Addressing Gender Norms and Sexual Orientation Through Food: An Interview with L.M. Zoller of I’ll Make it Myself
“What is the queerest food?”
That’s a prompt on page four of the new zine, The Corners of Their Mouth. Published by L.M. Zoller and Robin Elan, the zine takes a look at the intersection of queerness and food. This may be an intersection that you never thought of; in fact, before Zoller and I had connected, it hadn’t crossed my mind.
Zoller is behind the blog I’ll Make it Myself, and we connected thanks to Comestible. I enjoy reading Zoller’s blog because it provides an entirely new perspective on food, one that I hadn’t been exposed to before. The zine is the same. Both have encouraged me to question my own relationship to food, and to how I talk and write about food. Knowing that food is a connector, as such, it should be inclusive. How we write about food, how we present recipes, how we view certain foods as “manly” or “girly,” how we perceive gender roles in the kitchen, both at home and at restaurants – all of this is worth thinking about, and much of it, is worth challenging.
I think good food media encourages us to do just that – to ask more questions, to be more inquisitive – so I caught up with Zoller to learn more. In this interview, we cover a variety of things, and Zoller was kind enough to give a fantastic primer on sexual orientation and identity, which I think is an essential starting place for addressing the topic at hand. Then we cover ways the world of food media can be more inclusive, as well as pointing out some of the typical places where food and stereotypical gender norms collide. Make a cup of coffee and settle in.
Tell us who you are and what you do.
I’m a food blogger, writer, and LGBTQ volunteer/activist living in Seattle. My day job is in international education. My hobbies other than cooking include swimming, opera, reading, and hiking; I like to think I’m an expert at thrift store fashion, although Seattle makes that easy for me. I’m a self-taught cook; I prefer baking over cooking; I try to garden. I live with my partner Robin and our two cats.
How do you identify?
I identify as a bisexual nonbinary femme, and I also use the term genderqueer to describe myself. I prefer the pronouns ze/zir/zirs (rhymes with she/her/hers, but with Zs!) but also use they/them/theirs.
Bisexuality, my sexual orientation, is the attraction to genders like you and genders different from you, or the attraction to two or more genders. (Bisexuality does often overlap with pansexuality, the attraction to any gender, and I support people using bi, pan, or queer to describe attractions to multiple genders if that’s the term that speaks to them most.) Due to biphobia and monosexism, bisexuals have the worst physical and mental health and highest rates of drug abuse, domestic abuse, etc., of any orientation, which is of course higher in those with intersecting marginalized identities (being a person of color, being a trans person, etc.). However, bisexuals have ALWAYS been a part of LGBTQIA rights, including Brenda Howard, the mother of Pride. We get gay-washed and straight-washed a lot, but we are here, we’re queer, and we contribute to our community.
My gender is nonbinary and genderqueer, and while I use both interchangeably for myself, some people prefer one or the other. Nonbinary is a gender outside the binary genders of male and female (which include trans men and trans women). Genderqueer also means someone who doesn’t fit into binaries of male/female. Some people don’t like this term because of the use of the reclaimed word queer, and others prefer nonbinary because it seems more distinct (and is also a noun). Every nonbinary person is different: some people are androgynous, some mix markers of culturally masculine and feminine, some identify as agender or no gender, others identify as all genders. Keep in mind, concepts of masculine and feminine are very tied to culture—the example I like to give is portraits of King Louis XIV showing him as the height of masculinity in a flowing wig and heels, showing off his shapely calves. Concepts of who wears what kind of clothing, who uses cosmetics, who adorns their body, are super tied into culture and change over time.
I also identify as a femme. Someone recently asked me if this were the same thing as “lipstick lesbian” and I said no. Queer femme invisibility is a big problem in our community—the women who don’t “look queer enough” because they “look straight.” But femme can be any gender and any kind of body. Before I identified as nonbinary, I felt very trapped between liking masculine and feminine clothing, but the kind of clothing I liked was very “extra.” For example, the “baseline femme” for my hometown is very “ponytail, natural makeup, sweater, jeans, boots” and I am more like “loud brocade coat and red leather booties with tights with flower designs and a poofy skirt” or “wingtips and a vest with men’s slacks and a vintage tie.” People are often really surprised when they meet me for the first and second time because of how differently I dress from day to day. I also really love dark lip stains and giant rainbow earrings. Being a nonbinary femme let me explore my gender in an authentic, “extra” way that I couldn’t as a straight-appearing cis woman, an identity that never fit me at all.
As for my pronouns, you’d say something like “Ze is the author of this zine that ze co-wrote with zir partner” or “They identify as a nonbinary femme and their fashion sense is A+.” My partner Robin, the co-author and illustrator for the zine, also uses they/them pronouns.
What is your personal definition of “queer?” What do you think is the queerest food?
The word queer has an interesting, if contentious, history in the LGBTQIA community. Queer can mean strange, odd, and there’s a history of it being used as a slur (typically as a noun). However, the reason why I like that word is multifold: 1. It’s a great umbrella term for non-monosexual folks, that is, people who are bi, pan, or otherwise attracted to two or more genders; 2. It really makes straight people uncomfortable; 3. It echoes the concept of “queering” (e.g. “queering a film” or “queering the concept of gender.”)
