Mastering the Art of Coming Out (and Making Lobster Bisque)

Illustration by Alyssa Andrews.

I decided to make lobster bisque for my mom at the same moment I decided to come out to her. Only one of those things went according to plan. I was home for just a week before moving to Los Angeles for the summer, and I wanted to show off my vastly improved culinary abilities. I’ve been cooking all my life, starting as my mother’s sous chef, peeling the rough brown skin off potatoes, stirring the soup, chopping bright colored peppers into thin strands that were never as perfect as my sister’s consistent, picturesque slices. In college, I realized my love of food should be backed with an expanded repertoire of cooking skills. I wanted to make food that my friends would talk about. I wanted to follow complicated recipes and then tweak them and make them my own. So I came home and decided to make a lobster bisque.

My mom had a recipe saved on her iPad already. “According to the recipe,” she explained, “it’s supposed to be better than sex.”

My mother has never discussed sex with me. I never received “the talk,” as they call it on the television shows I watch, and I’m not sure if my siblings did, because I don’t talk with them about sex either. My mother seemed amused by the “better than sex” lobster bisque, and I wondered if she had made any assumptions about my own sex life. I wondered how much she thought about my dating life at all. It had been at least a year since she last asked me about any cute boys in my public policy program. I think she had finally, after years of asking more-or-less the same question, grown tired of my vague, annoyed, clipped answers.

In college, I realized I loved women. On some level, I knew it before. Maybe I always knew it. There was no precise and defined a-ha moment when I knew I loved food. I just loved food. It has always been true. I feel the same way about my queerness. It has always been a part of me.

My mom said farewell, leaving to attend a meeting at church. Collecting ingredients on the spacious, black-and-white speckled countertop, I made two promises when she left, one to her and one to myself: a bowl of delicious lobster bisque and relief from the weight of the secret I was keeping from her.

Collecting ingredients on the spacious, black-and-white speckled countertop, I made two promises when she left, one to her and one to myself: a bowl of delicious lobster bisque and relief from the weight of the secret I was keeping from her.

After she left, I pulled out a sharp knife and split the fresh lobster tails. I deveined them, stripping the line of black waste from their glistening raw flesh. Clean and ready, I placed them in a steamer basket over salted water, watching the meat gradually shift from gray to pink.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” That’s what my college roommate and best friend asked when I told her I wasn’t ready to come out to my mom. Two years before, she had come out to me, letting it slip out conversationally, unscripted, without stumbling. At the time, I was in a complicated and secret long-distance relationship with a woman, but I remained silent. It would have been so easy to say “me too!” But I didn’t. I swallowed my words and waited another year to come out to her. Even then, I had to drink several glasses of champagne and let her pry it out of me. With her, it should have been easy.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” I asked myself as I removed the tails and set aside the salted water to use for stock. I let them cool and read ahead, realizing for the first time how difficult the recipe was. There were techniques I hadn’t yet tried, the recipe called for precision and time, and I suddenly wasn’t sure I could pull it off. What’s the worst that could happen? I could make a lobster bisque that…isn’t better than sex?

Finally cool, I pulled the meat from the shells and placed it in bowls to chill. I sautéed the shells in olive oil, their sea scent filling the kitchen, reminding me of all my favorite places on earth. I inhaled over the pan, temporarily relaxed. I waited too long and the aroma shifted to charred, so I frantically returned to the recipe, Googled “deglazing” just to be safe, and semi-successfully deglazed the pan with cubes of white wine my mom kept in the freezer, chicken stock, and the lobster water from before. The liquid started to simmer. I had 45 minutes before the next step, 45 more minutes to contemplate worst-case scenarios for both the soup and my decision to tell my mom I’m a lesbian.

