Padma Lakshmi’s New Show Tries To Decolonize American Food History
By centering the cuisines of immigrants and Black people, Taste the Nation feels like a direct response to the overwhelming whiteness of American food media.
The important thing first: Padma Lakshmi’s new show, Taste the Nation, which starts streaming on Hulu on Thursday, will make you so hungry. Every episode has something for the insatiable eater in you: melty, crunchy cheese in a taco, the crisp crack of a dosa that’s just been bitten, a hunk of juicy crab sucked from its shell, the beauty of a big old sausage. In that way, this show is no different than a host of other shows about food that you might watch on, say, the Food Network. It’s good, wholesome food porn.
What makes Taste the Nation distinct from many other programs, however, is the context it provides. An episode about Gullah Geechee food in South Carolina is actually about jazz, hip-hop, Black ingenuity, and the history of how enslaved people from West Africa developed a unique cuisine in the United States that eventually influenced so many other cuisines in the South. “The culture happens between the healing and the hurt,” food writer and historian Michael W. Twitty says in conversation with Lakshmi. It’s not a sentence you might expect in an episode that’s essentially about how great rice is, but it fits: It’s impossible to talk about food without addressing its history.
It’s part No Reservations, part Salt Fat Acid Heat, with an even more explicit political aim to give a much-needed history lesson.
That’s largely what Taste the Nation is trying to accomplish, a 10-episode series about what “American” food actually is. Instead of profiling cooks who make burgers, sandwiches, and barbecue, the show centers immigrants (and the descendants of enslaved Black people), highlighting the difficult, often thankless work they do to make room for themselves and their families in the US. It’s part No Reservations, part Salt Fat Acid Heat, with an even more explicit political aim to give a much-needed history lesson. “I was getting pissed off with everybody else trying to tell the immigrant experience except the immigrant,” Lakshmi told the Washington Post in an interview from earlier this week. “I wanted to know what life was like for them. I wanted them to tell us what they thought and what their life experience was.”
Such a goal is a tall order for any program, but is more necessary than ever considering the current food media climate. In the weeks leading up to Taste the Nation’s premiere, there has been a kind of reckoning in food media. Bon Appétit editor Adam Rapoport recently resigned after a photo of him wearing an offensive Puerto Rican outfit resurfaced. Sohla El-Waylly, one of the few nonwhite faces on Bon Appétit’s YouTube channel, went public with her complaints, which included not being compensated for her video appearances while her white colleagues were. (A Business Insider report delved deeper into the magazine’s “toxic history of microaggressions.”)
Last month, Alison Roman, the It kid over at the New York Times cooking section, also got in trouble for calling Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo sellouts. “We are living in the age of the global pantry,” Navneet Alang wrote in an essay for Eater about Roman and her ilk, “when a succession of food media-approved, often white figures have made an array of international ingredients approachable and even desirable to the North American mainstream — the same mainstream that, a decade ago, would have labeled these foods as obscure at best and off-putting at worst.” The problem is that the people who are introducing this “ethnic” food to the masses are almost always overwhelmingly white. Why do they get to be the experts?
Even if Taste the Nation isn’t a direct response to the unbearable whiteness of food media, arriving at this moment it certainly feels like one. Each episode focuses on a particular cuisine in the US., but also on the ethnic groups who created these cuisines — Mexican, German, Indian, Gullah Geechee, Chinese, Indigenous, and Thai people, just to name a few. Lakshmi, a former model and current Top Chef host, might be the narrator of Taste the Nation, but with the exception of a few comments about her own immigrant background, the narratives that actually matter in the show are of the people who developed each cuisine and made it popular (and delicious) stateside.
It’s almost like a way to force viewers to take their medicine; if you want to watch Lakshmi eat fry bread, you have to learn about what settlers did — and are still doing — to Indigenous people’s access to fresh food. The episode about Chinese food (“What Is Chop Suey Anyway?”) doesn’t showcase American Chinese food, but instead follows comedian Ali Wong and Lakshmi around as they go to the restaurant where Wong had her wedding banquet, ordering wood mushroom, gooey duck, and beef with turnips as Wong explains how Chinese food gradually morphed into something more palatable for non-Chinese Americans. “They won’t show you the feet,” Wong says about the photos Chinese restaurants put up of their food.
What begins as an episode about how chop suey is a specifically Chinese American invention delves into the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese migration into the US for more than six decades. Learning about this kind of historical context in food programming isn’t a punishment — the show’s a lot of fun, and, again, I am starving just thinking about the food — but how can you care about food if you don’t care about the people who made it, or how it got here to begin with?
How can you care about food if you don’t care about the people who made it, or how it got here to begin with?
The third episode — “Don’t Mind If I Dosa” — is a clear standout for Lakshmi. In it, she explores Indian cuisine (a misnomer if there ever was one, since the country is so goddamn big and the food varies region to region), but it becomes a space for her to think about her biracial daughter’s upbringing, to talk to her mother about how she left a bad marriage to go to the US, and to reflect on her decision to briefly change her name when she was young. “In order to know who we are, it’s important to know where we come from,” Lakshmi says in the episode. “Connecting to that identity is an individual journey.”
Taste the Nation isn’t perfect. Any show where a rich, famous, and beautiful woman is at the center is likely to have some weak spots. This presents itself pretty early on, in the first episode, where we have to waste our time cooing over the old Trump supporter who owns a small, award-winning car wash/diner right on the border between the US and Mexico. Lakshmi sits on a plastic chair next to him and holds his hand, grinning graciously when he calls her “a knockout.” It’s a trap that so many food shows fall into — you have to talk about race and racism if you’re going to talk about the food of immigrants, and yet Lakshmi gives him a pass when she asks how his predominantly Mexican staff might be affected by Trump’s racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Episodes like the one focusing on Indian food, delightful to me as someone with family from the north, are still kind of myopic. Lakshmi spends time with former US attorney Preet Bharara, who was born in Punjab, and legendary cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey, who’s originally from Delhi. Though Lakshmi might eat dosas with Bharara in Washington Square Park, and though she cooks rasam with her South Indian mother, it’s an episode that doesn’t — and can’t — contain the whole of the country’s food history. That isn’t necessarily Lakshmi’s fault, nor the fault of the show generally, but rather just a reminder that food is complicated, fluid, with a long history, and is at this point largely borderless. To attempt to explore the politics of food is to walk directly into failure, most of the time. It’s just too big.
But, despite this, I’ve never seen a food show before that mimics so closely my own relationship with food and with my culture: When Lakshmi’s mother is making the rasam and tells her daughter what she put in, Lakshmi whips her head around confused, asking, “When did you do that?” Indian moms, man. They just won’t give you shit — especially not their recipes.
Most episodes of Taste the Nation are barely about food. But who cares? No one really needs another show about cooking, about how to make an “authentic” burrito, whatever that means, or what goes into pad thai. These are all easily googled questions, and there are a myriad of cookbooks and online recipes to choose from. What the food space actually needs is context: the context of who’s showing you the food (in this case, an Indian immigrant), and the context of where the food is coming from, why it matters, and what it means. ●