This article appears in our 2014 Winter issue, Food. Subscribe today!
Kay Ulanday Barrett is a spoken-word artist, poet, performer, and activist who has engaged in collaborations with a number of righteous organizations for racial and gender justice, including the Brown Boi Project and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. But if there’s anything that rivals his passion for social justice, it’s food (his blog Recipes for the People brings the two together). Here, Barrett speaks about his love of food, food justice, and his belief in food as “an unquestionably collective act.” Follow Barrett on Twitter @kulandaybarrett and at kaybarrett.net.
How do you see food intersecting with your identities as a disabled, queer, trans, Pilipin@ activist and artist?
To be clear: I am not a chef or a farmer. I am a home cook with roots in growing small gardens. The sheer love of food sometimes is the only thing to get me by. I have watched recipes unfold themselves since childhood. Some of them tasted divine, leaving imprints on my taste buds and even intimate histories; others tasted like crap. It was this culinary curiosity for food and cultural resistance that helps a queer brown geeky poor kid grow up and beyond the stifling american dream. We are rooted together by the consummate pancit recipe that became body memory, a mango sliced to a welcoming flower that is now a means to chronicle family stories, the clanking spoons of community potlucks, and so on.
My food respect and adoration is a story from the cusps—being half white and half Pin@y; being raised poor, facing chronic homelessness, and now, being low-income and being disabled with an acquired disability. I’ve had to be downright imaginative about what I’ve had to nourish myself and my communities with. Food for me is an unquestionably collective act. It’s beautiful. Learning politics has always been centered in pamilya and homies eating food, sharing recipes, and telling stories. My first political meetings and cultural work spaces, in all kinds of movement work, always guaranteed a delicious spread where everyone showed up to feed one another as a subconscious spiritual connection. I find that cultural awareness starts with food and art. I cannot build with a stranger if we bust out with internalized racism or systemic ableism off the bat. People unfortunately find it difficult and abrasive. However, start off with some cute appetizers, and soon enough we can talk about how our families made recipes from backyard gardens or reminisce about the first time we made something from scratch that felt like home.
In all the communities that I belong to, I notice that for me, there is a sense of isolation. I was queer and kicked out from my Pin@y family. After that, the only true treaty I had with my (Northern) Pino@y family was over food. We could crack some crab legs, dip the meat in suka, and laugh over handfuls of rice. It’s the body memory of food that I am in love with. Sure, I’m romanticizing, but bear with me. With the right slices of green mango, the sizzling of garlic in a pan, and the waft of bagoong, I can remember aspects of my childhood and my lineage that even photographs can’t compete with. We all correlate foods to people, and it’s so distinct. We turn to food and have an intense relationship with it, whether we were raised in fatphobic shame of portion control or raised to not eat certain foods in white American settings because they were considered pungent. I want to undo those scripts for myself and for the people I love. If it’s within my means, people who come to my home will always be fed.
I do notice that in food justice and culinary arts, sexuality and gender—as well as disability—are practically invisible. Once I was disabled, it became clear to me that as a trans brown guy I had very little control over systems like the medical-industrial complex or legal court systems. Those impact my daily survival, where self-determination is an ongoing battle. I realized I’ve been taught as a poor kid to be creative with my resources and feed myself in ways that need to happen. A human has got to eat, no matter their hustle. When I have the access or ability to enjoy delicious food, it’s sort of a celebration (in my mouth!) that feels like each time I’m able to be blessed with a meal, I’m not just surviving, I’m reveling. I revel in the relationship the food has to land, to those who grew it, to the very process the food shifts to the table.
What kind of potential do you see in food to help mobilize other social movements around identity, race, sexuality, and gender?
I find that racial justice and social class are being heightened in discussions of food and food justice. Workers and growers of color are engaged, and just because it hasn’t been in mainstream praise, it has been happening. Examples people have shared with me of organizations that are doing some extraordinary work in those arenas are People’s Kitchen in the Bay Area, COLORS, and Black Urban Growers (BUGs) on the East Coast. Again, I am not considered a food-justice activist, but I do think that many People of Color and Queer People of Color are pushing amazing work. I appreciate what Good Girl Dinette’s Diep Tran has to say about authenticity and community in food.
I’m curious about QTPOC people in this space. I’m noticing a key rift that happens with Queer and Trans People of Color. I know several (about ten or so) people dedicated to food justice or sustainable food who are QTPOCS. Some of them I feature in Recipes for the People. We are asked to choose between our ethnicity/race and our gender/sexuality in terms of food work. I know plenty of hip white queer spaces centered on food that I frankly feel uncomfortable in. Likewise, sometimes I feel uncomfortable in straight cisgender POC dominant space. It’s about the cusps. What is happening where QTPOCS don’t get a stake or say in what they eat, especially in regards to trans people, gender non-conforming people, trans youth, and specifically trans women? I have a patchwork of guesses, but there have been few spaces where our whole selves are viable in these conversations. There’s dissonance all around for surviving people in these landscapes where food is being actualized and realized.
Disabled people are left out of the discussion altogether in food-established spaces (restaurants, farming, etc.). We grow food in backyards and tiny pots in our window sills; we get groceries for one another when someone’s bills are rough or when the pain is immeasurable; we feed one another with blissful satisfaction. Sometimes, good food isn’t accessible to us on public assistance or in various medical/forms of debt. There might be real life concerns that trump going to the hip new nouveau irksome cuisine that drastically gentrifies the neighborhood to unaffordable property values. Due to exposure to chemicals when farming or laboring during these processes, people are disabled. Accessibility to becoming a chef isn’t possible when the educational and professional framework essentially comes from militaristic, hyper-misogynist, able-bodied notions of capitalism, production, and process.
