Finding LGBT food culture in a 1970s cookbook

To make “A Very Gay Meat Loaf,” begin with the meat.

Take 5 pounds of ground pork and veal and mix in chili sauce, salt, nutmeg, 1 pint of sour cream, pepper, and summer savory.

“The mixture should not be too homogeneous,” wrote Michael Goldberger. In 1976, Goldberger’s recipe for “A Very Gay Meat Loaf” was published in The People’s Philadelphia Cookbook. The directions for this simple dish are a record of an ignored and forgotten part of LGBT history: our food ways.

When we describe LGBT culture, we usually talk about bars, drag, music, slang and fashion. We might even remember to mention our contributions to literature, poetry and visual arts. Rarely do we discuss LGBT food, even though food is central to all culture and LGBT food ways are as distinctive, varied and complex as those of any other community.

The next step of making “A Very Gay Meat Loaf” is adding spinach and, “if you are rich this week,” fresh mushrooms.

I know what it means to be rich this week and poor the next, and the quiet agony of picking up a package of mushrooms only to return it to the grocery store shelf. “A Very Gay Meat Loaf” is special not just because it is a LGBT recipe, but because of what type of LGBT food culture it represents. It’s a community-oriented dish, something you cook to share your love when your heart is bigger than your budget.

Blanche the spinach and gently mix the veggies into the meat. Add 6 to 8 hardboiled eggs.

Goldberger was an activist, as were all the other contributors to The People’s Philadelphia Cookbook. The cookbook was compiled by the People’s Fund, which raised money for Philadelphia’s vibrant community of radical groups. Their list of beneficiaries included the Black Panthers, the United Farm Workers, Disabled in Action and Goldberger’s organization, the Gay Activist Alliance. All of these groups were engaged in efforts to bring about a revolution that would end racism, heterosexism, ableism, poverty, militarism and other injustices facing their communities.

A cookbook was a logical way to raise money for the People’s Fund, because food was at the heart of the liberation work of the organizations it supported. Like the Black Panthers’ free breakfast efforts, many radical communities in the 1970s made sharing food a key part of their liberation methods. In LGBT communities, these practices were mostly informal, but no less important: Trans women shared meals and housing at places like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson’s STAR House; potlucks were the cornerstone of the loose network of lesbian separatists communities that made up Amazon Nation; and everyday LGBT people, like Goldberger, cooked for their friends and lovers in their own homes. When LGBT people shared meals, sometimes very modest ones, they used food to create warm islands of safety in a dangerous world.

Put the meat and veggie mixture into a huge pan with plenty of room for the melted fat to ooze.

In an interview published beside “A Very Gay Meat Loaf,” The People’s Philadelphia Cookbook authors wrote, “Is fancy cooking a luxury? Yes and no, says Michael. It does take time and attention, but I know it’s also a good way to dress up and vary modest food. A filet mignon stands alone, but you have to do something to tough meat.”

Michael refers to the type of cooking I know best — the feed-a-crowd-on-next-to-nothing, loaves-and-fishes miracles that working-class people, mostly women, pull off daily. It’s not the kind of cooking that gets you a Michelin star, but Anthony Bourdain understood and respected it and lesbian filmmaking legend Cheryl Dunye celebrated it in her short film “The Potluck and the Passion.” At its best, recipes like “A Very Gay Meat Loaf” are love spells that bind an entire community together.

Spread a thin coat of sour cream on top of the meat loaf. “You can over the surface with bacon slices if desired.”

“I mostly enjoy cooking things that have associations for me,” Goldberger told The People’s Philadelphia Cookbook. He based his meat loaf on recipes from Craig Claiborne, an openly gay New York Times food writer, and Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein’s partner. Toklas, who was also Jewish like Goldberger, published a cookbook which included a recipe for “Haschich Fudge,” a mixture of fruit, nuts, spices and cannabis sativa. Yes, a recipe for pot brownies.

Goldberger liked preparing his meat loaf because, “Besides tasting good, Alice was a gay sister. It's fun putting it together because of her.”

Bake the meatloaf at 350 for about an hour. Test it by sticking a fork in it.

If I were a better journalist, I would have tried to recreate “A Very Gay Meat Loaf.” But, in truth, I don’t have money to spend on food that I might not enjoy – and, in accordance to stereotype, I rarely eat that much meat. I think Goldberger would understand. I certainly appreciate why “A Very Gay Meat Loaf” was important to him.