“Queering” means reinterpreting through an LGBTQIA angle, and you see it both in academic literary criticism (applying a queer lens to the text) as well as fandom (headcanons, “shipping” same-sex couples). For the former, analyzing the queer subtext in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House when she claims not to have intended Theo or Eleanor to be read as lesbians or bisexual would be queering a narrative. To return to queering gender, refusing to perform gender “correctly” upsets a lot of white-supremacist cisheteropatriarchal systems. For me, that means trying to dress like a women’s magazine guide to “fashions men hate” and saving my emotional labor for people who actually deserve it. I also want to shout out to my AMAB (assigned-male-at-birth) nonbinary and femme sibsters, who amaze me every day with their resilience and beauty.
My personal pick for the queerest fruit is pomegranate, because I’m secretly a Classics nerd, and I love the symbolism of Persephone and Hades (though I imagine Hades more like the character in The Dark Wife by S.E. Diemer and not a kidnapping angsty dudebro). I love pomegranate for the symbolism of taking a gift that changes your life, for the metaphor of spending time in the closet versus out in the open, and because pomegranates are this really striking fruit that feels very decadent but is actually really good for you. Queer opulence on a budget!
What inspired you to make The Corners of Their Mouth?
My partner Robin is an artist who spent a lot of the last year working on developing their art skills, including taking classes on comics and printmaking and letterpress, and they wanted to collaborate on a zine together.
We’re already both quite involved in the other’s work—we’ve been close friends for seven years and romantic partners for two of those. I show up in a lot of their illustrations about our daily life, and they were one of my first blog fans; we both often help each other with everything from bouncing initial ideas around to final edits.
We knew whatever we collaborated on would be food related, since we both love to cook and a lot of our early angsty romance feelings for each other happened while we were collaborating on cooking lessons while working on the JET Program in Japan. Since a lot of our creative and volunteer work also focuses on our queer identities as well, and since we tend to see discussions of food and gender framed in terms of cisgender heterosexual relationships, we wanted to create something that reflected who we are. We’re also both nonbinary and bisexual, so we operate in a very similar framework when it comes to the intersection of gender, sexuality, and food.
We’ve both also spent a significant amount of time in relationships that were straight-appearing and in which our respective partners had their fragile masculinities threatened by various aspects of our queerness, so when we started dating it was really like throwing out almost all of the social framework of relationship models, including the butch/femme expectations for queer couples, from both the cisheterosexist society we live in as well as from the monosexist “gay and lesbian” community that actively erases the contributions of multi-gender-attracted folks, particularly bisexual, pansexual, and queer people. Food—from home cooking and grocery shopping as chore to commercial food production and labor— is so tied to gender, and I feel like the zine is one part of our manifesto on disrupting gender itself as well as exploring the connection between gender and food.
You write in the introduction to the zine “Trying to find recipes without having to wade through cisgender and straight people’s hang-ups about gender is harder than you’d expect.” What are some examples of this?
I actually wrote a blog post on this a couple years ago.
Because I’m self-taught, I spend a lot of time looking up recipes online when I want to make a new recipe or learn a new technique. I have a vetted list of blogs with no gender-bullshit, but when I have to venture outside that and Google around, I typically find little nuggets of gender essentialism worked into the recipes. Without naming names, here are some other things that will cause me to close a tab:
- Girls night out! I get the desire to get the hell away from cisgender straight dudes for a night, or forever, but don’t infantilize it.
- ”My husband is a meat and potatoes kinda guy” / “Man meals” / “Men don’t like ‘exotic’ food” (which is also ethnocentric) / “Manly desserts for Valentine’s Day” (it’s bacon)
- Gender reveal parties and gendered baby showers. As a trans and nonbinary person, let me tell you some truths:
- You’re essentially reducing an infant to their genitals
- Baby can’t tell you what gender they are yet
- Parents who do this, as well as parents who announce baby’s “gender,” are also going to treat those kids in certain ways because of their perceived gender, even if the parents identify as feminists. The arguments about/against gender neutrality I see from cis white feminists who are all#notallcispeople when I share articles about the problems of gendering babies on my personal social media are just astonishing.
I wonder a lot about what kind of person I would be if I hadn’t been assigned a gender at birth, had grown up knowing the word nonbinary, and been able to choose my interests, clothing, and make choices free of teachers’ and familial assumptions about who I could be. (I realize clothing choice is a little more strict for AMAB kids, but it still stands.) Why do we think gender is the most essential determinant of personality, skill, and role in society?
- Gendering food: why is that cake “girly” if it’s pink and fluffy? What exactly is “manly” about a hearty stew or a stout? Why is yogurt marketed to women for weight loss and digestion, and why, when it’s marketed to men, does it need to be BROGURT WITH PROTEIN FOR YOUR SWOLE LIFE? Really interrogating why we associate certain foods with certain genders is a great way to reconsider how we reproduce gender norms in and through food. Erving Goffman’s Gender Advertisements is a favorite of mine and a good starting point for deeper conversations about gender, advertising and food.