Instead we are home cooks; we feed friends and share food with interdependence when some of us can’t get to a kitchen or maneuver in one. Honestly, because it’s hard to get in the door in the first place, let alone sit on hard-ass metal seating, restaurant-going has been a challenge for me and many I know. Home-cooked meals created by us and for us are sometimes our preferred way to go. I just threw a gathering that ended up at my house because comfy seating, ADA accessible space, fragrance-free, fat-positive, and multi-food preferences are just not options yet in NYC/NJ outside of my own home. So yeah, we all hung out and ate at my house. It was awesome.
Furthermore, the American understanding of food from so many of us who come from agricultural familial ancestry is key to point out. Immigrant labor exploitation and exploitation of the land have been obvious themes in food growth, but I am told by QTPOC growers that in progressive farming and gardening spaces, these facts seem to be in limited conversation. Who gets to control sustainability, and who gets to supposedly “discover” or explore new ways of farming that become profitable? I’d wager it’s not too many QTPOC or immigrants of color in the U.S.
Do you see the foodie scene as a welcoming place for people with marginalized identities?
I think it depends on how you define the foodie scene or the food-justice scene, both of which are swarmed with deeply financially privileged and/or white people who may not understand food at all in the vital intricacies of an anti-oppression framework. I think food is a superb way to navigate dialogue of critical cultural experience. I’m wary of praising any social system that glamorizes poverty, street food, culinary technique, or farming without a keen curiosity about the cultural contexts they are related to. [But] the people I’ve surrounded myself with who lean in the direction of “foodie” are queer and trans people of color who grow, cultivate, and revel in food with a gloriously delicious and yet critical comprehension. I would encourage everyone to consider that food should be sustainable and accessible to all—cultural workers, teachers, food-service workers, farmers. We all have a place and stake in food. Some dope examples would be on my website which features people struggling with institutional oppression and the section is coined FIERCE Foodies on Recipes for the People. Check it out when you have the opportunity, as I think that specifically Queer and Transgender issues aren’t always discussed in terms of foodies or food access. Some mighty foodies include Kortney Ziegler Ryan (Trans 100, Filmmaker of Still Black), Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (Lambda Literary Award winner and cofounder of Mangos with Chili), and Dean Jackson (Founder of Hilltop Urban Gardens) to name a few. There’s such little discussion on what QTPOC and disabled QTPOC in the realm of food that I consider it a roaring concern.
What is your favorite thing to cook or eat right now?
I love anything with crispy garlic and shallots. Vegans and veggieheads beware! I love pork belly. It’s the Pin@y in me that loves me some lechón. Vegetables in season that I make in frequent rotation are collards and kale. I’m trying to grill as well as roast things in advance. This way, if my body is in too much pain with nerve inflammation or what not, I have something green, veggie, and readily available. I have an amalgam of tastes in my kitchen, but I always use soy sauce, rice vinegar or suka, and fresh herbs. Brown rice is my homeskillet…literally. I’ve been known to be super queer with a frittata. Sometimes, it’s just fruit and leftovers whipped up out of quick, surefire necessity. Again, it’s about convenience and access to good food that honors ingredients. If it has healing and loving spices/herbs/properties, is in close proximity, and I get to seriously taste the food in all its glory, I’m down.
What’s your stance on “Asian fusion” restaurants?
Surprise response: I actually don’t mind them. But I take the category “Asian fusion” with tepid interest. Rarely is there something I like that really innovates, that pushes taste-wise and especially politics-wise. Here’s the caveat—I sincerely want to support Queer and Trans APIA/South Asian communities in local business and in sustainable food culture. As long as APIA (Asian Pacific Islander American) and South Asian communities are utilizing their own lineages, cooking, and cultural practices in a mindful manner, Asian fusion can work. I do understand that many people utilize roots in U.S. southern cooking or comfort food, like for instance in the example of Filipino food (which doesn’t immediately seem as palatable to the mainstream white upper-middle class community…thank goodness!?). What concerns me is the appropriative culinary chef, usually white, who teams up with other affluent people and flies to homelands that have nothing to do with their own ancestry—usually Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and the Philippines. They have no true context, but have the privilege to fly back to homelands that some of our families haven’t been able to go back to in years. That very essence, the globetrotting, then coming back to the U.S., redramatizing rural or urban poor street food fare and deeply profiting off of it, is definitely what I see happening. It’s fetishizing and entitled.
No matter how many cooking shows, culinary degrees, or fake bamboo huts, there is no replacement for the spirit of home cooking. It comes from the daily festivity of practice and ingredients that build a home. It comes from struggle, comes from history, comes from the people. Due to militarization, migration, etc., many APIA foods have had to pivot and shift not just regionally but due to displacement. They have had to innovate cooking practices and swap components that aren’t available. Now there are restaurants that I adore that create Asian and/or Asian Pacific Islander American delicious food, that build great relationships with local farmers and locavore cooking. Some eats I respect are: Café Gabriela (Oakland, CA), Kainbigan (Oakland, CA), Lula Mae Bakes (Oakland, CA), Euro Pane Bakery (Pasadena, CA), Baked Goods for Real (Oakland, CA), and Good Girl Dinette (Los Angeles, CA). Anybody else know any APIA queer and trans-supportive spots to eat, let me know and I’ll circulate the world with that ish!
Special thanks to farmboi and poet Cris Izaguerre as well as on-point farmer Dean Jackson whose work, insights, and ideas helped me formulate the answers in this piece.