A broad look at how immigration shapes food in America, and how American culture is shaped in turn.
By Padma Lakshmi as told to Chris Mohney
An award-winning author of cookbooks and a memoir, Padma Lakshmi is best known as the host and executive producer of Top Chef. Her new show, Taste the Nation, is now streaming on Hulu.
I wouldn’t have considered myself a very political person even five years ago. I campaigned for Hillary Clinton as well as Barack Obama, but that was about it. Then after the 2016 election, when there was so much smack talk about immigrants coming out of Washington, and there was all this negative vilification of these communities, and the Muslim ban, and family separation at the border—it fueled my anger in a way, because I’m an immigrant. I’ve always believed that this country is beautiful because it accepts immigrants from all over the world. As a nation, we have a long tradition of doing that.
It’s my opinion that immigrants actually built this country and continue to make it run in all industries—especially, of course, in food. If you look at the interesting things happening in American food right now, they’re all from ethnic pockets of our country. We’re not all eating prime rib and mashed potatoes every day of the week. Even if you look at things that are supposed to be quintessentially American, like hot dogs or beer or apple pie—well, none of those things are American. They’ve actually been brought here by other people, too.
My family couldn’t afford to go to fancy restaurants when I was young. I didn’t start using a Zagat guide, for example, until I was out of college. I grew up going to ethnic markets and little mom-and pop-restaurants. I wanted to highlight those people in the show because that’s the kind of food that interests me in my own private life. I respect fine dining. I understand the exceptional skill and execution and high caliber of ingredients and service that are involved. I value it. I admire people who do it. But given the choice, I would rather go to a food truck. At least at this point in my life, at least after the career that I’ve had so far. I just need a palate cleanser, I guess.
The idea behind Taste the Nation is to use food as a vehicle to look at a lot of different immigrant enclaves in our country that often don’t get the platform they deserve. I’m not interested in doing just another lifestyle food show. I have a successful show with Top Chef that I’m really proud of. Taste the Nation is a political show—it’s looking at the politics of immigration through the lens of food. For example, I wanted to see how some of the immigration policy that was handed down from Washington affected a border town like El Paso, where there are detention camps. We tried very hard to get permission to go to those, as well as speak to ICE agents, all of which was denied. I’m not interested in talking about grand political ideas myself on the show. I’m interested in allowing these people to tell their own story and seeing what their life is like on a human level day to day. Those are the experiences that matter.
It was really hard to narrow the list of cities we would go to in this first season. We had a list of maybe 20 places we were interested in. There were places that we didn’t go that I really wanted to. For instance, I wanted to go to Alaska to look at the Filipino community there, because it’s quite large. That was intriguing to me. The climate in the Philippines is so drastically different than that of Alaska. I was curious about how that affected those people. I also wanted to go to Dearborn, Michigan, to look at the Arab community there. I thought it was really fascinating how they’re from different countries over different decades, but obviously joined by the common language of Arabic.
In picking the places and the communities that we would go to, I wanted to make sure we had a nice cross-section of our whole country. That’s why we’re not only in New York and LA, we’re also in Hawaii. We’re also in Arizona. We’re also in Charleston. We’re also in El Paso. It was important for me to show the depth and breadth of our country. I wanted the show to be expansive in that way, and also illustrate not only the diversity of people, but also the diversity of land, and what grows in each region, and how different these parts of our country look. Food is really regional, even if everyone is from the same ethnicity. I wanted to highlight that from a visual perspective.
The cinematography of the show is very architected. It’s very purposeful. We created a visual language before we ever picked up a camera. I want you to feel like there’s this huge, sprawling country that is the United States that has waterfalls and desert, tropical climates and mountains. And then at the same time, I want it to feel really intimate, because I knew that the show would only be as good as how close to these people I could get. I needed their trust to do that, and I wanted to create quiet spaces to have the types of intimate conversations I hadn’t seen on food programs.
The main thing that surprised me overall is, unfortunately, how little I learned from the US public school system about Native Americans, about African-American history. The more I dug and the more I found out, the more I realized what I didn’t know. And that horrified me, because I consider myself quite an informed and interested person. Like in Milwaukee, there were two very successful German-language newspapers less than 100 years ago. The Milwaukee public school system actually offered a program by which you could send your kids to do all of their schooling in German-speaking classes. I didn’t know about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. I didn’t realize that Martin Luther King Jr. was responsible, in great part, for the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. I didn’t know that the Gullah Geechee language from the eastern coastal South is an amalgamation of different African languages and dialects. I consider it a huge boon that I was able to educate myself in this way and share that knowledge with people watching the show.
What’s happened to the restaurant industry in this pandemic is devastating, and we’ve never seen anything like it in the history of food in this country. I think it will take a long time for the restaurant industry to recover. I don’t think that a lot of restaurants will be able to make it, actually. And I’m not only talking about the mom-and-pop restaurants, though those are the ones that are hardest hit. I’m also talking about really big chefs who are very famous and very successful. They, too, have been closing restaurants. Real estate is really expensive, and so we’ll have to rethink the dining experience and how that can happen to make it feel special without a lot of the things that we took for granted.
I’m also working with the James Beard Foundation on their emergency relief efforts. Right away, the need was vastly greater than the amount of donations we got, both from individuals and from corporations. We had a program where we gave $15,000 grants to small restaurants with fewer than 100 employees. We had to shut down applications because there was just so much need. We serviced the people we could on a first come, first served basis, but in order to help even just the people who applied in that short period of time, it would have taken $57 million. Obviously, we didn’t have that money.
And now, we have the reckoning over the murder of George Floyd. Racism is a systemic, structural problem in every aspect of our culture, including the food we eat and the restaurants we patronize. The ripple effect of Black Lives Matter has touched on other people of color and the media. One of the ways that racism manifests is by the selection of the stories we choose to tell as content creators and filmmakers and publishers. Often there is a hidden racism in who gets featured, and whose food gets featured in certain places. That was really an impetus to do this show—to give voice to people who don’t often get the spotlight, to let them tell their stories, to let them show off their food the way they want to show it and the way they want to speak about it, rather than having a white interpreter there. And that’s why the communities that were chosen were chosen purposefully.
This is a long overdue movement, and I am really sorry it took this critical mass of events to wake people up. I do hope that it shakes everybody up. I hope the intentions expressed across the board are genuine and consistent over a long period of time.