| Arts & Culture
Queer Life Cooking Up Pride and Community at the LGBT Center’s Annual Garden Party
There’s nothing more queer than cobbling together something fabulous out of very little.
“Can we have lugaw again for dinner tonight?” my partner asks, shyly.
We’ve both been incapacitated by a dreadful cold the whole weekend. Combined with the dreary weather that appeared out of nowhere (in mid-May, for god’s sake), making the Filipino rice porridge that I grew up eating was an obvious choice. It’s simple food—consisting of rice, water, ginger, onion, garlic and patis (fish sauce) in its most basic form—but ask almost any Filipino and they’ll positively wax poetic about the soup.
Though there’s about a million variations on lugaw, I can’t help but feel like my rendition is a little blasphemous. I adapted my method not from my mother, but from Serious Eats , where the recipe was posted by someone who hadn’t heard of it until his wife asked him to figure out how to make it. Most use “arroz caldo” and “lugaw” interchangeably; I’m trying to use the latter more often in a small attempt to decolonize.
The name “arroz caldo” is derived from the Spanish words for rice and broth. One of the first recipes that comes up in the Google results refers to it as a “congee that closely resembles risotto.” It seems impossible to find anything about the soup that doesn’t just draw references to other non-Filipino foods, though admittedly Filipino food and culture are heavily influenced by other cultures as a result of centuries of colonialism.
Take champorado, for example, a sweet variation on lugaw, made by boiling rice with cocoa powder. It’s also derived from champurrado, the chocolate beverage, which made its way to colonial Philippines via the Spanish galleon trade with Mexico. Filipino locals adapted it to their tastes and resources, giving us champorado, “wrong” spelling and all.
So maybe my reappropriation of lugaw is in keeping with Filipino tradition after all. I use fried cubes of tofu rather than chicken. In addition to the standard ingredients, I’ll usually season with veggie bouillon and nutritional yeast, but I’ve been substituting soy sauce for the patis, since I don’t normally have it on hand. This past weekend, I had no bouillon or nooch either. In a desperate attempt to give the lugaw some dimension, I tossed in sesame oil, paprika, cumin, parsley—whatever I could find on my partner’s shelves.
Against all odds, the end result still tasted—and, more importantly, felt —like lugaw. I was pleased with myself, and had secretly been craving this new recipe a second night in a row too. So naturally, my partner’s request fills me with joy, and I happily acquiesce.
There’s nothing more queer than cobbling together something fabulous out of very little; and there’s nothing more lesbian than fried tofu, especially when cooked in a specific context of caretaking. Queer women have been doing the whole vegetarian thing since before it was mainstream—tofu may as well be considered a staple of the lesbian diet.
This understanding is becoming more widespread as queer food culture explodes into the mainstream. A Slate article from 2002 poses the question: “ What is queer food? ”, but no one seemed to want to answer for at least a decade. Now, the answers are everywhere. The first issue of Jarry , a bi-annual print publication about the intersection of queer culture and food culture, debuted in 2015. The much-buzzed about Queer Soup Night , which is a “Brooklyn-born queer party with soup at its center and a commitment to resistance,” was created following the 2016 election. Both Eater and the New York Times discussed queer food culture at length in 2018, attempting once more to provide a lineage for this seemingly new movement.
While the spotlight on queer food culture is certainly exciting, it’s also long-overdue. For decades now, the LGBTQ community has used food as a catalyst for gathering. Take the LGBT Community Center’s Garden Party, a tasting event that takes place at the start of Pride Week each year. It’s one of the longest-running Pride events in New York City; the first one took place at The Center in 1984. Its founding members had just purchased the building the year prior—there was no actual garden to speak of and New York City was fully in the throes of the AIDS crisis.
“There has to be some way for people to experience joy and fun as well as deal with all the hard stuff that people were dealing with then.”
