America was built by immigrants, and American Cuisine is a great example of how these communities came together to build something new. With Taste the Nation on Hulu, Padma Lakshmi takes the audience on a culinary journey across America with a focus on the diverse food culture of different immigrant groups. She seeks out Americans from all over the country to share a meal and uncover the how their histories and cultures have shaped what American food is today. Along the way, Lakshmi brings to light not just what these communities have contributed to America, but also how these communities have been changed by America as well.
DEADLINE: How did you come up with the idea for Taste the Nation?
PADMA LAKSHMI: Well, after the 2016 election, I began working very closely with the ACLU on immigration issues, and speaking for minority communities who weren’t represented well in the media or out of Washington. As I spoke from a personal point of view about my own immigrant story, I started to get deeper and deeper into the issue and learn about other people’s immigrant stories. And I realized that we need to tell our own stories firsthand, and have the platform to do it. A lot of the vitriol coming from Washington, from people like Stephen Miller or Steve Bannon or Trump, that was not the experience I had growing up as an immigrant. And it is not my experience of immigrant communities, which I have lived in all my life.
DEADLINE: Can you talk about the effects of colonization on the food of the different communities you highlighted?
LAKSHMI: The biggest effect that colonization has on food is the introduction of wheat. Native Americans didn’t eat wheat, but when they were displaced and put on reservations, there was mass starvation as they moved these people around. They were given sacks of flour and tins of lard, but they didn’t know what to do with that. And so that’s how fry bread comes along. But even if you look at Mexican cuisine, that’s a corn-based cuisine traditionally and it was only with the advent of colonialism that you see flour tortillas coming up. So, wheat and flour are a big effect. Gluten is a very big effect of European colonization on this country.
DEADLINE: Why do you think it was so important for Taste the Nation to be seen last year?
LAKSHMI: I think that we, by some grace of the universe, were able to provide the content that people were longing for and needed. It was such a negative, scary time in our country for so many reasons, especially because we couldn’t be mobile and we were all stuck at home isolated. This was a show about traveling the country to meet others, to connect, to have an exchange, and I think people were really longing for that. And we also needed to show what absolutely makes America great, which to me is this notion that anybody can come here and get a fair shake. I mean, we know it’s not a totally fair shake, but that is the promise of America. That is the promise of this country that’s so different than any other country, where you can come here and make a life for yourself. As long as you work hard, you can participate in the American dream and it’s open to anybody as long as they participate in making America, right? So, by working hard here and setting down your roots and contributing to the American economy and American culture through the values that you bring here, or your grandparents brought here, you too can partake in the successes of this collective that we’ve built.
I think we needed that good news and that’s why, in the Thai episode, I wanted to interview those Thai war brides. I wanted Americans to hear the story of how, during the ’60s and ’70s, this country was so welcoming to immigrants, to these women who didn’t have anything and didn’t speak the language. And how one of these women, even though she was a divorcee and she had a bunch of kids already, was embraced by her in-laws as their own daughter, with open arms, when their army GI son brought this war bride home. It’s a beautiful story. And they were just an average American family. I wanted to tell those stories, to remind everybody that there’s more that connects us than separates us. I wanted to talk about these human, daily issues that have become so politicized because, it seems to me, we’ve forgotten our generosity of spirit in this country.
DEADLINE: What part of Taste the Nation do you think you’re the most proud of?
LAKSHMI: I’m most proud that the people in the communities that I have featured feel that I have represented them well, and that I’ve told their story in the way that they saw fit to tell it. I’ve kept in touch with everybody who’s participated on the show and I’ve been really worried about some of these restaurants, especially with the pandemic. And they’ve all been so proud to have been on the show. They’re all so happy that they participated in this show, and I have lasting emotional relationships with them. And when I go to the gym and this guy takes his face mask off and says, “I’m Persian and I’ve never seen my family story in this country on TV before. People always mistake me for being an Arab, and you really told our story, and thank you.” That is what I’m most proud of.