Noshing With the Pfeffermans: How Transparent Gets Food and Heritage Right
Courtesy of Amazon Studios
The seventh episode of Transparent’s second season, now available on Amazon, takes place on Yom Kippur. The holiest day of the year in the Hebrew calendar, it’s a holiday on which Jews fast to symbolically atone for their sins. It’s also a significant occasion for Transparent, which, like the Pfefferman family, is obsessed with food. On Transparent, food is survival. It doesn’t just metaphorically bring family together; it is the literal vessel for the Pfeffermans’ heritage, bridging generations.
At sundown on Yom Kippur, Josh (Jay Duplass) sits to break the fast with his family and reveals that he and his fiancée have broken up. For the second time in the series, the possibility of a baby and a family life has eluded him. After dinner, he goes to the grocery store, where he opens a package of cold cuts and starts eating; as if possessed, he tears into Jell-O and hamburger buns and turkey slices, indiscriminately shoving food into his mouth.
The scene is emblematic of the way the Pfeffermans treat food — as a raft in a storm, a means of survival. The dinner table is the site of many emotionally ravaging scenes in Transparent, dating back to Maura Pfefferman’s (Jeffrey Tambor) attempt to come out as transgender in the very first episode. In its second season, food continues to hold a central place in the lives of its characters, and in the show itself.
The extent to which bad circumstances fail to temper the Pfeffermans’ appetites is a recurring joke on Transparent. The current season opens with the wedding of Josh’s sister Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Tammy (Melora Hardin), the woman Sarah left her husband for. By the end of the episode, Sarah has already ended the relationship, but it doesn’t stop her and her siblings from putting out leftover wedding cake during a backyard party a couple of days later. (Josh objects, but only because “this thing is catered.”) Later, Tammy drunkenly crashes the party and throws the cake in the pool. The Pfeffermans can't believe it. Why waste perfectly good cake?
Transparent’s focus on food squares with its painfully honest portrayal of a contemporary Jewish family living in Los Angeles — and if you’ve ever been a part of such a family, or eaten with one, you’ll know what I mean. (My own secular Jewish family’s favorite dinnertime discussion topic is what we’re going to eat next.) When Josh and his other sister, Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), pick up food from Canter’s Deli for a family meal, their mother can tell from the weight of the bags that they’ve deviated from the “standing order.”
Food and eating often function as a punch line, a comment on the Pfeffermans’ greed and self-interest. In the pilot, Tambor's character plans to tell Ali, Josh and Sarah about the transition over Chinese takeout. Sitting at the table in the home in which they grew up — a modern, airy house with a pool in the Pacific Palisades — the siblings incorrectly guess that their father has cancer, and immediately begin arguing over who will inherit the house. They bicker with rib sauce smeared on each of their faces. “We come from shtetl people,” Maura explains.
It’s telling that Maura invokes the family’s ancestry in relation to food. In its second season, Transparent uses food to connect the present to the Pfeffermans’ familial past — like Proust’s madeleine if it were a bagel with schmear. The season features flashbacks to Weimar Berlin, where we learn that the family’s Tante Gittel was born Gershon — and that she was arrested before she had the chance to escape Berlin with her mother and sister, Rose.
In the season finale, Rose and her mother board a ship bound for America. Rose’s mother hands her a chocolate wrapped in paper; Rose breaks the chocolate apart and inside finds Gittel’s pearl ring. This ring is mentioned early in Transparent’s first season, and it’s the same ring Josh uses to propose to Raquel — the same ring that Ali later finds and slips onto a chain around her neck.
But the series extends its observations beyond the specifics of the Pfefferman family. The focus on food is in line with its ongoing exploration of human bodies and all the ways we try to make ourselves feel comfortable in them. “Do yourself a favor and get to know your body,” a doctor tells Maura early in the second season. It’s a message the show itself intones: Don’t forget about your body. Feed it when it’s hungry. Transparent is not only about gender and sexuality; it’s about the constant, universal struggle to become the person you are. It might take your whole life, but it’s never too late. As Transparent so beautifully illustrates, you can ignore your body for only so long before a rumble in your gut reminds you to pay attention.
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