Daniel Isengart’s Culinary Memoir is a Literary Act
Text by Lukas Volger
Photos by Steve Viksjo
“When I cook,” says Daniel Isengart, “it’s performance.”
The writer, cabaret artist, and chef has donned a high-collared Edwardian shirt and tied a cluster of metallic bulbs and beads around his neck to serve as a tie. Standing behind the kitchen island that faces his dining table (his stage; his audience) with a smattering of fruit, vegetables, and other ingredients before him (his cast; his props), he looks directly into the camera as we begin taking photos: stern but amused, laser-sharp. It’s Marlene Dietrich. Or Johnny Weir. Meanwhile, Liza Minnelli belts from the CD player.
Here in the Brooklyn Heights apartment he shares with his husband, the artist Filip Noterdaeme, he’s cooking a few recipes from his new book, the culinary memoir The Art of Gay Cooking. But describing it as just a memoir, or even a cookbook, betrays its ambition. In structure, scope, and on a granular, line-by-line level, The Art of Gay Cooking is a recreation of the modernist masterpiece The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. In Daniel’s refashioning, he and Filip embody the roles of a modern-day, Brooklyn-residing Alice and Gertrude.
And in fact the book continues the project they began when Filip wrote his own “gay adaptation” of Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Tolkas, titled, fittingly, The Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart. That process exposed the rich parallels between the lives they were creating in New York and those of Alice and Gertrude in Paris three generations earlier: Alice and Gertrude were lesbian expat Americans in Europe, whereas Daniel and Filip are gay expat Europeans in America; both couples cultivate a social life, and home, that’s steeped in a burgeoning arts scene; and even in the roles they inhabit as partners—with Gertrude the artistic genius, and Alice exalting in the domestic sphere—share uncanny similarities.
So when he writes, too, it’s a form of literary performance, and The Art of Gay Cooking doesn’t so much invite the comparison to Toklas’ as mandate it. Toklas begins her book:
The French approach to food is characteristic: they bring to their consideration of the table the same appreciation, respect, intelligence and lively interest that they have for the other arts, for painting, for literature and for the theatre.
And here’s Daniel:
The modern American approach to cooking is characteristic: they bring to the culinary arts the same earnestness, ambitiousness, determination and exuberance that they apply to business, to sports, to entertainment and to politics.
Then the table of contents mirror each other. Alice’s “The French Tradition” is Daniel’s “The American Way.” Her “Dishes for Artists” is his “Dishes for Socialites” (the chapter includes a recipe for “Evian-Steamed Broccoli”), and both books have a “Recipes from Friends” chapter. Daniel subverts Alice’s “Servants in France” chapter by writing, in “Serving and Being Served in New York City,” of his years spent as a waiter and cater-waiter, as well as a reluctant restaurant patron. The recipes even match up thematically, with Alice’s desserts and seafood recipes, for example, inspiring similar styles of dishes of his own.
“I realized that, in a way, I was just doing in writing what I had always done as a performer,” he says of the process of creating The Art of Gay Cooking. Not impersonating Alice, but interpreting her vis a vis his own life material. “I like to think of the book as the writerly equivalent of doing a drag performance. So, adopting Alice’s somewhat clipped, opinionated voice and wry sense of humor and dry repartee was easy for me. With every story, every anecdote, every paragraph, I had to find something in my own life that could compare to it.”
Even Daniel’s approach to a recipe speaks to artistic expression and performance. For him a recipe functions something like an actor’s script: not to be used as a crutch. “You just have to understand the principle and develop a feeling for what you’re going for," he says of cooking. "Then pay attention to what you’re doing, not to the recipe.”
This approach applies to nearly all of the dishes that he makes for us: for his sardine semi-crudo, he couldn’t source fresh sardines and instead substituted red snapper. The pineapple-cilantro sorbet is served on an impromptu bed of crushed home-made waffle cones and each serving is topped with a little pile of sugared jalapeño. His “fishy tacos”—a recipe collected from the Playboy Casino in Cancun, where he'd been invited to perform his cabaret act—call for roasting squash in the oven, but because of the humid hot weather on the day of our visit, he cooked it on the stovetop instead so as to not add even more heat to the room.
“Develop a sense for what’s happening,” he says as he tosses the squash in a wide skillet. In other words, read the room. “That’s when it [the recipe, the audience] becomes yours.”
The book is effectively The Daniel J. Isengart Cookbook. But by calling it The Art of Gay Cooking he sought to create a cookbook with “an explicit gay theme,” and more broadly “a representation of what a life looks like when you bring artistry to cooking within the gay existence of identity.” Could one hypothetically, retroactively, apply his updated title to Alice’s book? Yes and no, Daniel says. Certainly the social rules have changed for same-sex couples in the ensuing decades, but he doubts that she would have considered her work a creative endeavor.
“She would probably not have accepted the notion that there was any art to what she was doing,” Daniel says, “because that was Gertrude’s domain. But her loving attention to detail, her insistence on pleasing her partner first and foremost, her status as a passionate amateur—versus a trained professional—who elevated cooking and home entertaining in their unusual household very much to an art form—their dinner parties were legendary—definitely makes her a cook with a gay spirit in my opinion.”
But by framing his book this way—as an example of what it looks like to bring artistry to the realm of gay cooking—his book is simply an extension and expression of the day-to-day lives that he and Filip lead.
"We’re trying to live a life where we bring a level of artistry and creativity to everything we do," he says. "I don’t draw a line. Everything is to a degree a performance. Everything is about going into the detail and having the pleasure of it and sharing it and being generous with it." ///
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