116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Eastern Iowa cities like Cedar Rapids typically aren’t at the top of hot spot tourism lists, much less lists for LGBTQ travelers.
But thanks to the Cedar Rapids Tourism Office and two new LGBTQ-oriented cooking and vacation shows — “Joe Eats World” and “The Gaycation Travel Show” — that could soon change.
“Greatness comes from small places. I think it’s important that we acknowledge that not everybody comes from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, but that some of the greatness of our country comes from small, wonderful places,” said chef Art Smith, who appeared on the pilot episode of “Joe Eats World” filmed Tuesday at The Hotel at Kirkwood Center. “Coming to Cedar Rapids shows and demonstrates that you don’t have to live in a (large) city to be who you are.”
Smith, a celebrity chef who has worked for Florida governors Jeb Bush and Bob Graham, in addition to serving as a personal chef for Oprah Winfrey, provided his expertise on the Hummingbird Cake for the first episode — a pineapple and banana confection Smith said he did not invent, but helped perfect.
Chef Marti Payseur, the Mount Vernon vegan chef and owner of Thistle’s Summit food service and former bed-and-breakfast, also appeared alongside the cooking show’s namesake host, chef Joe Morales.
Payseur brought the goods for a vegan lobster roll using oyster mushrooms, a tangy mayonnaise sauce, bright lemon juice and herbs topped with classic potato chips.
“Joe Eats World” will explore the unique culinary dynamics of each city featured in the show, bringing vibrancy from different places while pulling together lesser known chefs.
For the queer community, the latter objective is a key distinction that separates the Aequalitas Media from a swathe of other culinary and travel shows on the air. While “Joe Eats World” is not an LGBTQ show in and of itself, Aequalitas CEO DJ Doran said Morales’ role as an LGBTQ chef making something of himself is important.
“It matters that we have visibility in a positive way. I’m cognizant of how we’re portrayed as a community,” Doran said. “We’re more than a party scene or a sex scene. We are completely part of the fabric of every community … and we’re much more than those stereotypes.”
Inserting queer people into cooking and travel shows is an important part of ensuring not only visibility, but a demonstration of queer excellence and positivity that serves as a correction to what he said mainstream media tends to highlight. Aequalitas Media produces print, video and audio productions focused on the LGBTQ community, including Gaycation Magazine, the No. 2 queer magazine in the country.
“It’s important to highlight what we are about,” said Morales. “This is our every day life, not what you see on Instagram.”
And often, good food is a bridge between the queer community and the rest of the world.
“I have a saying: you feed them, they come. You feed them more, they stay,” said Smith.
At age 61, the celebrity chef remembers a time when being gay in the kitchen wasn’t easy. Starting his career at the Greenbriar Resort, a five-star establishment in West Virginia, he hid in the chocolate shop when he was bullied.
“If you’re going to hide, you’re going to learn to make chocolate,” the gay chocolatier told him. “When you’re different, you make them laugh, and they’re nice to you.”
In Smith’s case, learning to feed them good food was what changed attitudes.
Defying a stereotype of LGBTQ culture — that queer people don’t often live happily in small cities or Midwestern states like Iowa, and that there’s little value in queer people visiting those places — the two shows have made a point of going off the beaten path to capture a city that many from New York, Chicago or Los Angeles might not even know exist.
“Queer people live everywhere. There’s a reason they want to stay,” said Ravi Roth, queer travel guru and host of “The Gaycation Travel Show.” “They want to make change. They want their stories to be told.”
Cedar Rapids will be the second smallest city on the list for “The Gaycation Travel Show’s” first season, which joins Mount Dora, Florida; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Orlando, Florida; Brooklyn, New York; and Brighton in the United Kingdom. It may be the smallest city featured by “Joe Eats World’s” debut this fall, which will feature Key West, Florida; New Orleans, Las Vegas and Puerto Vallarta.
“For not being a Tier 1 destination, they’re certainly acting like they are,” Doran said of Cedar Rapids. “It’s certainly not the largest, but it’s certainly the most welcoming (city) I’ve been to in a while.”
For queer folks, the two top issues in making travel decisions are safety and hospitality — how welcomed travelers will be.
“What happens when Joe and I travel, what challenges do we face when you check into a hotel and ask for a king bed?” said Doran, who is married to Morales. “I said I want to change this and put power behind it.”
But beyond safety, the travel show will highlight practical attractions for the variety of ages and types of people in the LGBTQ spectrum — not just drag shows, gay bars, circuit parties and “gayborhoods,” as gay neighborhoods are called.
That means going to the “flyover country” places most outside of Iowa don’t think of first. With COVID-19 vaccinations on the rise and more folks planning travel in 2021, Roth wants to give travelers a reason to do more than fly over or drive through a city.
“Gay travel to me is not the white, shirtless man on the beach. It’s about inclusivity and diversity,” he said. “We really want to break the barriers and break the boundaries of what queer travel is.”
By breaking those barriers, the show’s impact is twofold: the fear of the unknown with smaller cities is broken down for LGBTQ travelers, and places like Cedar Rapids reap the benefits of being a truly welcoming place.
“I just wanted the LGBTQ community to know how great we (are) and that we’re welcoming,” said Julie Stow, director of meetings and conventions for Cedar Rapids Tourism. “We’re not Key West or Chicago, and we're not trying to be. I just want people to experience it.”
Her pitch to outsiders is largely predicated on the city’s rich culinary scene, cultural attractions and unique adventures like Prairie Patch Farm’s llama hikes.
“We have so much and people just don’t know,” she said.
And with an abundance of outdoor activities and trails, a lot of fun to be had in the area can be done for free on a weekend getaway.
“You can experience most of those things easily, most of them for free, and you can feel safe doing it,” said Aaron Murphy, LGBTQ issues consultant for Cedar Rapids Tourism. “That’s really the driving force.”
Murphy and Stow said that by marketing to queer travelers, there’s a significant benefit to the city just waiting to be tapped.
“The LGBTQ community is going to play a critical role in the (economic) recovery of our community coming out of COVID and the derecho,” she said. “We need to earn that.”
“We’re all different, we’re all diverse, but we have one common denominator,“ Doran said. ”We’re all human beings. That is the glue that connects us all.“
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