HUDSON, N.Y. — Lil' Deb's Oasis sits at the edge of downtown in Hudson, a peaceful Upstate New York town best known for antiquing, vintage clothing, proximity to apple-picking and bucolic riverside views. Hudson was founded by Dutch colonists in the 1700s on the native lands of the indigenous Mahican people, and much of the colonial architecture remains.
In contrast, Lil' Deb's is a sensory explosion of gay exuberance and kitsch. Festooned with a coral pink-and-aqua awning, the restaurant's exterior features a mural of dragon fruit, papaya and avocado. Inside, it's decorated with faux and live tropical plants and whole fresh pineapples. An effigy of the holy virgin anchors an altar to the left of the bar, while a television plays videos of drag performances to the right. A shimmery, purple, beaded curtain sets off the open kitchen. Lights and faux flowers hang from the ceilings, and lime-green tennis balls are in large bowls, on garlands and on the legs of chairs. The lighting is hot pink and purple, and upbeat music plays loudly. Merchandise for sale includes shirts that read, "Thank You for Being So Hot!" and a sticker that reads, "IF U GAY, PERFECT."
As singer-songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello writes in a tender foreword to the restaurant's new cookbook, "Please Wait to Be Tasted," "You walk in and you're greeted by beautiful faces, future celestial bodies, the feeling of naughty and nice." She lives in the area and has been dining there since 2017. "I have personal feelings about that restaurant, as a place I feel comfortable and human," she says.
This ambience may seem more akin to a gay tiki bar: audacious, lively and super fun. But herein lies the beauty and uniqueness of the place. For decades, LGBTQ folks have been relegated to convening in illicit spaces: gay, lesbian and drag bars that open only late at night.
Deb's is not a gay bar; it's a restaurant. Food is the focus, and the menu is innovative, experimental and incredibly memorable. And as its name suggests, Deb's is a place where people from all walks of life convene, where the only thing that's illicit is how sinfully sumptuous the food is, where the staffers can take pride in preparing meals that are as unique as they are and where deliciousness becomes an extension of queer resistance.
Another longtime fan of Deb's is Elazar Sontag, the restaurant editor at Bon Appetit, who has been writing about the intersection of gay culture and food for much of his career.
"It is an explicitly queer space in every single way," he says. "But they also are turning out some of the best food in this country. And they're doing it with such intention. Every single dish is telling a story."
If you can't make it to the restaurant, "Please Wait to Be Tasted" will transport you. Much like the restaurant is more than a restaurant, the cookbook is more than a cookbook. It's a manifesto on the politics of gay identity and food, layered with meaning and an acknowledgment of intersectionality; food, like identity, is layered, complex and multifaceted. Its concept of "tropical comfort" is rife with contradiction, suggesting that the heat and sensuality of the tropics can sit alongside feelings of discomfort, acknowledging that the "tropics" epitomizes paradise yet struggles with inequity and the effects of colonization. The text is also instructional, explaining how to fillet a whole fish, ferment and pickle, and use layering to achieve unorthodox flavor combinations.
Because Deb's is so beloved, its cookbook is also an archive of an utterly unique place and a declaration of the value of gay hospitality. Above all, it's a guide to creating wild and exciting meals, an invitation for cooks, regardless of skill or background, to embody radical joy.
Ripe, fresh fruit is essential for this colorful salad that is "sweet and bitter, with just a hint of funk." If you cannot find ripe pineapple, consider mango, papaya or even citrus.
Serve it at breakfast or brunch, as a snack or a side salad. The dish calls for a versatile lemon verbena salt, which can be used to season fish, lamb, chicken or fresh fruit or any dish that calls for a salty, herbaceous kick.
The salad is best eaten right away. Store the lemon verbena salt at room temperature in an airtight container for up to 1 year. Dried lemon verbena leaves can be found at tea shops and online.
- For the lemon verbena salt:
- ½ ounce dried lemon verbena leaves
- 4 ounces (about ¾ cup) kosher salt
- For the salad:
- ½ ripe pineapple, cored, halved lengthwise, thinly sliced into half moons and chilled
- 1 watermelon radish, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 avocado, halved, pitted and sliced into half moons
- Finely grated zest and juice of ½ lime
- 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon lemon verbena salt
- Cotija cheese, for serving
Make the lemon verbena salt: In a blender or food processor, process the lemon verbena into a powder. Transfer to an airtight container, picking out and discarding any stems. Add the salt and mix to combine; you should have ¾ to 1 cup lemon verbena salt.
Make the salad: On a serving platter, arrange the pineapple, radish and avocado slices in a single layer any way you like. For example, consider placing them in rows, overlapping each slice slightly, as you would scalloped potatoes. Drizzle with the lime juice and olive oil, and sprinkle with the zest and lemon verbena salt. Using a fine grater, grate the cotija cheese over the platter. Serve cold.
Makes 2 to 4 servings.
Adapted from "Please Wait to Be Tasted: The Lil' Deb's Oasis Cookbook" by Carla Kaya Perez-Gallardo, Hannah Black and Wheeler (Princeton Architecture Press, 2022)