In the throes of a COVID-19 summer, I turned to Hulu’s Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi in lieu of my usual getaway. In this 10-episode food and travel series, creator and host Lakshmi (along with academics, celebrities, and culinary experts) takes us from Honolulu to Jackson Heights, tasting cuisines across the country. The show delivers more than the typical escapist travel and mouthwatering foodie FOMO. Lakshmi is a breezy and charismatic host, but her success comes from focusing the series on the people who make the food: their stories and experiences with assimilation, identity, racism, and freedom. The food is a compass, enabling us to explore intricate aspects of the American experience.
Credit where credit is due
Taste the Nation reevaluates the origins of the food we know and love. In episode four, “The Gullah Way,” writer, culinary historian, and educator Michael Twitty educates Lakshmi about the Gullah Geechee, people of African heritage in the Carolinas and Georgia who share their name with their unique creole language, as he cooks Red Rice over an open fire in the South Carolina marsh. Food is one of the many ways the Gullah Geechee are staying connected to their culture while passing it down to the next generation. They are integral to the creation of Southern cooking, yet are seldom associated with the cuisine. Lakshmi aims to redirect credit where it is due. “It would be great if a recipe that went viral were placed in the context of its own history,” she says in a recent New York Times interview about the show.
Food and identity
A recurring theme throughout Taste the Nation is how food enables people to stay connected to their culture. Lakshmi herself immigrated from India and shares the story of many others who have come to the US hoping for a better life. She chooses to surround herself with Indian people, attend events, and cook Indian food. Many also struggle balancing assimilation and honoring their roots. Scott Chang-Fleeman is a US-born Chinese American farmer who grows Asian heritage vegetables at Shao Shan Farm in Bolinas, California, allowing him to celebrate and share his Chinese heritage in America. (As a Filipino American myself, striking this balance has been challenging, but cooking and eating Filipino food has always been an accessible way to reconnect to my roots.)
Confronting the past
The series distinguishes itself from other jovial food programming by highlighting contemptible events in American history. In the seventh episode, “The Original Americans,” Lakshmi travels to the San Carlos Reservation in Phoenix. The lack of nutritious food access on Indigenous lands in the modern US has caused generations of health issues. For Indigenous people, access to healthy food is not only a right, but a path to freedom.
In the sixth episode, “Where the Kabob Is Hot,” Iranian chef Hamid Mosavi claims that kitchens saved his life as he struggled with the turmoil between the US and Iran. Cooking Persian food enabled him to connect with culture in the US, and cope with anti-Iranian riots and discourse. We are reminded of the Chinese Exclusion Act that prohibited Chinese laborers from immigrating to the US, Japanese internment camps on US soil during World War II, and much more. This layer adds a unique punch of pathos to each episode; a stark reminder of how far we have come, and how far there is to go.
Beyond the familiar
Taste the Nation deconstructs what it means to be American; a complex ideology that is unique for everyone. Lakshmi challenges us to get out of our comfort zones and broaden our horizons. As she tells the Times, “there’s such a laziness—it’s not often malicious—about reaching for the thing that is most familiar.” At the heart of the series is inclusivity, and how experiencing that which is different from us could lead to positive growth on a micro and macro level. The series does not pontificate on how to be better. Instead it simply provides the space and platform for us to listen to those who are not often heard.
What, When, Where
Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi is available to watch on Hulu.