You pen a queer food blog, which you mention evolved from feeling that “straight people could stand to learn something on the way to their recipes and queer folks need loud, visible, unapologetic support.” I am a straight white woman who writes about food. How do I use my work to give better, more inclusive content but also that loud, visible support?
Here I’d say two main things:
Seek out contributions by queer writers! I can’t speak for all queer food bloggers/writers, but a good way for food media to contribute is by amplifying our voices and paying us (and other underrepresented and marginalized writers) for our work. I’ve been impressed with the diversity of stories in Comestible as well as the pitch page. Even adding something like “seeking contributions from underrepresented perspectives” or “looking for stories that highlight food that challenges dominant cultural narratives” to the pitch area if you haven’t already would be signaling that. “Stories that challenge the reader to rethink their relationship to what they eat” is great, by the way.
When writing about or editing articles about food and gender, don’t forget that trans and bi folks exist. A lot of writers use casually cissexist (trans-exclusionary or transphobic) language; other “feminist” writers write as if queer folks are only gay/lesbian (monosexual – attracted to only one gender), erasing bi, pan, and queer folks. For example, only discussing heterogamous (different-gender) relationships without acknowledging there are queer relationships and queer folks in relationships that are straight-appearing. The New York Times and other mainstream media, including supposedly liberal news, will use terms like “gay and trans” as a synonym for “LGBTQ,” which leaves out half the letters, particularly multi-gender attracted folks. The problem here is that bi+ folks face a different set of challenges and discrimination in schools, the workplace, our families, and society than our gay and lesbian peers. We also have our own culture that we don’t share with the gay and lesbian or the straight communities. Gender socialization around food and cooking is particularly toxic and ingrained. Feminism and food writing has to go way, way beyond “teach boys to cook and contribute to their households”– we have to disrupt the capitalist concept of not only separate spheres but also the entire concept of binary gender.
I have thought, and written about, the topic of sexism in food a lot, but I until I started following your work, I hadn’t thought about gender and food beyond traditional sexism/patriarchal structures. This week I was reading an article on Civil Eats about gender politics and the experience of queer women chefs. It seems to me like the discussion of food and sexism needs to be pulled out wider, so that it includes these topics. How do you think we should do that?
Similar to my answer above, actively seeking out writing by queer folks, especially ones who aren’t white cis gay men. One of the reasons I love being nonbinary and hanging out with other nonbinary and trans folks is the power we have to destroy the concept of gender. When you remove what our society has deemed the first and most basic determinant of, well, everything, from personality to ability to role in society (even if it’s rebelling against the dominant structure in an acceptable way), you’re left with a group of individuals who have control over their destinies, at least as much as this capitalist society allows: allowing each person to be a person instead of a gender stereotype removes the cultural baggage we all deal with that leads to toxic masculinity, rape culture, gender socialization, etc. Cisgender and straight folks react negatively to this because it not only makes a privileged group question themselves, but it would literally destroy the binary power structure of society.
Pulling it out wider can mean considering how marginalized identities intersect with each other, like women of color and QTPOC experiencing more harassment, higher rates of poverty, more food insecurity.
Some good media sources about race, gender, and sexuality that I‘ve encountered recently have been on podcasts: Racist Sandwich, some food-related episodes of Anzaldúing It, Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda, basically anything Soleil Ho does.
One of my favorite illustrations from the zine is “Fun Ideas for a Gender Reveal Cake.” As a woman, I have always felt incredibly uncomfortable at the extreme gender stereotyping that takes place at baby showers, particularly in the form of weird cakes, and that illustration really drove home the absurdity of it all. What are some other examples of where food and gender norms intersect?
Celebrations are a big source of gender norms and food. For example, and this is not an exhaustive list:
Baby showers centered around the gender diagnosis of baby’s genital configuration. “It’s a boy” or “it’s a girl” (a declarative word act!) is just as bad as gender reveal parties. Why cisgender people think baby’s gender is a knowable thing is super baffling to me.
Weddings: if I had to pick a time of peak gender dysphoria and heterosexism in my life, it would be wedding season. Formal-wear is super gendered; wedding ceremonies are super gendered; and as if that all weren’t bad enough, there’s also all the opportunities to gender the food–wedding cake vs. groom’s cake.
Bachelorette parties: Penis cakes. Enough said. (What do you do with the pan afterward?)
Thanksgiving (and food-related religious holidays). Hands up if your family conscripted all the girls and women to help in the kitchen while the men were watching football until one of them needed to carve the turkey.
Anniversaries and Valentine’s Day: the expectation that heterogamous couples need to eat or prepare a fancy meal that the man should pay for; chocolates; the alternative “Steak and Blowjob Day”– typing that made me throw up in my mouth a little.
Birthdays, especially for children—gotta get that princess cake for your girl and that car cake for your boy, because they asked for them, because they were socialized to want those things.
You can follow more of Zoller’s work on zir blog I’ll Make it Myself as well as Instagram @illmakeitmyself. While you’re at it, give Robin Elan a follow as well, at robin-elan.com or on Instagram at @robin_elan.
Using Food to Change the Thanksgiving Narrative