous of American food writers, lived for years with another woman. Lots of LGBT People in Indian Food Biz 
In one of her memoirs, she has a memorable chapter on the lusts and appetites (for oysters as much as sex) that pervaded Miss Huntington’s School for Girls where she studied in 1924.
James Beard, the guru of American gastronomy was gay, though he had to be discreet about it for most of his life. James Villas, a much younger food writer, writes in his memoirs of taking the massive Beard to a gay club for the first time, which he enjoyed, though he felt everyone there was too thin: “They just need to put some meat on their bones.” Craig Claiborne, long-time food critic for the New York Times, and one of the first to popularise Indian food in the US, was gay, as was Richard Olney, a reclusive, but influential expert on French food.Today, sexuality hardly seems an issue in the food business in the US. Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential, his entertaining exposé of high-stress restaurant life admits that kitchen swearing is often homophobic and racist, but doesn’t mean it: “We spend too much time together as an extended, dysfunctional family to care about sex, gender, preference, race or national origin.”
Several Indian-American LGBT people have made their names with food, like Preeti Mistry, who is openly lesbian, and was a chef on the Google campus before taking part in the Top Chef show. Raghavan Iyer, whose 660 Curries is one of the best written and presented big books of Indian recipes dedicated it to his late mother, to Terry Erickson, his partner of 25 years and to their son Robert who “tasted all of the recipes in this book (extraordinarily commendable when I tell you the testing happened during the fourth, fifth and sixth years of his life).”
In India, LGBT people in the food business may be less open, and this regressive ruling might force them to be even more discreet. Yet there have always been lots of LGBT people involved in Indian food, like a well-known food writer who multiple reliable sources have told me was gay, but since he lived well before the relative openness of recent years, never really came out. One of the first really stylish small restaurants I encountered in Bangalore was run by a gay couple and a lesbian chef runs some of the best restaurants in the country. I haven’t been to Salem in a while, but if I do go, I’ll make sure to eat at the Menmai Arusuvai Idli Kadai which has been set up by a transgender community group and has been such a hit they plan to start a chain.
Lathika George, in her book The Suriani Kitchen, writes about Missy, an Anglo-Indian lady famous in the Syrian-Christian community in Kerala in the 1940s for her cooking skills. She travelled, teaching how to make her delicacies and usually stayed in the local convent, since she was a devout Christian. One night when she didn’t respond to knocking at her door, a young nun peeped through the keyhole and “spied Missy hurriedly pulling a dress over her head, turning then to reveal she was actually a man.” What happened to Missy isn’t told, but her memory survives in her recipes which George passes on, like for instance Molaga Chertha Mooriyerchi Chops, steaks marinated in tamarind, jaggery and pepper.
Since many LGBT people live with families and can’t bring partners or friends home, restaurants and cafes become particularly important as places to meet. The Gaybombay support group started off 14 years back with a group of men meeting informally in McDonald’s, which had just opened in the city. It wasn’t the fast food that was the attraction, but the fact that it was cheap, easy to access and even had a nice family vibe, that mattered for a group that wanted to show that being gay wasn’t something sleazy, but just as regular as anything else.
Over the years, many restaurants, cafes and bars have hosted LGBT meetings – United Coffee House in Delhi was one of the very first – and it was heartening to hear how one Mumbai bar, after the Supreme Court decision, waived some charges that a LGBT group owed them for the event as a sign of support. Another supportive brand was Amul which did a congratulatory hoarding after the positive Delhi High Court ruling in 2009 and a commiserating one now. But as always for LGBT people, it’s the food cooked and eaten at home that has been the most important. ‘Feeding Lesbigay Families’ is a fascinating study by Christopher Carrington that studies food interactions of gay and lesbian couples in the US to show not just how similar they are to straight couples, but also to illuminate aspects of straight relationships, like the often unexpressed inequalities in food shopping, cooking and consumption. And at the start of the essay he quotes an epigram he found in the kitchen of a lesbian family: “Life’s riches other rooms adorn. But in a kitchen, home is born.”


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