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A New Culinary Collective Aims to Empower LGBTQ Makers

Photo: Courtesy of Totes Gay

Chefs and partners Mavis-Jay Sanders and Sicily Sierra wanted to cheat the food system. And they’re doing it with a packaged sweet-potato and orzo soup mix, an idea they riffed on during a digital dinner party with fellow LGBTQ chefs earlier this spring. “Food access is an act of resistance, persistence,” Sanders says. “We’re not taking time to dismantle other people’s bullshit; we’re creating something new and letting that other stuff fall apart while it’s happening.” Tired of nonprofits “prioritizing numbers over people,” Sanders and Sierra created Food Plus People, a business to support their own marginalized communities with “beautiful, nourishing” meals. Their dried-soup mix, plus over 40 culinary products created by LGBTQ+ folks, will be included in a new consumable culinary collective, Totes Gay.

Totes Gay, a collaboration run by MeMe’s Diner and Queer Soup Night, will fundraise, support LGBTQ+-owned small businesses, and provide edible joy. The project fills a limited-edition tote bag (designed by queer artist Willie Norris), with specialty food items including cream cheese, bottled cocktails, kimchi paste, kaya jam and much more. All makers will be paid fairly for product and labor costs, and proceeds from the bags will be donated to the Okra Project, which provides homemade, healthy, culturally specific meals to Black trans folks.

Since debuting its lovable Brooklynified comfort food in late 2017, MeMe’s Diner has been a hub for LGBTQ food lovers. Monthly “queer industry nights” helped queer food folks bond. Last November, LGBTQ+ chefs and makers gathered at MeMe’s to discuss dismantling the exploitative commercialization of June’s Pride celebrations, agreeing on community standards for participation in future Pride events. Most importantly, “We need to be paid for our work,” says MeMe’s co-owner Libby Willis.

Now, in the midst of a global pandemic devastating the hospitality industry, and a social uprising for racial equality coinciding with Pride month, Totes Gay will cook up some change and help people feel less isolated during a time typically packed with community events. “Seeing the resilience within our queer community is inspiring and uplifting,” says caterer and Totes Gay participant Woldy Reyes. He hopes bites, sips, and scents from the totes will feel like much-needed, prideful hugs.

The Queer Pantry

Identity politics and a rise of conscious consumerism have allowed and encouraged makers to be out and proud, cultivating community and infusing queerness into the traditional American home pantry. New York-based J&E Small Goods vends its mom-and-mom business’s sustainable hot dogs. a grinning drag queen adorns the label of the eponymous Shaquanda’s Hot Sauce, Big Gay Ice Cream and Supergay spirits celebrate homosexuality on every pint and bottle. The ever-growing list of LGBTQ-owned food brands is also intersectional: Diaspora Co. fights colonialism by partnering with Indian farmers to source indigenous spices, Katie’s Kimchi shares proceeds with undocumented immigrants, and Minna’s sparkling tea sales support refugees. Everyday, consumable items that celebrate queerness, rather than shy away from it, infuse American households with progressive values.

However, social values do not pay the bills. Entrepreneurship isn’t funded by benevolent intentions or, worse, performative allyship. When New York hosted World Pride in June 2019, major corporations (banks, tech companies, Barclays Center) requested nearly free catering from MeMe’s. “It’s counterintuitive to me,” Willis says of multimillion-dollar companies undervaluing her work under the guise of promoting LGBTQ equality. “I’d say, ‘Sorry, no thanks. Take a look at our menu, and [when you have a budget], come find us, not during June. We’re open and queer 12 months of the year.’” Several makers included in Totes Gay reported similar frustrations: Opportunistic groups request free product every spring to “make money off Pride and take advantage of us,” says Pipcorn co-founder Jen Martin. This year, it’s different.

Pride in a Pandemic

With so many businesses shuttered indefinitely due to COVID-19, Totes Gay offers an opportunity for restaurant chefs, caterers, and community members to gather, earn fair compensation, boost their products on New York’s foodie radar, and raise money for racial justice.

Diversity remains at the core of Totes Gay’s mission. “We’re Black, and that matters,” Sierra says. “There’s honor in each one of the things inside of this tote. We can all be doing our thing together, be identified as queer people, but all the other things that define who we are are also highlighted, and that’s beautiful.”

“All these things can be together and be equal and valid,” Sanders adds. “There’s space for everyone to be represented.”

Curating dozens of diverse LGBTQ-owned food businesses to fill the totes wasn’t a challenge for the organizers. Willis says that Totes Gay will easily grow to include many more makers if it collaboratively expands its bandwidth. Ideally, Totes Gay will continue fundraising and supporting queer people throughout the year, curating holiday totes and more. A bodega stocking exclusively queer-made products may not soon materialize in this economy, but Totes Gay’s first round of totes ($50 for a “small plates” three-item tote, $150 for “chef’s tasting menu” tote), which will be available for pickup at MeMe’s Diner on Wednesday, July 1, has already sold out. A second bag will be in the works soon.

A New Culinary Collective Aims to Empower LGBTQ Makers