I hadn’t come out to many people at all. I told a few of my closest friends at school, and alcohol plus a ton of anxious build-up were always involved. I fumbled over my words, always said “gay” and “lesbian” a decibel lower, as if they were new words I wasn’t quite sure how to pronounce. I didn’t grow up around gay people; my parents had no gay friends. Years before I was born, my mom was best friends with a gay man who went on to become my brother’s godfather. He passed away before I could ever meet him. Outside of television, I didn’t encounter queer folks until high school. My mom used to ask me if I was gay. My disinterest in boys was pretty obvious. I took girls, as friends of course, to prom and homecoming. But she asked before I was ready to answer, before I had figured it all out for myself. And she asked as if she were accusing me of something. “We’ll still love you,” she said, which I suppose she meant to be reassuring, but the fact that she had to say it at all scared me.

I soaked tomatoes in boiling water, loosening their flesh and peeling them one by one as the recipe demanded, foregoing the simple shortcut of using pre-peeled tomatoes from a can. I scooped out the seeds and diced the tomatoes, thinking to myself about how my sister would dice much smoother, even pieces. I sautéed fennel and shallots, a new aroma filling the air, the pungent fennel reminding me of some of the Indian dishes I’ve mastered after abundant trial and error. My Indian grandmother taught me some of her most basic recipes when I first expressed interest in learning to cook. Stirring the white, softening fennel-shallot mixture, I realized I might never be able to let her really know me. If coming out to my mom was this hard, telling her seemed insurmountable.

I added the tomatoes, some brandy, uncooked white rice, tomato paste, and herbs and spices to the lobster stock. Another 45 minutes of waiting while it gently gurgled. Another 45 minutes to talk myself out of this.

I couldn’t find my mom’s immersion blender. Or her food processor. She wasn’t answering her texts. Instead, I found the old, simple, white-topped blender my sister and I used to make smoothies, slushies, and milkshakes after school with my middle school best friend. One time my friend unscrewed the base of the pitcher, the contents of the chocolate milkshake we had just prepared rushing out of the open bottom, sloshing down my mother’s white cabinets and onto the floor. I couldn’t get the image out of my head. I wanted to unscrew the bottom of my heart and let everything inside spill out.

I couldn’t get the image out of my head. I wanted to unscrew the bottom of my heart and let everything inside spill out.

The bisque recipe cautioned against the dangers of blending too much hot liquid at once. The steam pushed against the lid, threatened to explode. I didn’t need another blender accident in my mother’s kitchen on my record, so I blended in batches, spooning soup to the midpoint of the blender.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just come out all at once? I hate that I feel pressured to come out to men whose names I don’t even know just so they won’t ask for my number or offer me a drink. Why should they get to know something that took me so long to say to the people closest to me, so long to say to myself?

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a recipe for coming out?

No one had ever done it in my family. I had no template save for the handful of coming-out storylines I’d seen on television. Too many of those hinged on characters’ relationships, their queerness backed by the presence of someone else. Willow didn’t tell Buffy she was queer; she told her she had something powerful with Tara. When Santana told her abuela, she had Brittany. Plus, it went horribly. I wasn’t seeing anyone at the time, and I already felt the unfair pressure to prove my queerness, to show my work. I didn’t want my mom to ask how I knew or suggest I might change my mind. As I ran through potential dialogue in my head, my resolve crumbled further. I desperately wanted to come out, but I wanted to do so in a vacuum, in a monologue that required no immediate response.

I looked at the clock. How had four hours passed? Was that really how long this was supposed to take? My heart rate was up, my forehead sweating. This was, by far, the most complicated recipe I had ever tackled. Would it even be any good? Had I wasted my time? My usual impenetrable confidence in the kitchen had gradually eroded over the course of those long hours.

A part of me thought that if I came out to her now, my mother would ask why I didn’t do it sooner, why I adamantly said “no” all those times she asked me about it in high school. I’d have to explain that I didn’t know then and yet have always known. She’d wonder why I thought our house wasn’t a safe environment to come out in; she’d say she wasn’t homophobic, and then I’d have to explain that homophobia encompasses more than just blatant slurs. There was no way I was going to get away with a quick, concise coming out conversation, but that was all I wanted.

