At the height of the pandemic, author and television personality Padma Lakshmi decided to turn off the news and turn on “Game of Thrones.” The host had recently wrapped production on her new Hulu show “Taste the Nation” and Bravo’s long-running culinary competition series “Top Chef” when she was given the gift of forced downtime.
“I never had the time to watch it,” she told PoliFonics during a phone call. “So, during quarantine, I caught up and literally watched from Episode 1 to the conclusion. So that kept me in a bubble.”
That bubble of ice and fire burst when COVID-19 became more of an afterthought amid continued protests over racial injustice and police brutality in the U.S. Lakshmi was angry and, in usual fashion, took to social media to point out flaws in the system. (Exhibit A: President Donald Trump.) But what she didn’t realize was how relatable certain scenes from the HBO epic would be.
″‘Game of Thrones’ is so violent,” she said, “so it was just a vicarious way to parallel and experience a lot of the atrocities that were out in our streets.”
It may sound odd that Lakshmi ― an ambassador for the American Civil Liberties Union and an outspoken ally to marginalized groups ― was entrenched in the fictional world of Westeros at a time like this, but self-care is important to maintain as we risk information overload.
Which is why “Taste the Nation” comes at an ideal time.
The 10-episode series will entice audiences looking for a brief escape as Lakshmi explores the diverse food culture of various immigrant communities across the U.S., seeking out people who have impacted the creation of American cuisine. She eats burritos in El Paso, brews beer in a stranger’s garage in Milwaukee, and discusses the true definition of chop suey with Ali Wong in San Francisco’s Chinatown ― all while uncovering stories that challenge notions of identity and what it means to be American. Lakshmi, who was born in India, dedicates an episode to Jackson Heights, Queens, to share her own family’s traditions and sit down with her idol, Madhur Jaffrey, who paved a path for subcontinental cooking in the States.
But it was the unknown that excited Lakshmi most.
“It was a real odyssey because I was going into the corners of our country that I would have never had the opportunity to go to otherwise,” she said. “I’ve never been on a Native American reservation. I have never been on a fishing boat. I have never foraged for my own food. I have never chopped sugarcane. There were all these things that were firsts for me, which is what I wanted the experience to be.”
“I tried not to approach my work so much as a food expert or scholar, but rather as the audience’s representative,” Lakshmi added.
In this interview (which has been edited and condensed for clarity), she discusses traveling the country pre-coronavirus and how telling her personal story was harder than she imagined it would be.
We’re in a pandemic, spending time with family, cooking, adjusting to a new normal. But now we’re once again facing the reality of police violence and racism in our country. How have you been coping with everything over the last few months?
I mean, look, I’m really disappointed. But I’m also thankful because I do have a nice place to shelter and quarantine with my family. I am in a place that’s better than many Americans. I have health insurance. I have the things I need, which is not true for a large number of Americans and people around the world.
On the other side, I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted emotionally. There is so much shit to get mad about that you just don’t even know how to organize it all. Lately, I felt like all I’ve been doing is yelling on Twitter and Instagram, which is why a lot of times you’ll just see my tweets on Instagram because I just don’t have the fortitude. But I can’t not say anything, you know? And then things come out that you’re like, “Oh my God, it’s way worse than even I suspected.”
It is exhausting, but it feels vital to stay informed. For me, it’s been about finding the balance between how much I take in and when I need to take a break and step away for a bit.
I just stopped watching CNN. Every day, since I can’t go work out, I’ve been jumping rope. I put my headphones in and I listen to “The Daily” from The New York Times and I listen to “Up First” by NPR. That usually takes me to a half an hour of jumping rope and I feel like I’ve gotten what’s most important. And then I’ll read the news, but I won’t watch the news.
In terms of coronavirus, for a lot of people it’s been about finding an escape. “Taste the Nation” offers that in a way as we’re stuck at home, we’re not traveling, we’re not out at restaurants. There’s something about this show that will remind people there’s a world out there and eventually we’ll get back into it.
I, obviously, couldn’t have known the environment in which I was releasing this show. I don’t think anyone would have predicted this kind of one-two punch that we’ve had ― a lot of it very necessary, by the way. But I hope that it really educates people, entertains them and allows them to vicariously travel through me.
In a blog post on PoliFonics a few years back, you said the U.S. is a superpower because “we’ve managed to take the best of each immigrant culture and create our own uniquely American culture.” Did that statement inspire the creation of this series, which shows how cultures intertwine through food?
I basically wanted to see what our country was like on the ground. Who were the new Americans, who were the older Americans who had established themselves here 30 years ago or 100 years ago? I wanted to look at who actually was shaping the country both in the culinary perspective, but also in a broader perspective. Because the ideas of who gets to call themselves American and what is American food has largely been hijacked by people in power, but those aren’t the people who are shaping the American diet. We’re not all eating prime rib and mashed potatoes; we’re eating pad thai, we’re eating tacos, we’re eating sushi and shawarma. If you look at surveys done by Uber Eats and stuff, that is what you will see. Even in the middle of the country, the food is really diverse and dynamic, and it is that way because the people are very diverse and dynamic. I personally think that’s something to be celebrated.
I also wanted these communities to speak for themselves. I’m tired of other people speaking about immigrants and feeding a lot of misleading information. I think some of the rhetoric that has come out of Washington has really vilified immigrants and negated the enormous contributions that immigrants have made to this nation. The nation is what it is because of generations of immigration. So, this is my answer to a lot of that rhetoric for political gain and fear mongering. I posit that immigration is a powerful, positive thing to our economy, to our pop culture, to our art, to our media, to our food. That’s what makes us great. That should be celebrated. That should not be feared. Immigrants are not a threat.
