Growing up, my grandmother never served me a plate of food without reminding me that it was “made with love.” This concept of food as an affirmation of belonging doesn’t necessarily need to be said to be understood on a basic level. But it’s a message we often take for granted, and one that hit close to home last week as I tuned in to my new favorite show, Pose, an unconventional family drama that centers around the ballroom scene in 1980s New York, where groups of queer and trans people would “walk” or compete in categories judged on anything from their voguing skills to their attitude.
The show, currently in its first season on FX, is a groundbreaking production that features the largest cast of trans women and queer folks on TV — almost all of whom are people of color. When Steven Canals’s long-neglected Pose script fell into television giant Ryan Murphy’s hands, Murphy resisted the inclination of so many other privileged people in media: to tell the stories of queer and trans people of color on his own. Instead, Murphy brought writer Janet Mock on board — she’s now the first trans woman of color to be hired in a Hollywood writer’s room, and the first to write and direct an episode of TV (oh, and she produces, too). The show’s authentic moments and its ability to explore queer and trans experiences in unexpected ways can be credited to its trans talent both behind and before the scenes. In a media landscape that expects us to feel full off the crumbs of minimal representation, Pose affirms that we are more than our trauma.
In the recent “Mother’s Day” episode, the show’s Puerto Rican protagonist from the Bronx, Blanca (played by Mj Rodriguez), finds out that her estranged birth mother has passed. Written by the queer Afro-Latino Canals, this episode sees Blanca navigating loss while raising a chosen family of her own, an unfortunately common occurrence in the LGBT+ community: While up to 10 percent of this country’s youth identifies as LGBT+, they make up to 40 percent of its homeless youth. For many rejected from their homes for being who they are, finding a new family becomes a necessity, and in Pose, Blanca’s journey from ostracized daughter to motherhood is a story told through the lens of food.
In the episode’s opening scene, which occurs in flashback, a fresh-faced Blanca is taken in by Elektra (Dominique Jackson), the mother of the House of Abundance, after walking her first ball in a cheap wig and a thrifted dress. “Balls are a gathering of people who are not welcome to gather anywhere else,” Blanca explains to her son in an earlier episode, “a celebration of a life that the rest of the world does not deem worthy of celebration.” It’s in these first few minutes that motherhood and feeding are established as forms of building community within the ballroom world. “I can not hear a thing you’re saying over the protest of your stomach,” Elektra says after Blanca showers her with thanks. “When did you last eat?”
In the ballroom and drag worlds, “houses” represent alternative family models that live outside the nuclear cishet norm, providing much-needed services that are lacking for this community. (As the Center for American Progress has reported, “The narrow definition of ‘family’ in federal law [undermines] the economic security of gay- and transgender-headed families of color by denying them access to safety net programs, family tax credits, and health insurance.”) In other words, these underground care economies are often food-insecure worlds. “I’m sorry,” Blanca tells Elektra, somewhat shamefaced after all-but-swallowing the plate of pancakes before her. “I really haven’t had something warm in a minute.” It’s in this diner that Elektra claims Blanca as her daughter, relaying a message — passed down through what’s eaten — that she, too, can be loved.
Fast-forward five years later, where tensions have led Blanca to leave Abundance and form her own house. She’s reeling from the news about her biological mother, and her best friend Pray Tell, the ballroom’s resident emcee, has made a pot of arroz con gandules to ease her grief. But Blanca tells him that his cooking is “just missing a little something.” Though Blanca found a chosen family, they may never be able to satiate a particular craving — for the “food made with love” her birth mother could no longer nurture her with. “My mother made the best pasteles,” she recalls, lost in the tender memories they shared bonding in the safe space of their kitchen. “Cooking… that was our special time.”
After a turbulent funeral, Blanca’s One Cool Tia (a crucial role aunties play in Latinx family structures) remarks, “You’re so skinny! Are you getting enough to eat?” She pushes her to fix a plate for herself in her childhood kitchen, where Blanca comes upon her mother’s collected recipes. But the moment is interrupted by a traumatic encounter with her brother. “I just want the book,” she says, but he shoves her up against the wall, and after calling her a “child molester,” Blanca bolts out the door.
Where Blanca has grown to be a supportive but firm mother, Elektra is a self-proclaimed “hard bitch” (though her vicious-but-delicious reads are reason enough to watch Pose). Back at the House of Abundance, Elektra has prepared a sort of apology dinner for her emotionally neglected kids. “Mothers aren’t supposed to be hard all the time,” she offers at the dining table in her loft. “They need to spread the sugar around.” There isn’t a ton of food on that table, but as we’re reminded throughout the episode, feeding folks is a matter of intentionality: Simply offering someone a seat at your table can be so much more powerful than a fancy meal barely touched by blood relatives who can’t tolerate each other. For the characters in Pose, it’s a reclamation of dignity that society has denied them.
Watching these Black and brown queer and trans folks sitting around a table to enjoy dinner as a family chokes me up for so many reasons. As a queer Latinx kid from Brooklyn, I could never identify with the rich, white, cis characters on Will & Grace, Queer as Folk, or Ellen. Driven out of my home at 15 by a host of factors that reduced me to a statistic, I became estranged from much of my family, and by measure, my culture, our culinary traditions, and the person who held them all together, my grandmother. I’ve traveled to her native Ecuador too many times in the last decade to count, but with her long gone from this world, nothing will ever nourish me quite like her cooking did. This episode of Pose, and the show itself, reflected my story in a way I hadn’t expected.
Toward the end of the episode, it’s Mother’s Day morning, and Blanca’s chosen 17-year-old son Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) is struggling to make pancakes for breakfast. “We should’ve gotten Aunt Jemima,” he whines as some pale sludge plops down from his upraised spoon. “It’s definitely missing something,” Blanca responds. Just then, the doorbell rings and Blanca opens it to find her sister — who was not so nice at the funeral — holding their mother’s recipe book in her hands. “You and Mami were the ones who loved to be in the kitchen,” she says. “You should have it.”
On her couch, Blanca flips through the yellowed pages typewritten with recipes, stopping at one for pancakes taken from a magazine. The show uses that moment to take the viewer back in time, to a six-year-old Blanca making breakfast with her mom. “I love you, Mami,” she pauses to say, before panic flashes across her face, prompting her to ask, “Will you love me forever?”
“I will love you forever and ever,” her mother assures her in the flashback, patting Blanca on the head. “Don’t you ever forget that.”
Damon’s whines pull Blanca out of her reminiscence. She gets herself together before returning to the kitchen and handing him some milk. She watches with pride as he stirs the batter. “That’s just what it was missing!” He giggles before pausing to say, “I love you, mother.” Taken aback, Blanca returns the words but adds, with his head in her palm, “Forever.” And that’s when I ran out of Kleenex.
A hungry heart can’t replace what’s been lost, but it can find something similar, sometimes sweeter, from a different source. This culinary tradition of improvisational care has been passed down by generations of queer and trans people of color beyond bloodlines, replacing a collective shame with pride. Be it a brick or a bowl of batter, we have proven time and again that we’ll use any tool at our disposal to achieve liberation. It’s through this legacy that Pose has finally found a home in our living rooms: It’s that missing ingredient so many of us have been craving since what feels like forever.
Bani Amor is a queer travel writer whose work has appeared in CNN Travel, Teen Vogue, Bitch Magazine, and in the anthology Outside the XY: Queer Black and Brown Masculinity.
Editor: Erin DeJesus