When the US writer Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) hit a low point in her life, she decided to go on a spiritual pilgrimage. She studied at an ashram in India and with a medicine man in Bali, but first she turned to Italy, because in Italy, she says, pleasure is a given and for her pleasure meant food. Four months and 20 pounds later, she emerged feeling much better, having essentially eaten her way to happiness.
Now try to imagine that story in a gay context — some suddenly pudgy sylph poking his love ¬handles and telling you he’d eaten his way to ¬happiness. Oh, the raised eyebrows that poor fellow would get.
Yet there’s no doubt that we’re as troubled by our relationship to food as Gilbert and miss it almost as much.
By far the most ¬frequent complaint I hear about Church St concerns not the bars, but the food. Or rather the lack of it. Lots of places to go and nowhere to eat. Either the food’s lousy or it’s too expensive or the servers are too busy texting the next tryst to bother with the gents on the chairs. You know the complaints — if you haven’t heard them, it’s because you made them.
It’s an odd complaint, on the surface. Few subgroups are as ¬dedicated to the art of the dinner party as the gay couple.
(Singles are something else, again. I don’t know what singles do. This gay single is not prepared to confide his culinary insecurities. That’s between me and the Cloverleaf Tuna.)
But gay couples, well, there’s always at least one half of the crowd hunched over the recipe book. I’ve never met a gay couple where at least one half wasn’t entirely dedicated to cooking. Like the top and the bottom, the introvert and the extrovert, the homebody and the barfly, it’s a classic gay coupling pattern.
But that’s just the private world. In public, food is somehow antithetical to gaydom.
There are loads of urban myths about hard-core leather types exchanging cookie recipes while receiving a blowjob in the backroom, but few acknowledgements of food in the culture at large.
I’ve read an awful lot of gay novels and I can’t for the life of me think of one in which food played a major part. (Unlike, say, the straight Australian novel Eat Me, which featured a split avocado on the cover, or Margaret Diehl’s ravishing 1988 novel Men, where cooking was essentially a metaphor for love.) Nor even a food that might be considered a gay aphrodisiac. What would it be? A dried-out pizza slice after the bars? Orgies used to involve food — think Petronius, Fellini, the Satyricon and every Hollywood flick about Roman decadence ever made. They don’t anymore. (Or do they? Turn to page 29.)
People talk a lot about food at parties but I’m never really sure if it’s the food they’re enjoying or simply the chance to score social points.
These days nutrition is the new Puritanism. It’s not what you eat (or enjoy) but what you don’t. Avoid the wrong foods, after all — trans fats and red meat and all the rest of the sinful saturates — and you’re halfway to, if not heaven, then certainly a convention of the ¬politically ¬correct. I once had the misfortune to attend a dinner party dominated by two gay vegans who grinned ¬menacingly as they talked about all the food they couldn’t eat. It was scary, like listening to born-again Christians who’d given up sin for Lent. Pleasure wasn’t on their horizon.
Like much of contemporary life, food has been turned into a technology, a means to an end, and we’re really only happy when it delivers — when it helps us gain weight or lose weight or fight cancer or live to be 100 or develop abs of steel. The idea that it might be fun and valuable in itself is a foreign idea. Mostly it’s just a heaven-sent opportunity for righteous self-regard.
Eating is at the heart of most cultures. The Americans have Thanksgiving and the Christians have the last supper and the dykes have their potlucks, but gay men? Most communities celebrate big occasions with ritual meals, like mass or communion. We celebrate ours with drugs and sex. Pride is a Saturnalia without a feast. Why?
Blame it on high rents or an undemanding public or a lack of civic imagination, if you will, but the lack of a local food culture speaks to something rather more central in the gay world. Traditionally, gay men have always been the people of the image — artists, ¬stylists, decorators, hairdressers — and we’ve taken that obsession with the visual into our daily lives.
But in obsessing over appearance, we’ve lost touch with the other more basic senses. ¬Convinced that beauty is the key to happiness we’ve forgotten that the point of looking good is to feel good — to touch, taste and otherwise revel in the sensual. It’s too bad, really, because food is the second-most obvious ¬sensual pleasure around and if we don’t enjoy it how can we enjoy any other?