The idea of who gets to call themselves American and what is American food has largely been hijacked by people in power, but those aren’t the people who are shaping the American diet.
You speak to your own experience as an immigrant. The episode “Don’t Mind If I Dosa” is a lovely look at your story ― and that of your mother and daughter. How was it for you to explore your own history through this outlet of food and cooking, which you love so much?
I mean, so much of my writing is personal, so that was OK. But it was weird. It was weird to put my kid on camera. My mom is not camera ready, she’s not media savvy, so that felt really vulnerable. And also I obviously couldn’t be objective about it, you know? So, that episode was a little bit like pulling teeth for me just because I don’t want the series to come off as all about me. That’s the opposite of what it’s about. It’s about handing the microphone to other people who haven’t had the platform to say what life is like for them. I just wanted to make sure that it didn’t come off as self-centered.
I relied heavily, for that episode, on my showrunner [Sarina Roma] to guide me. I remember one day we were having a conversation and she was like, “OK, I guess you don’t want it to be about you, but you should just expect the same out of yourself that you expect from all the other guests on the show.” And so I had to have my kid on it, I had to show my house, I had to have my mom on it. Because I’m asking all of these communities I go into to let me into some intimate spaces and ask very personal questions. So it would have been totally hypocritical of me not to be willing to do the same with my own life.
What did you learn from being more vulnerable?
I learned that my mother doesn’t put molasses in Rasam, which is something I never knew or thought about. [Laughs]
But I don’t think I understood how much guilt she still carries about leaving me in India for two years without her and with my grandparents. I know it intellectually, but to have her say it and so quickly get to tears … I think she still carries a lot of feelings about that. You know, it’s an experience that a lot of immigrant children have because their parents have to make sacrifices. And when you’re a kid, you don’t need your parent’s behavior to satisfy you because you don’t have the knowledge and life experiences to view it that way. If you watch the Peruvian episode, Erik Ramirez’s mom has the same situation with his grandma. It is a theme that runs through a lot of immigrant communities. There’s a lot of sacrifice that’s made to come here to this country and have the privilege to contribute to the greater economy by pursuing your own “American dream.”
There are so many interesting moments you have with guests on the show. During the El Paso episode, for instance, you were able to discuss politics with a conservative business owner, Maynard Haddad, who runs his restaurant with the help of Mexican immigrants.
I really wanted that interview very badly because I wanted to make a full portrait of the complexity and nuance of that particular community. Here’s a guy who will tell you that all his employees are family to him and he loves them like his own, and I believe him. And yet, even though he doesn’t agree with Trump’s policies on immigration, he will still support Trump. And in that moment where he says, “What choice do I have?” In my head, I’m screaming, “You have a lot of choice! You don’t have to vote Republican.”
By the way, I’m not somebody who’s a hardcore Democrat, either. I only registered as a Democrat in this election so I could vote in the primaries. I always grew up with both Democrats and Republicans in my family, and just approaching every candidate on the merits of his or her own views and qualifications. So, I’m not by any means the standard bearer for the Democratic Party. But it wasn’t about me convincing Haddad of the errors of his beliefs, it was about me checking my ego and really allowing myself a true, deep glimpse into what his needs were. If I were sitting at a bar or dinner party, I probably would have spoken my mind, but I’m a guest at his business. I am the one who asked him to let me speak to him directly and speak to his employees and disrupt his business to film that day. At the very least, I needed to hear his point of view without trying to manipulate it.
Did you find that, when you approached people for interviews and asked to be in their kitchens, they were truly open to telling their stories?
Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to be where I’m not welcome and I also understand privacy, because it’s been hard to maintain my own privacy in the public eye for a very long time. Half the people knew that I was an established person who was totally legit in food on TV. I’m self-aware enough to know that that gave me a certain entrée that I may not have had 20 years ago. And so, I think it was easier for them to open up to me because the presumed main subject was food and I use that conversation about food as a way to embed myself in their communities and talk about deeper issues.
Clearly, people outside of the fancy food world have very emotional connections and fully formed opinions about things that they can eat. Everyone will talk to you about their grandmother’s apple pie or their abuela’s tamale. So, in a way, that gave us a common ground in the elementary discussion. And in the process of that, they felt that I was genuinely curious to hear their point of view, to hear what their experience was, to let them tell their own story. I did not want to manipulate any of my subjects into feeling like they had to give me a right or wrong answer.
What an opportunity to have before going into lockdown. You were able to travel the country, meet new people, try new foods, eat at an array of restaurants …
Last year was such a whirlwind. I filmed a good portion of “Taste the Nation” during the summer from June to September. Then we shut down production to allow me to go out and film “Top Chef,” which was filmed in September, October and then November in Italy. I filmed one episode with Madhur Jaffrey in November and then filmed all of December. Literally two days before Christmas, I had finished the principal photography and all the travel for the show. We had three production teams: one was in pre-production, one was in the field with me and then a third was doing post-production. It was an intense experience, but one that I wouldn’t change for the world.
For me, it was really about showing, not telling, and demonstrating the humanity of these people, as opposed to all the white people in Washington bad-mouthing immigrants saying that they are going to bring crime and filth and take our jobs. That they were the everyday folk who have the same goals that everyone else has, which is to live a peaceful life so that somehow their family could thrive, they could put their kids through school and take care of their parents and elders. Those human values do not have an ethnicity and nobody should have a monopoly on that.
“Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi” hits Hulu on June 18.
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