Padma Lakshmi gets political with series cheering immigrants
New York – Padma Lakshmi has watched in anger as some politicians denigrate immigrants. She’s been left seething as newcomers are discriminated against or targeted.
So she has responded with something she knows quite a lot about: food. Specifically, immigrant food: burritos, dosas, crab boil, pad Thai and poke.
Lakshmi, a longtime judge of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” created and hosts the new Hulu documentary series “Taste the Nation,” which celebrates the food of American immigrants and indigenous people.
“I am an immigrant. And I was just disgusted the way immigrants had been used as a pawn for political gain and been discriminated against so grossly by this administration. I guess this show is my rebuttal to that,” she said.
“Taste the Nation” sees Lakshmi go to the Texas border city of El Paso and talk to locals about the wall. She goes to South Carolina to go crabbing and explore Gullah Geechee food. She goes to Las Vegas to spend time with Thai immigrants and to Arizona to forage for Native American ingredients.
Lakshmi, an Indian American who came to America when she was 4, tells viewers at the top of each episode: “I want to explore who we are through the food we eat. What makes us American?”
There’s discussion of immigration, global warming, massacres, cultural stereotypes and racism. It’s a departure from most food shows, which avoid partisan politics or current events for fear of alienating viewers or piercing the safe cooking bubble.
“I wouldn’t even say that I was a very political person a few years ago, but I have out of necessity and anger and frustration, and become very vocal,” Lakshmi said.
“I’m not interested in food in a vacuum. I’m interested in the cultural and emotional connection that people have to food. And I’m not just interested in the food: I’m interested in the hand that makes the food.”
During each episode, Lakshmi consults with community leaders, food experts and leading lights. Former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara talks about being bullied as a kid. Lakshmi and Indian actress and food authority Madhur Jaffrey make Lemony Chicken with Coriander.
“I just wanted to show the humanity of these people who live in our country, who have built our country and show that they’re not something to be afraid of,” she said. “They’re not dirty. They’re not criminals. They’re not going to threaten our jobs.”
Lakshmi goes to the very heart of the nation’s food identity when she visits Milwaukee to look at that mainstay of Americanism – the hot dog. It’s another immigration story.
Hot dogs have their roots in Germany, as do the classic U.S. beer labels Pabst, Miller and Schlitz. Lakshmi notes than many German Americans had to hide their background during World War II. “Assimilation is complicated,” she points out.
Sarina Roma, executive producer and co-director, said the show represents a lot of what Lakshmi cares about in her personal life. “It all comes from a place of genuine curiosity. It’s very reflective of who she is as a person.”
Roma added that the show illustrates food can be political: “We’ve tasted food from all over the world, but when you actually stop and think about how that food got here, it tells a much larger story of America.”
The third episode finds Lakshmi getting very personal. The woman known mostly for her kindness to TV contestants beside chef Tom Colicchio this time introduces her daughter and mother as she discusses Indian immigration.
“I did not want this show to be about me. That was not the intention at all. But obviously my experience informs this show throughout. And so I had to be able to show my family in my kitchen,” she said. “To talk to other Indians without talking to members of my own family would have felt not false, but a little hypocritical.”
Lakshmi knows her show is subjective and formed around her specific political and cultural lens, but she hopes people with differing views will tune in.
She is hopeful. too. that the world of food will look at itself and change. She complains that restaurants are often boys’ clubs for white men, where immigrants and women find glass ceilings. She noted the recent furor at Bon Appetit that cost its editor in chief his job after a photo of him dressed in a stereotypical Puerto Rican costume surfaced on social media.
And Lakshmi called for doing more in real life, not just online.
“It doesn’t do any good for us to tweet our support and like and post and all that stuff if, behind closed doors, we’re not practicing what we’re so up in arms about in our social media,” she said. “I would say that a reckoning is very much needed.”