New York restaurants, bars and clubs like Lips and Lucky Cheng’s have long employed drag staff, but brunch is a newer phenomenon and a natural evolution, says Simpson. “These [restaurants] saw a gimmick to bring in new customers.” But while no one can pinpoint the start to the first drag brunch — was it in gay bastions like San Francisco, New York or Los Angeles? — drag brunch at its core has always been as much about politics as it has been about the entertaining and the food.
Trans activists and drag queens Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera led the Stonewall riots in June 1969 — at the time, legendary gay bar Stonewall Inn was not typically frequented by gay white men, but the community’s more marginalized contingent, namely people of color, drag queens, lesbians, sex workers and homeless youth. And then in San Francisco in 1979, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence — a drag-clad charity and non-profit parodying the attire of Catholic nuns — was founded to raise money and awareness for LGBT causes, specifically HIV/AIDS and community activism.
For Poppy Tooker, a straight-identifying woman and author of a forthcoming book called Drag Brunch, the phrase “drag is politics” has always run true. Tooker lives in New Orleans, a city that has long embraced drag. See: Mardi Gras. But “in the ‘80s,” Tooker says, “drag queens were throwing drag brunches to take care of their friends who were dying before anyone was taking care of them.”
Tooker uses her platform as a New Orleans-based food and culture historian and radio host to organize charity-oriented drag brunches throughout the city, namely Dining Out for Life and CrescentCare, two local HIV/AIDS charities. Proceeds from Drag Brunch, which tells New Orleans’ brunch and drag histories alongside recipes and photos of local queens, will benefit CrescentCare.
In writing Drag Brunch, Tooker dove deep into the city’s relationship with drag and brunch, namely the history of Julian Eltinge, a world-famous turn-of-the-century vaudevilleian and drag queen, and Madame Begue, a local restaurateur. The way Tooker tells it, brunch and drag have always been bosom buddies. Round these parts, Madame Begue is credited with creating “second breakfast” — a meal served at 11 a.m. — around 1884. Julian Eltinge, a frequent diner of Begue’s, once gifted Madame Begue an autographed photo of his alter ego, Vesta Tilley, which hung in the brunch-progenitor from 1917 onward — there’s even a hilarious ghost story, if you want to get into it.
“Part of my impetus for writing Drag Brunch is to remember an entire generation we lost,” said Tooker. “My fear is that they will be forgotten — these charities that helped New Orleans’ AIDs victims, many of my friends. To say ‘once upon a time, there was a disease that was so segregating, that was so cruel, that families wouldn’t even come for the bodies of their loved ones.’”