Steven Canals Nourishes the Characters of 'Pose' One Scene at a Time
The Pose co-creator explores food's starring role in the groundbreaking TV show.
This story is part of "Queer As Food," a series that explores the role of food in LGBTQ+ communities.
"You're getting so skinny. Are you getting enough to eat?" I could easily picture one of my own relatives saying this to me, and if you grew up in a Black or Latin family, then there's a good chance the same is true for you. In this case, it's a line delivered to Blanca Rodriguez Evangelista (Mj Rodriguez) by her aunt during her mother’s wake in a scene from the "Mother's Day" episode of the TV show Pose.
"Everyone has that one aunt who's policing how thin you are or aren't," Pose co-creator Steven Canals tells me on a phone call. "Even now, my maternal grandmother will be like, 'Are you eating?' And then she'll slap me on the behind. She'll be like, 'Look at this, you have no [butt] and we need to get you eating.'"
Despite the estrangement Blanca endured from her family, who kicked her out of the house when she was a teen living her truth as a trans woman, these few words from her aunt show that there is still some love there despite the distance between them. This small act speaks volumes, and speaks to the core of many Black and Latin families.
"Food is critically important to Pose because this is a show about Black and Latin people," Canals says. "As someone who grew up in a mixed family that is Black and Puerto Rican, that was such an important way for us to show love to one another. That was the way that we connected as a family. Food was that place where we communed with one another, and that is where you share your joy, that is where you all supported each other when they were hurt."
I didn't quite realize just how large a role food plays in the series until I rewatched it recently. Yes, Pose is about the Harlem ballroom scene of '80s and '90s, the AIDS epidemic, and the experiences of Black and brown queer people during that time. But more than any of that, Pose is a story about family, and as such, food is integral to telling that story. "It was essential to embed that connection of family around a meal on our show," Canals says. "Food is love, and on our show, that is one of our truths. Food is the way they show love for one another."
So many LGBTQ+ people have been robbed of the families they were born into and denied that love. "LGBTQ young adults had a 120 percent higher risk of reporting homelessness compared to youth who identified as heterosexual and cisgender," according to a University of Chicago report highlighting how queer youth disproportionally experience homelessness. The study also noted that estimates show LGBT youth comprise "up to 40 percent of the total unaccompanied homeless youth population, even though they make up five to 10 percent of the overall youth population."
Corollary to homelessness is hunger, which is why during a flashback scene in the "Mother's Day" episode, Blanca's own former house mother turned quintessential frenemy Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson) treats a young Blanca to a meal of late-night diner pancakes after walking her first ballroom category. "I can not hear a thing you're saying over the protest of your stomach," Elektra says after coming to her defense against a group of other girls. "When did you last eat?"
It's over that meal that Elektra offers her the chance to join the legendary House of Abundance, which mirrors a scene from the pilot episode in which Blanca invites classically-trained dancer Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) to join her own start-up house when she realized he was new to New York City and living on the streets, offering him a roof over his head and a family accepting of his sexuality.
The episode also crafted a vignette showing Blanca as a child who loved to spend time in the kitchen with their mother, which parallels Canals's own experience. "When I reflect on my childhood, the thing I don't know if I appreciated at the time was the recipes that were being passed down from generation to generation," Canals says. "That episode was inspired by not just thinking about Blanca and the loss of her mom and the way that she was connected to her mother, but, for me, also thinking about that sadness and that loss, that generational connection that doesn't exist anymore that was shared through meals."
"My maternal grandmother has dementia. [She] was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and there's a very specific dish she would make for me that's like a Latin shepherd's pie," Canals continues, referring to pastelón. "I loved it, but I don't have a recipe for that."
Many Black and brown communities have relied on oral traditions for not only recipes but all aspects of our cultures, and as our elders continue to die without the opportunity to record our customs and traditions, much has already been lost forever. "I was thinking about all of the dishes that live in my grandmother's brain that we'll never experience again," Canals tells me. Though his mother will try to replicate certain dishes, "It's not the way that abuelita made it."
Blanca, too, wanted to relive the fond food memories she had with her mother, but as she went to retrieve her mother's recipe book as she prepared to leave the wake, her brother forcefully kicked her out of the house. Towards the end of the episode, Blanca's sister Carmen gives the book to its rightful owner and shared that their mother "had a lot of regret that she didn't get it right" and still loved her, despite implying the contrary earlier. Viewers also get a glimpse at a change of heart from Carmen, as she addresses Blanca by her chosen female name for the first time instead of the male name she was given at birth—an important marker for trans individuals.
Perhaps Canals's favorite food scene shows up in the second season during the "Revelations" episode. In this moment, Pray Tell (Billy Porter, who won an Emmy for the role), who serves as the Master of Ceremonies for the balls, and the rest of his ballroom council—composed of other respected elders from the community—are sitting in a diner booth talking about dating younger men. "I think that that moment for me is such a quintessential Pose moment because so many of our scenes that have food in them aren't explicitly about the food. There might be some mention of the meal, but the scene is always about something else," Canals says. "The food is just the way for them to come together. They're eating and they're talking and they are supporting one another and they're reading each other. And that's what family is."
Another food-centric scene that Canals is particularly fond of is in the third episode of the first season in which the family heads out to a Chinese restaurant after failing miserably at making Christmas dinner. "They're sitting around this table in this restaurant, and they hand each other gifts, and they talk about how they love each other, what they mean to one another," Canals says. "I think it's a really good example and a model of what food represents on our show. Food is a way for people to come together to share, to show that they love one another, and also creates a space for connection."
And though Canals himself has said that "food is love" in this very interview, he also acknowledges that it's not always peaches and cream. In an episode that he just finished writing for the upcoming third season, he continues to include a variety of scenes involving food. "And all of those are a mixture—they're funny and they're joyful and they're happy and they're also heartbreaking."
The food scenes in Pose are just as nuanced and multifaceted as the array of characters Canals writes into the show. His decision to center the Black and brown queer community in his work, with a particular interest in highlighting and uplifting trans people of color on a mainstream TV network, is not only revolutionary but a form of activism. "I am fortunate to be privileged enough to be in the position to do it. And I recognize that there are so many people out in the world, whether they are Black or Latin or women or LGBTQ+, that don't have those same privileges," he says. "And I really feel like it is my responsibility not only as a member of some of those communities, but also because of my privileges—being cisgendered, being male—to use my voice to elevate the voices of other individuals who haven't had the kind of doors open and privileges that I had."
This is satisfying work for Canals, on many levels. "Telling stories feeds my soul. It nourishes me," he says. "And I also don't know what else I would do with my life—I guess aside from maybe baking."