Alt ‘n’ Pepa

Nine years ago, I was at a food studies conference in New Orleans, and during a post-paper question period, one of the presenters was asked if she thought there could be such a thing as “gay food.” (She had done a bit of discourse analysis on The Gay Cookbook, a fantastically bizarre thing from the 1970s. It was, indeed, fabulous, but not terribly PC.) In response to the question, I wanted to shout out, “Yes, and it’s generally overpriced, too sweet, and badly plated,” based solely on my own experience with the shiny-but-inattentive eateries that dot many gay ghettos. (Garry Trudeau would disagree with me, however, and I thank him for that.)

I ultimately remained silent, but there was a bit of talk back and forth before the conversation eventually petered out. (And yes, Carla, I’m sorry for that one, but it wasn’t technically a food pun.) The exchange left an impression on me, and since then I have periodically pondered the question, expanding it from gay to queer to trans, in order to think through what non-normative food might be. My work in performance and gastronomy has been a response, in some ways, an attempt to splash around in the pond and ecosophize the troubling tendency to ‘modernize’ food. (In Latour’s boundary-building sense of the term.) Of course, there’s currently a tonne of discourse around “alternative food” (distribution networks, provision practices, contemporary cuisine), but as has often been very well argued, alt food stuff is very often not that alternative. It can often simply reinforce the same power structures that it had aimed to counter.

I had originally intended to call this blog “TransFood,” following the sense of across and diagonal, but also non-binary and becoming—that is, akin to trans identity and gender fluidity. Transness has become increasingly intriguing to me, because of my own participation in transdisciplinary scholarship, because of political, social, and legislative movement on transphobia, and because of a singular moment I had in Portland, Maine a few years ago. (More on that elsewhen, however.) But then when I went to check out what other people were meme-ing about w.r.t. #transfood, I found a pretty muddy field of previous usage, which I wasn’t sure I wanted to step into without better footwear.

Transfood shows up in a variety of senses—in terms of GM food (e.g., transgenic tomatoes and salmon), ‘alternative’ this and that (see above), and food that transpeople eat (trans by ingestion?) There were also a few references to bacon ice cream and mock chicken and various edibles dressed up in culinary disguise—which might be better described as drag food, perhaps. (Let’s ask Milk, or maybe Katya, about that.) A few hashtags caught my attention, though, and these were ones that referenced cis food. (In organic chem, the cis isomer of a molecule is the ‘standard’ one. [Well, sort of. Actually, it’s when the functional groups of atoms are all on the same ‘side’ of the chain of carbon atoms.] Its ‘twisted’ version [functional groups opposed in 3-D space] is the trans isomer.)

This intrigued me, since cis is also used as a more holistic replacement term for ‘straight’ or ‘hetero’ (ah, sexuality language…) Just as trans goes beyond bodies and behaviours, so does cis. This might be the start of a queering for food, I thought, and then that thread, too, seemed to dwindle.

All this to say: there’s a helluvalotta good material in queer theory for inspiring gastronomy, that is, as a version of food thinking-doing-feeling that upends and rattles and destabilizes things. (Unsurprisingly, performance and performativity share and intersect a lot with queer and gender theory.) This, I feel, is a really critical area for getting the alt back into alternative food.

(Whoa. Dude. Sidebar for a mo. […] Glancing at my keyboard, I notice that option, a key I find a lot of use for in making various accents and characters, sits just under a slightly smaller alt. And—dude!—the option key is literally trapped between “command” and “control.Mind. Once again. Blown.)

Jack Halberstam’s more-than-brilliant The Queer Art of Failure is a powerful handbook for thinking slowly a new project on twisting food towards new alterities. The author does a remarkable dance of wit and wisdom with various themes, including stupidity and forgetting, passivity and fascism. ‘Success’ is positioned as the heteronormative positive objective, while ‘failure’ is refigured as a queerly positive outcome. Not in the conventional sense of ‘learning from one’s mistakes’ (in order to later succeed), but as an elegantly refound way of being-doing that evades the structuring forces into which we have (almost) all been born. For example: forgetting allows us to refuture ourselves, unshackled from social expectations and given roles; getting lost brings us into contact with spaces we couldn’t (and perhaps shouldn’t) have expected to find; remaining passive in the face of confrontation strips out the power from those who are doing the confronting, rather than playing into the domination cycles that the challenge originally represented.

Ô, gastronomy, how might we fail together in such discovery! What pratfalls of pastry and thickenings of theory and clumsy fermentaccidents await us in our merry—yea, gay—refuturings? I often talk about my various practices as being messy, or about my attempts to put down power (look foolish, act awkwardly, remain incomplete) in front of students and peers. In reading Halberstam, I feel like I am being welcomed into the company of a band of normalcy alterationists, one with intentional clevertude or perhaps not. For carving (eroding) out a trans version of food study, it is rich territory. It seems also to be only the tip of a glamourous, slippy, and hard to reach iceberg of thinking-doing food practice.

In keeping with my twisted approach to normative essay writing, here’s the passage from TQAOF that made be feel I’d found my Eye of Jupiter (BSG S03E10 ref, y’all):

This is not a bad time to experiment with disciplinary transformation on behalf of the project of generating new forms of knowing, since the fields that were assembled over one hundred years ago to respond to new market economies and the demands for narrow expertise, as Foucault described them, are now losing relevance and failing to respond either to real-world knowledge projects or student interests. As the big disciplines begin to crumble like banks that have invested in bad securities we might ask more broadly, Do we really want to shore up the ragged boundaries of our shared interests and intellectual commitments, or might we rather take this opportunity to rethink the project of learning and thinking altogether? (Halberstam 2001, p. 7)

In looking back at the New Orleans conference programme, it turns out there were a few papers poking around at queer stuff back then. Hmm. Where did those beignet-eating inspirational scholars go with their ideas, their creolic superheroic strivings, their klieg lights of alertness, shining on post-Katrina ghostly galleons in the sky?

I feel a caped mission coming on. Lego Robin, to the Batmobile!