Poet and transgender activist Stephanie Burt reflects on a moment in her childhood that revealed a truth she had yet to discover.

By Stephanie Burt
June 24, 2020
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Eric Jeon

This story is part of "Queer As Food," a series that explores the role of food in LGBTQ+ communities.

At the Parkway Deli

You can know what you need before you know why.

For example, ten-year-old me, who leans

on the empty cold salad-bar cart along the cold wall

of the crowded dining room at the best Jewish deli

(supposedly, though they’re not kosher) south of Manhattan,

(families have to wait to be seated inside):

I’m waiting for noon, when the cart

becomes the world-famous pick-your-own-pickle bar.

“World-famous,” meaning

I wouldn’t stop telling my dad how much how I liked it:

green sour tomatoes that pop

whenever you cut or bite into them,

intricate as a satellite inside;

sauerkraut in three colors, like some nation’s flag

left outdoors in a storm and shredded, maroon,

not quite white and pale-emerald green;

half-sours and dills, sliced lengthwise like canoes,

curled up at their tips like canoes;

banana peppers the shape

of your tongue if you stick your tongue out,

that also burn your tongue;

and jade discs with peppercorns, sugary like tart candy,

yet not dessert, and good for you. How many years

till I found out why trans girls and women crave salt.

Coming out makes your blood pressure go down.

So do spironolactone, and other

similar shots and pills with jawbreaker names

I wanted to change me. I would tell no one.

I would stand outside until I was 41,

waiting to be let in. You can know what you need

before you know why: shredded cabbage and mini-cukes

and sodium ions in water, and vine-ripe tomatoes

preserved in mustard seeds, coriander, allspice

and vinegar for no one knows how long.

Stephanie Burt is a professor of English at Harvard, and is the author of several books of poetry and criticism, including her most recent, Don't Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems.