Lock Down, Rise Up, Make Food
MasterChef Canada winner Jennifer E. Crawford on finding self-created joy in Queer Food.
This story is part of "Queer As Food," a series that explores the role of food in LGBTQ+ communities.
“Queer Food is like cold butter sliding across a hot pan: just when I think it’s somewhere, it melts away.” Like that butter, 38-year-old Jennifer E. Crawford is perpetually on the move—and moving others. They explain that they only appear to be constantly in motion: “I have what feels to me like a languid pace, but probably looks fast, because my limbs just know how to be efficient in the kitchen, the way a computer always has background programs running.” Crawford exhibits laser focus on a given task—this interview, for example—but remains open to the pleasure and surprise of distraction, pointing out the delightful way that sunlight lands on crumpled tinfoil and showing me a particularly pleasing jar of their Mom’s pickled beets sitting on a shelf. Crawford bends down to kiss Taiga, the dog who “is never more than a few feet away from me. She's my sous chef and chief R&D quality control specialist.”
Crawford—refreshingly forthright, fierce, and funny—was a stand-out contestant on season six of MasterChef Canada in 2019. In a competitive roster comprised entirely of home cooks, Crawford’s queerness was rewarded on the show, where they quickly garnered fans across Canada for their imaginative and enthusiastic self-expression both in and out of the kitchen. They earned the MasterChef title along with its cash prize of $100 000. Notably, Crawford was the first non-binary person—they prefer the term “gender creative”—and the first Maritimer to win the competition.
I’ve turned to this self-identified “food freak” to help me ponder the question of Queer Food. “Trying to describe Queer Food feels as slippery to me as trying to describe my gender; it’s always getting away from me.” This lack of precision inspires an attendant frisson: “that’s what I love so much about Queer Food, its lack of fixedness.”
There have been seismic shifts both globally and on the home front since I pitched this story. I fear that contemplating Queer Food as we live in and through multiple interconnected crises is indulgent. Crawford allays my fears, reminding me that dismissing our own interests and instincts as frivolous is precisely what the powers that be want us to do. “Historically, times of strife have been awful to those on the margins. It’s repeating itself in real time, with a velocity so powerful it knocks me off balance. Anything not considered the ’greater good’ – the economy, the status quo – gets dismissed as simply frivolous, a distraction or a luxury to be considered expendable, including Black and Queer lives.” Crawford continues: “The horrors of police violence exacted on Black people, various states passing numerous transphobic bills, rampant food insecurity—who knows how many lives will be lost to this? Not just to COVID-19, but to the exhaustion and anguish of continual loss and injustice?”
For Crawford, Queer Food is inherently political, “forever expanding and challenging ideas about what’s normal. Nothing is free from politics,” Crawford argues. “What masquerades as apolitical is usually complacent enjoyment of privilege. Queer Food has the potential to expose those sneaky things, hold them up to the light, with a dash of camp and community-supported agricultural realness.”
Crawford believes that Queer Food matters more than ever in the face of calamity. Organizations such as The Okra Project are on the frontlines of this work every day, providing free-of-cost meals both for and by Black Trans people. Crawford enthuses: “Queers have always known how to make something out of nothing, because we’ve had to. That’s what pantry cooking in times of scarcity is all about. When you’ve been told repeatedly that your gender, your desires, your relationship configurations are unlivable, even subject to legal recourse and police violence—yet here you are, living them anyway—you know in your marrow that the rules are made up and the game is fixed.”
Crawford talks about the relief and healing they experience by embracing freedom from restriction in the kitchen, by creating their “own delicious utopia of ever-expanding techniques and flavors, whether or not they’re ‘supposed’ to make sense.” Crawford’s capacity to see beyond kitchen convention is part of how they won the MasterChef title: combining ingredients that “aren’t supposed” to go together, flaunting the so-called rules, imagining other ways of making: mint cotton candy and lamb shanks, Nova Scotia donairs dressed up as a pâté croûte, elaborate “treat cereals” with smoked milks—possibilities proliferate.
Beyond survival, Queer Food is “a daily reminder that we need and are deserving of nourishment, joy, care and love, and that we can create those nurturing moments for ourselves and others.” Crawford is beautifully candid about their own mental health challenges: “2018 was wild. I hit bottom and got sober in February. I had to do something with my hands to keep them off booze, so was perpetually in the kitchen. The more I healed, the more my creativity and capacity for feeling regrew. In August, I started a trauma treatment program.” Halfway through that program, and with newfound courage and strength, Crawford successfully auditioned for MasterChef Canada 2019.
Today, Queer Food is keeping Crawford sober, one meal at a time. “It’s soothing the usually well-managed PTSD that’s been banging at my door, every day, since quarantine started.” Crawford also worries about “all the queer kids in lockdown with homophobic and transphobic families. Most media paints an idyllic picture of domestic bliss, meal prep with your kids, and gathering around the family table. For lots of people, a full table is the loneliest, scariest place in the world.” It’s not hyperbole, then, to claim that organizations such as The Trevor Project and the LGBT Youth Line are doing life-saving work. Food banks, too. Queer Food is a call to nurture and sustain queer bodies.
Our queer bodies will, for the most part and out of necessity, spend this Pride apart. I keep hearing people lament that Pride is cancelled. But that’s only partly true, only one version of this year’s Pride story. Rather than crowding into bars and parks, onto streets and parade floats, we must re-invent and re-imagine Pride. Crawford wonders playfully, promisingly: “Can we cruise while at home, food pics the new hanky code? Landscape orientation, left pocket. Portrait orientation, right pocket. Sourdough, switch. Pride 2020 has the potential to be so campy, intimate, and revolutionary.” Crawford goes further: “And there’s no Pride without queer liberation for all. For me, Queer Food feels powerful in this context because not only is it invited into homes; it’s invited into people’s actual bodies. It very literally transcends the spaces between us, and don’t we need embodied connection now more than ever?”
Pride is an opportunity to rethink and re-create family, community, activism. As Crawford muses, “I’ve been thinking about how a lot of us don’t have those handed-down, learned-at-grandma’s-knee legacy of family recipes.” But we create our own culinary legacies as an act of queer love, “every recipe a portal into someone’s queer story of survival, vulnerability, and pantry. And with ample notes in the margins, where so many of us feel most at home.”