“It was a way to bring people into the building that was kind of fun and celebratory,” says Robert Woodworth, a former employee of The Center and an attendee at the 1984 Garden Party. “There has to be some way for people to experience joy and fun as well as deal with all the hard stuff that people were dealing with then.”
In those early years, the street in front of The Center, West 13th Street, would close down and community organizations based in the building, such as the famed AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP), would table, allowing attendees to learn more about the building and the radical organizing happening within. ACT UP, which still meets at The Center on Monday evenings, was and is responsible for orchestrating a number of direct actions to call attention to the AIDS crisis; one of their most notorious actions was shutting down the Food & Drug Administration for an entire day . While the party, in the beginning, had food in the form of boxed lunches, the focus was really on the performers, who ranged from the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus, to the Lesbian and Gay Big Apple Corps, to comedian Kate Clinton, who served as Garden Party’s emcee for more than a decade.
Garden Party had also been imbued with the political from the start, says Woodworth: “We’re doing stuff the government should be doing, so the government should be convinced to fund it.” This “stuff” included HIV testing and education about the treatment options available at the time, about which the federal government was infamously silent . One of the goals was to give visibility to queer constituents across city districts. “One of the ways we tracked that was by the newsletter subscriptions,” says Woodworth. “We approached 100,000 circulation at one point, that was a goal.” The Center would approach elected officials and shed light on their constituents’ needs: “‘Here are all the addresses, and guess what, we have 1,325 people in your district. So you should pay attention.’”
It’s this subtle infusion of the personal with the political, combined with an ethos of care, that typifies queer food culture. Proceeds from Queer Soup Night, for example, benefit nonprofit and grassroots organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Trans Women of Color Collective. Garden Party, while a Pride event and a celebration, is also a benefit for The Center. When I ask Woodworth about his thoughts on queer food culture, he turns the question on me. “Do you experience that yourself, hang out with people and then do something specific around food?”
The answer, if you haven’t yet gathered, is a resounding yes . As a college freshman, I’d send out Facebook invites to all the queer people I knew and invite them to seasonal potlucks I’d throw in the cramped, communal kitchen in my dorm. I have vivid memories of Halloween 2016, rapidly whipping up an enormous batch of spaghetti with meatless balls (everything bought from Trader Joe’s, of course, with donations from attendees) as chaos swirled around me—in the sense of gay screaming, but also in the sense of the impending election. In fact, the Sunday just before I spoke with Woodworth, I had spent the entire day making a somewhat elaborate potato salad to bring to a potluck at my friends’ house, named “Big Gay” due to the fact that all of the people who live there are queer.
Glennda Testone, executive director of The Center, has enjoyed similar experiences. “I think there is a queer food culture, and I would almost say a social justice or an activist food culture,” she says. “I got a master’s degree in women’s studies from Ohio State University and the number of potlucks that we would throw, and the amount of hummus that I have eaten and bought and shared . . . ”
As she says this, I burst into laughter. It’s so true: Every single queer woman I know goes nuts for potlucks and hummus, myself and my partner included. The form of the potluck in and of itself seems inextricable from queer culture . I explain to Testone that my partner works as a grocery picker for a delivery service that focuses on making fresh, local food as accessible as possible, which means that they frequently get to take home food that isn’t quite up to company standard, but is still perfectly edible. Our collective favorite food that they take home is, predictably, hummus. And not just any hummus— edamame hummus made in Brooklyn . The whole affair is dyke-y to the point of self-parody.
Testone grins and suggests I write the article: How Queer is Hummus Really? I might just take her up on that.
She says there’s something very special, communal, and nurturing about this tradition of queer, activist potlucking, and draws a connection to Garden Party. “It’s an opportunity for us to come together and nourish ourselves and each other . . . so we can go out and fight for another year,” she says.
Though Garden Party has been radically transformed since its inception nearly four decades ago, the underlying idea of caretaking and celebration has remained constant. You won’t find boxed lunches at Garden Party anymore and it’s no longer hosted at The Center; it has moved to the Pier 97 events space at Hudson River Park. Since the 2000s, it’s taken the form of a tasting party that highlights some of the best queer and allied chefs and restaurants in New York City.
