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Embracing Diversity in the Food World

Mitchell Davis

June 29, 2017

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Sipping a glass of pink-as-a-triangle rosé on a sunny afternoon in late June as LGBT Pride Month draws to a close, the curious relationship between sexual orientation and food is on my mind. In his James Beard Award–winning Lucky Peach article, journalist John Birdsall pointed out the unspoken truth that modern American food was shaped by queer giants like Craig Claiborne, Richard Olney, and James Beard. Even though when he died in 1985 Beard was writing a tell-all memoir, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently remarked that it’s taken us 30 years to flesh out (in every sense) the history of the fleshy man who is our muse. What his obituaries left out has only lately been put back into Beard’s life, as in the new PBS documentary, America’s First Foodie, which notes Beard’s expulsion from Reed College for an affair with a male professor and other details of his private life previously glossed over. (Birdsall is at work on a Beard biography that will also help complete this part of the picture.)

Rainbow bagels and unicorn lattes aside, what is gay food and why does sexual orientation matter? As a gay foodie myself, I’m not sure the food’s the point. Good food is good food, no matter who cooks it, or rather, no matter who the person who cooks it sleeps with. But the way those cooks are treated, the professionalism of the environment in which they work, and the opportunities afforded them to grow and succeed—these are the sorts of issues that I do think we can rightly address.

As part of a new JBF commitment to cultivate leadership and diversity in our industry, last January I moderated the James Beard Foundation’s first roundtable on LGBT issues in professional kitchens and restaurants with sociologist Deborah Harris. The out-and-proud lesbian and gay chefs and food writers who joined us told tales of awkwardness and harassment, prejudice and unprofessionalism. A successful and self-satisfied lot, they didn’t believe these situations held them back—quite the reverse, they egged them on. But these stories were similar to those Harris and I heard from women chefs and restaurateurs while conducting the listening tour that informed our new JBF Women’s Leadership Programs. And I suspect that they will be echoed again in the stories we hear as we set out to discuss issues of African-American and ethnic diversity in professional kitchens, as well.

No country can claim a food culture as varied as America’s, where the all-you-can-eat buffet includes food from every corner of the globe. But it’s time to embrace diversity in our food people the way we have embraced diversity in our food. When everyone has an equal opportunity to thrive in the satisfying work of making delicious food that pleases and sustains us, we will all be better nourished.

Mitchell Davis is executive vice president at the James Beard Foundation. Find him on Twitter and Instagram.