pride

Baked Alaska Is the Ultimate Gay Food

Fun, flamboyant, and literally flaming, it’s the epic drag queen of the dessert world.

by Joanne Spataro
18 June 2018, 9:21am

Composite image; original photo via Flickr user vxla.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: Pride Month. As a glittering lesbian who requires a major dose of pizzazz in her diet, I wanted to find the right food to serve at my Pride party, especially since a dear friend is coming to New York Pride for the first time next week. I want to dazzle him with the gayest food he’s ever seen and eaten.

This desire lead to a frantic 1 AM Googling session of “Pride desserts,” and all I got were rainbow cupcakes with rainbow sprinkles. Begging the Internet gods for a better answer, I decided to go the old-fashioned route, calling up queer friends and asking, “What’s the gayest food you could serve at Pride?” The answers ranged from “What, food? There are cocktails...” to “Gyro trucks and funnel cakes, I guess?”

None of this was doing it for me. Predictable rainbow-coloured cupcakes and sweaty meat in the middle of summer? We can do better.

Like stumbling upon the most beautiful person in a bar, I found what I was looking for buried in an old article about gay foods: Baked Alaska, a dessert so rarely talked about, so profoundly fancy that my queer friends had no idea what it was until I sent them a photo of one. The responses I received ranged from “YASSSS” to “That’s the drag queen of desserts.”

Photo courtesy Delmonico's.

I can’t confirm whether the early creators of what we call Baked Alaska today were LGBTQ or simply had a lust for ice cream and cake wrapped in singed meringue, but I’m pretty sure the Baked Alaska is the gayest food of all time. Hear me out, people.

1. Baked Alaska, the much-mythologised food, is flamboyant AF.

Picture this: A mixture of ice cream and cake crowned in rich, stiff meringue spindles browned with a blowtorch—looking more nautical and regal than a lobster in a top hat. This dessert is the only food that both lives for the spotlight and is simultaneously known as an elusive, fussy old queen you’d go out to see but never entertain at home.

2. The origin tale of Baked Alaska is almost gayer than the dessert itself: A mysterious, glamorous dessert that downplays its humble origins.

French chef Charles Ranhofer is credited with making this dessert at Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York City to celebrate the United States buying the Alaskan territories in 1870. The hot and cold elements of the dessert—the warmed meringue and cold ice cream—seemed to represent the contrasting temperatures of the territories and warmer states within America. This colourful story is only partly true, like any tantalising tale you might hear at a drag show at 1.30 in the morning.

“I think [the Alaska Purchase reason] is a cover story for the name,” says Cathy Kaufman, a historian specialising in New York City food and drink. “It’s kind of a patriotic commemoration of these things. I don’t think the dish was invented for that purpose. People like to rename things [or say] ‘we’ve done this new thing’ when it doesn’t seem to have been invented for that purpose. [The Baked Alaska story] just took advantage of the political moment.”

Ranhofer’s recipe for Delmonico’s was included under the name Alaska Florida in his 1893 book The Epicurean. In it, Ranhofer details how to make the dish with vanilla ice cream, vanilla cake and a golden brown meringue—but without the blowtorch since that didn’t come along until the 20th Century. “In the 1870s, they had other ways of doing it,” says historian Andrew F. Smith.

Kaufman believes while Ranhofer is credited with creating the Baked Alaska and Alaska Florida, he’s not the inventor of it. It’s definitely possible another European chef could have started a previous version of the Baked Alaska, and Ranhofer’s stature and his visibility with the dessert is why he’s credited with its creation.

“Like so many things in the culinary world, it’s hard to identify a single inventor of a dish,” says Kaufman. “Somebody gets an idea, people play with it, there can be parallel inventions with chefs who are talented and thinking about ways of putting together ingredients.” She refers to omelette norvegienne—a Norwegian omelette frequently considered a precursor to the Baked Alaska that’s never mentioned in its current form—like an old high school classmate they once did musical theatre with in their formative teen years and have long-since left behind.

Photo via Flickr user Ralph Daily.



3. Baked Alaska is constantly changing its look and doesn’t give a fuck what season it is.

Back in the late 19th century, Kaufman says, Randhofer did serve seasonal items, but it was also considered elite—or, for the time, aspirational—to serve food that wasn’t in season. The current signature Baked Alaska at Delmonico’s is made with banana gelato and walnut cake, but like any Liza or Judy worth her salt (or sugar, in this case), she has more sequined gowns where that came from.

“My guess is it’s a sort of dessert that begs for so many variations,” says Kaufman. “While Ranhofer decided to memorise this particular version, using the bananas in a nod to a subtropical environment in Florida, my guess is it was made with many different varieties. Once you put something in print, it starts to become iconic, but that doesn’t mean that was the only variation at the time.”

4. Baked Alaska may seem bold, but make no mistake: It’s gone through a literal trial by fire as the culinary version of Cher.

Back in 2002, writer David Mehnert featured the dessert in his article for Slate and answered his own question, cementing its gay status (and the one that lead me on this quest for the gayest food): “Why is Baked Alaska queer? Because it breezily mocks the threat of damnation, goes to hell and back, and lives to tell the story. Baked Alaska's very identity, in fact, depends on having suffered an accusation of weakness, on surviving a trial by fire. It even gets a tan. What could be queerer than that?”

5. Even back in the late 19th century, Baked Alaska invited colorful commentary.

In his 1883 memoir, travel writer and bon vivant George Augustus Sala recounted his visit to Delmonico’s and subsequent first taste of Baked Alaska. If there is a gayer ambience for enjoying a dessert, I’d like someone to challenge George’s, spiced up with French phrases and colourful words (an excerpt provided by Smith):

“I dined at Delmonico’s hard by the Fifth-avenue Hotel, a few nights ago; and among the dainties which that consummate caterer favoured us with, was an entrement called an “Alaska.” The “Alaska” is a baked ice. A beau mentir qui vient de loin; but this is no traveller’s tale. The nucleus or core of the entrement is an ice cream. This is surrounded by an envelope of carefully whipped cream, which, just before the dainty dish is served, is popped into the oven, or is brought under the scorching influence of a red hot salamander; so that its surface is covered with a light brown crust.”

I mean, that’s a pretty fabulously gay description of a dessert.

6. Baked Alaska, again like Cher, is also always poised for a comeback—and braves the mixed reviews.

In 1997, a century after Salas’ super gay account of the dessert, the dessert became a star on the menu of—yes, really—The Rainbow Room. Not all the reviews were good: Ruth Reichl called their Baked Alaska “more ice than cream” and “barely flamed.” But Baked Alaska is not about to calm the fuck down or change for you. And that’s what I’ve grown to love about it: When my Baked Alaska hit the table at Delmonico’s, I had no expectation of what it would taste like. With one bite, I understood. And wanted more.

“There are a couple of things that weigh in its favor,” says Kaufman. “It’s that hot/cold contrast. You’re not going to [make it] at home, so you gotta go out and it’s gotta be festive. It will be served flaming with a little bit of flaming liquor poured over it for tableside as a ceremonial dessert. [Baked Alaska’s] not going to completely disappear because it’s too much fun.”

Because of these reasons, Baked Alaska is the one dessert I’ll be serving at my Pride party—or since it can be complicated to make, taking my visiting friend out for one.