Photograph courtesy of the LGBT Center
Photograph courtesy of the LGBT Center
This year, however, is a special one. New York City is hosting WorldPride, an international celebration of LGBTQ pride that’s been going on since 2000, which coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots . And this year welcomes the first Garden Party Culinary Council, a coalition of four acclaimed LGBTQ-identified chefs who are curating the menu. It consists of Ash Fulk, culinary director of Hill Country Barbecue; Allison Kave, co-founder of Butter & Scotch; Lisa Fernandes, chef and owner of Sweet Chili and Hillary Sterling, executive chef of Vic’s New York. The Council members told me they were drawn to the event by the sense of togetherness and joy that comes from cooking for other queer people and sharing food with them.
“The chef used to be someone who hid in the back and you never saw, and then we have the rockstar chef where you wanted to see the chef more than the food, and now we’re kind of having this . . . renaissance of authenticity,” says Fulk. “I think that that’s sort of what’s really driving people . . . to want to express themselves right next to their plate more than ever.”
Fulk, an out gay man, says he “basically wear[s] a rainbow chef’s coat now,” after years of working in the traditionally “macho” kitchen environment. Last October, he and his husband decided to start throwing Sunday dinners for around twelve to fifteen people.
“We unlock the doors and people show up,” he says, extending me a personal invitation as well. “And every dinner party I’m ever at, there’s always a moment that I have this out of body experience . . . I pause and I just feel like I float above the table and I feel community happening.”
That feeling, he says, extends beyond the Sunday dinner table and into a large-scale event like Garden Party too. “There’s definitely that moment at Garden Party where you look across that sea of sequins and you say, ‘Oh my god, all of these people are here to donate their time, their money,’” says Fulk. “There’s so much history and so many strong shoulders that we’re standing on to be standing here today, celebrating pride so publicly, so outwardly. It’s a moment of thanks, I think, for me.”
“I just feel like I float above the table and I feel community happening.”
He recalls a moment at last year’s Garden Party, during which a storm broke out in the middle of the event, which takes place outdoors at Hudson River Park. Panicked, Fulk wondered what was going to happen and how he would get his team out of the rain in time. But before they cleared off the pier, they quite literally threw in the towel and decided to revel in the storm.
“[Drag] queens’ Sunday hats were being blown off, wigs were everywhere,” says Fulk. “It was a beautiful moment to just see this defiant group of people who were like, ‘We’re gonna party until the last second.’”
In an era when the Supreme Court is set to rule on a case that may affect LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws , transgender people are banned from serving in the military , and activists are still working to ban the gay/trans “panic” defense , queer celebration on whatever scale possible feels vital and revolutionary.
“There may always be a reason to be vigilant and to fight, but there is also always a reason to celebrate and we shouldn’t miss that piece,” says Testone. “Garden Party is a good reminder that, yes, it’s hard and we don’t exactly have a friend in Washington right now, but we have each other. We can come together and celebrate Pride and feel good about it.”
Testone tells me of a world she envisions where, someday, “you don’t have to go to a queer-centric thing for people to acknowledge that gay and lesbian people and TGNC and nonbinary people exist, and ask about pronouns, and ask about their partner and not your ‘husband’ or whatever the case may be.”
I want that world, too. But as we work to build it, I will find solace in the tofu and hummus and lugaw that I share with my friends and lovers, and in the act of sharing itself. Fulk likes to frame it as gay fellowship, a reclamation from tradition. Having gay fellowship and breaking (pita) bread.
I couldn’t have known, in October 2016, that the chaos swirling around me in the kitchen would set the tone for the next several years I’m not sure when it’ll ever stop feeling like that. But what I do know is that just like the queer people who came before me, I will always find a safe haven in the kitchen, the potluck, the Garden Party, even if only for a few hours.