A Campus Pride Hot List artist, Trans Justice Funding Project Panelist, and Trans 100 Honoree, Kay Ulanday Barrett is a poet, performer, and educator, navigating life as a disabled pin@y-amerikan transgender queer in the U.S. with struggle, resistance, and laughter. K. has featured at colleges and on stages globally, including at Princeton University, UC Berkeley, Musee Pour Rire in Montreal, Queens Museum, The Chicago Historical Society, and has even received an invitation to The White House. K. has facilitated workshops, presented keynotes, and contributed to panels with various social justice communities. As a fellow of both The Home School and Drunken Boat Literary Retreat, their honors include: 18 Million Rising Filipino American History Month Hero 2013, Chicago’s LGBTQ 30 under 30 awards, Finalist for The Gwendolyn Brooks Open-Mic Award, and the Windy City Times Pride Literary Poetry Prize. Their contributions are found in RaceForward, The Advocate, and Bitch Magazine, among many other publications, as well as contributions in the upcoming anthologies, “Outside the XY: Queer Black & Brown Masculinity” (Magnus Books) and “Writing the Walls Down: A Convergence of LGBTQ Voices” (Trans-genre Press). When The Chant Comes, is their first collection of poetry published by Topside Press.
Here, they talk about the beauty of eating in weekend sunlight, a torrid affair with bacon, and offer a back up plan for their final meal request.
On their all-time favorite meal:
My all-time favorite meal isn’t just one thing. I literally have several and there’s no hierarchy. I think right now I’ll choose my favorite meal to be a Filipino breakfast as made by my lola. It includes: Tortang talong (grilled chinese eggplant omelet), fried garlic rice, pritong isda (fried tilapia), and ensaladang kamatis, sibuyas, manga at patis (salad of tomatoes, onions, and mangoes with fish sauce). It is my go-to comfort meal. You get all the textures and it’s really Pangasinan where my pamilya is from. It has a smoky taste with the grilled and tart and sour with the salad. Savory is on lock with garlic fried rice. It’s a meal that can be eaten any time of day and culturally has no distinction between breakfast, lunch, dinner, or snack.
Secondary answer? This meal was straight up my Saturday ritual from ages 8-16 where my lola would just have a table ready of food for me and cousins. The house smelled like fish. In summary it smelled fucking dreamy. I had no misconceptions about U.S. white American demonization of this smell and whatever. I knew it was glory and thank goodness, felt unashamed about this splendorous part about my people. I didn’t realize how much effort it took then or how much magic she shared, but making this same meal for myself now, I never take any bite for granted. My default favorite meals include: the jibarito from Papas Cache Sabroso, a kale salad with sesame oil & lemon & tamari fresh from a garden, al pastor tacos from any good taqueria in Chicago, Crunchy Shrimp Pad See Ew from P.S. Bangkok Chicago, and potlucks my homies and I host.
On what the light looks like during their favorite meal of the day:
I love eating at sunset. I love a sunset outside food gathering right on the beach, next to an ocean shore or lakeside. Some of my best meals were homemade somethings put together as beach meals or on a blanket next to Lake Michigan. I love the idea of celebrating right as the day transitions, right when the moon and sun greet each other and switch shifts. I love the peach and red and orange boldness cooling into the water, that awkward balance. It’s like I’m in on a secret or some shit. My mom and dad used to bring food and a blanket in the remote beaches in upper Michigan and we would have the whole beach to ourselves. We got to eat at sunrise and sunset and I began to understand the importance of beginnings and endings. I would eat and nap and swim and nap and so on. As a queer person who cooks, I know it’s obligatory to say brunch time light. I think the theme here is weekend sunlight in all its variations.
On snacking while writing:
Since I am not a drinker or smoker, I am a member of the untold writing constituency: the snackers. On longer revisions and edit sessions I could eat a whole meal and work. As far as snack, it’ll likely be something light like an apple and peanut butter, a nice spring mix salad. I am a tactile person who loves crunchy texture, so whole wheat toast and/or tortilla chips and smashed avocados with smoked paprika, olive oil, and lemon. A good fruit portion usually and then something salty/spicy to balance.
