Gay Writes

Fire Island red cabbage

by Thomas Cushman

1 head red cabbage, cored and sliced into one inch strips
1 small onion, sliced
8 ounces bacon
1 lemon
¼ cup brown sugar, firmly packed
2 tablespoons white or apple cider vinegar

I first came across red cabbage in Germany where, for strange and specific reasons unimportant to this remembrance, I spent quite a bit of time in my late teens and early 20s. I was a Midwestern boy, and it was the early ’80s and any dish that did not involve white bread or American cheese or hamburger was exotic. So, red cabbage was completely unknown to me. I loved it.

When I was finally able to start college full time, at age 24, I studied German (of course) and international politics and, most of all, journalism. It was in a J class where I first came across the writer Joan Didion. Her works of fiction, essays and autobiographies are numerous, and each one is significant, and her style is an effortless combination of realism, concern and hard-bitten intellectualism. Her collection of essays from the 1960s, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, is a seminal work that changed my understanding of what happened during that time of radical upheaval. She also, as it turns out, likes red cabbage. In one of her essays, she mentions making red cabbage on Fire Island one summer.

Fill a large pan with water to a depth of one inch
Stir in the vinegar, add the sliced cabbage, bring water to a boil.
Reduce heat and continue simmering until the cabbage is just tender.
Drain cabbage, set aside.

College is also where I met Dan. He was a friend of friends and one of the few other openly gay students my age on campus. We became very good friends and I remember (parts of) several evenings at the New French Café where we’d go to celebrate after each round of Finals. I put back a lot of scotch in that little bar. Dan usually drank vodka.

Eventually, Dan took a big job in New York, and it was at his going-away party where I met Kent. Dan and Kent had been frat brothers for a short time, and they’d stayed close. Quite quickly, Kent and I also became good friends, mostly because we have so damn much in common, but also because Dan would invite us to come to New York together each summer and stay with him for a week. We went to Fire Island, where Dan always rented a summer house.

While the cabbage simmers begin frying bacon in a large sautee pan.
Cook bacon until quite crisp, then remove, leaving the grease in pan.
Reduce heat and brown sliced onion in bacon grease.
Add brown sugar, stir constantly until dissolved.
Paste should have the consistency of syrup; add water or sugar as necessary.

I’ve come to realize that many gay Utahns have never heard of New York’s Fire Island even though it has played a central role in the development of Western gay culture. What you need to know is this: Fire Island is the antithesis of Manhattan. It is a rustic, thirty-mile long, half-mile wide strip of sand just a few minutes off the coast of Long Island. The place has about one dozen summer resort communities scattered along it.

You cannot get to it by car. You must take a ferry. In fact, cars aren’t even allowed, and the only “roads” are simple wooden boardwalks. The ocean side of The Island is thirty continuous miles of sandy beach. Pine trees work hard to grow there, and dainty deer run through them. Each little community has one small commercial area with a few restaurants, a bar, and maybe one small grocery store the size of a 7-11. Most importantly, no matter where you go on the Island you hear the waves. You fall asleep to the rhythm of the night surf.

Two of the resort communities are entirely gay. Don’t ask me how it happened, but it did. You can spend a week on this part of Fire Island and not meet a heterosexual. This is something that almost never, ever happens for us gay people. When it does, it is transformative. You begin to believe that you are not alone, that you are not odd and that you have a place in this world where you belong.

Another thing to know about Fire Island is that you must entertain yourself. Dan, Kent and I do this with reading and talking and walking the beach during the day; then taking turns making a serious dinner each evening so we can sit around the table and eat, drink wine, and talk more. Real talk; talk that helps you understand each other; talk that helps you understand yourself; talk that helps you stake out your place in this world. These nightly house dinners are a tradition up and down the Island, and I assume this is what Ms. Didion was doing when she made her red cabbage out there 50 years ago somewhere just down the beach in one of those other communities.

Place the boiled cabbage into the sautee pan with the brown sugar reulle.
Crumble the strips of bacon onto the cabbage.
Fold cabbage into brown sugar mixture until well-coated.
Slice lemon in half and squeeze juice from both halves over the cabbage.
Serve warm.

There’s really no point to my “story” except this: A recipe starts with a collection of singular ingredients which then have to be sliced and squeezed and heated and stirred until, with a bit of care, they combine into something often quite wonderful. Much the same for life I think: Themes and intentions that begin in childhood combine with characteristics and talents which emerge later and these component parts mix together with coincidence and with the people who come into our lives and the influences we fall under until it all develops into something singular and special; our limited, precious time on this earth; our lives.

Dan and Kent and I can’t always end up on Fire Island together for a week each summer anymore, but we did this year, and this time when it was my turn to make dinner, I very intentionally included red cabbage. So, when we raised our glasses for the toast to start dinner, I gave a nod to Joan Didion, someone who helped develop my outlook on this world and who helped feed my love for the written word. And I gave that nod to her while having dinner there on the Island, which has been such a formative part of my gay experience. And I gave that nod to her while I was once again sitting down to dinner with two eternal friends, who have made my time on this earth immeasurably, immeasurably better.

Fire Island, May, 2015

Gay Writes is a DiverseCity Series writing group, a program of SLCC’s Community Writing Center. The group meets the 2nd and 4th Monday of each month, 6:30-8 pm, 210 E. 400 South, Ste. 8, Salt Lake.

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