My mother walked in the door as I was blending the last batch, her best friend Kathy trailing behind. “You’re still cooking?” she asked, shocked.

“It’s almost done! It turned out to be more complicated than I realized!”

She poured wine for Kathy as I returned the last of the bisque to the pot and wrangled juice from a massive lemon, stirring it along with cream into the pot and transforming the mixture from an orange-red to a pale pink. My mother and Kathy chatted as I sautéed the lobster meat in butter and spooned soup into three bowls, meticulously dividing the meat between them.

I hadn’t anticipated Kathy being there, but I also knew it wasn’t a real excuse to back down. I could do it when she left. I could even do it while she was there. Why not? Maybe it would be better that way, take away the pressure of a one-on-one serious conversation with my mother. We rarely had one-on-one serious conversations. She often lamented that I didn’t talk to her enough, that I didn’t share the details of my life. I never knew how to say she was asking the wrong questions.

We ate our bisque, and it was delicious. Not better than sex, but by far the best soup I’ve ever made. It was creamy but still light, the flavors layered and lavish. Kathy and my mom slurped their approval, said it was unlike any lobster bisque they’d had before. I was physically exhausted in the way I often get after hours of cooking. I slumped over my bowl but scooped hurriedly, as if my work would evaporate.

I was still hiding a huge part of myself from so many people in my life. But in this exact moment, I had heaps of buttery lobster in my mouth. I had followed through on one of the evening’s challenges. The bisque was exquisite and nothing had caught on fire or spilled or boiled over. My mom still recalls the evening from time to time, marvels at how she found me still cooking hours after she left, rhapsodizes about the bisque as if it were a magical dish that could never be recreated.


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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a Brooklyn-based writer, television critic, and comedian who spends most of her time over-analyzing queer subtext on television, singing "Take Me Or Leave Me" in public places, and assembling cheese platters. She has a cat named after Piper Halliwell from Charmed, and her go-to karaoke song is "Everywhere" by Michelle Branch. Her writing can also be found at The A.V. Club and The Hollywood Reporter, and she wrote the webseries Sidetrack. You can catch her screaming in all-caps about Kalinda Sharma, Jennifer Lopez, and oysters on Twitter and Instagram.

Kayla has written 54 articles for us.

35 Comments

  1. “Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just come out all at once? I hate that I feel pressured to come out to men whose names I don’t even know just so they won’t ask for my number or offer me a drink. Why should they get to know something that took me so long to say to the people closest to me, so long to say to myself?” This is so relatable. At this point in my life, I’m also learning to cook and wondering how to come out to my family. Thanks for writing this beautiful piece 🙂

  2. I am so floored by this.

    It brought me back to so many times, so many when I almost said… but couldn’t say…. and with some people still sometimes choke on what to say…. Anyway, it’s exactly what those bottled up feelings feel like.

    This essay was just lush, and beautiful, and so real.

    Not only is it the type of writing that leaves me in awe at the craft, it’s the time that inspires me to be a bit more true. It’s something I will be holding with me and mulling over and come back to time and again.

    Thank you for sharing a part of yourself with us Kayla.

  3. This was so beautifully written Kayla! I relate so much to this, the number of times I psyched myself up to come out to my mom only to fail to follow through and then the guilt of thinking “well now too much time has passed” just exacerbating the anxiety. Knowing she would be supportive (my sister is also queer and came out before I did) only seemed to make it worse somehow.

  4. ‘No one had ever done it in my family. I had no template save for the handful of coming-out storylines I’d seen on television. Too many of those hinged on characters’ relationships, their queerness backed by the presence of someone else.’

    Too reaaal. It’s fine not to be defined by your romantic relationships until you come out because then its all, ‘well have you ever dated a girl?’, ‘do you have a girlfriend’?

  5. I love that this story ended unresolved, the way this kind of thing so often does. Also the very idea of complicated recipes gives me brain-hives, so even just contemplating trying to come out to your mother at the same time counts as heroic in my books.

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