On their go-to late-night snack:
Well, friend. I am no stranger to diner food and I would be lying if my body isn’t over it. I love bacon. Our affair is a torrid, lusty, confusing time and I am still working through this frequent craving. Late night now, I will make nachos. But really salad with tortilla chips. Again, my relationship to crunchy textured snacks goes unrivaled. I will chop up so much purple cabbage, tomatoes, avocados, green onions, have some fresh salsa I likely made in advance, and more hot sauce (another sweet vice I cannot/refuse to let go). Sometimes there’s no cheese, but if there is a cheese, I would go to smoked gouda. I’ll have a nice dollop of plain Greek yogurt. If I am not at home, in NYC I could eat anything like a buffet tray from Woorijip’s Korean buffet in K-town. I like having many options and many condiments which makes for many combinations which is sort of opposite of my real life which feels regimented and restricted. In my book, When The Chant Comes I inserted food in as much as I could and all the snacks above are behind every poem.
On their food quirks:
My favorite snack as a kid was mashed potatoes and gravy with pickles. The pickles were canned by aunties from their garden. Mushy and crunchy and tart and savory deliciousness. Weird, yeah? Anything that abides by that formula usually has me smitten. I have to make every bite perfect. The last bite isn’t the best bite, every damn bite is supposed to be glorious. I am a Virgo, so I am for fairness and equity and in the service of such endeavors. Food is no exception. I like crunchy shallots and garlic on almost anything. And if you’ve noticed, I haven’t mentioned anything really sweet or dessert-like. People I’ve dated and my friends think it’s weird I don’t crave pancakes. I will say that pie and waffles pull at me, but because gluten and I are barely on civil terms, I am careful with my consumption.
On their final meal request:
Plan A: It would be a kamayan and potluck style meal. The kind I grew up with, where the old folks and young folks and everyone in between shared food and there was always a dance floor. It would be with all my homies and loves and family—dead and alive—and we’d all bring the thing that drives us wild or that makes us feel more like home or more safe and we would eat until our bodies couldn’t anymore. Gluttony is a word, I suppose. There’s platanos maduros but pilipinx-style turon. There’s pork belly deep-fried, there’s every hip salad and green herbed dressing imaginable. There’s brown rice and quinoa, and there’s libations made from fresh fruit and herbs from someone’s garden or childhood memory. We are eating with our hands, no shame. There’d be dogs and cuddling and likely that cousin trying to sell you his latest mix tape. We’d crack crab legs and suck on shrimp heads with abandon just like our ancestors did. There’s a separate area for desserts and there’d be labels sharing the components/contents of each dish so people have accessible understanding of what to eat. There wouldn’t be a line per se, but there would be people who could grab the food for the elders and disabled people, people who can’t stand up too long. I imagine there’s a respect for sober people where the drinks are extra fancy and made with shakers and fizzy spritzers and basil or mint or rosemary leaning on glass rims. I make the perfect pancit that my ma would be proud of and one of my homies likely brought a box of bonchon which in this life, is considered a triumph. When it arrives the crowd roars in mid-chew. Someone else made their lola’s recipe for leche flan or tres leches or some kinda sweet-toothed concoction. On the table would be various kinds of vinegars and hot sauces and sauces. This is not optional. There are babies on people’s hips and people are listening to ‘90s hip-hop and the air smells glorious. There’d be kind people (service bottoms) who would offer to clean up for the people who cooked over the oven and stove most of the day (kitchen tops), they would tidy and offer more drinks to those of us already passed out on the couches or blankets or wherever the option is for laying down. Many of us would be rubbing our bellies already in pajamas or with the top button of our pants undone. We’d talk real talk and some of us would be in physical pain and we’d ride that out to more pie or more snacks or that 3rd helping of rice. We would know, full-bellied and elated, that this is the life we are fighting and writing and creating for.
Plan B: I am alone at a table with white tablecloth and fresh cut flowers. There’s Dilla instrumentals in the background. I am dressed in a collared shirt, bowtie or shell necklace, only boxers, no pants. My hair looks especially unruly and oceanic. I have a window view of the ocean or lake on a sunny afternoon. My appetizer is a grilled artichoke with shallot brie sauce. I pick it apart with the precision of any surgeon. My entrée would be a medium rare butter-basted rib eye steak with thyme, garlic and rosemary (made with cast iron) or kalbi short ribs (marinated overnight), kale salad, potato salad or French fries (thin or crinkle-cut not wedges). I’d have brown rice and banchan if I were on the kalbi tip. My beverage would be a ginger soda with ice and lime slice or a root beer from the bottle. Dessert would be my mama’s pineapple upside down cake or strawberry shortcake with biscuits and fresh whipped cream. I would fall asleep, elated in a dense nap, and then, I would simply disappear into the cosmos smirking.