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Padma Lakshmi: Celebrating Ethnic Fare in America

Nov/01/2020 / by Manmeet Sahni

lakshmiFrom El Paso to Honolulu, in her latest venture, “Taste the Nation,” host and executive producer Padma Lakshmi took audiences through a culinary expedition as she traversed the United States’ rich ethnic food cultures.

The show that debuted on June 18, receiving widespread accolades for diving into the history and origin of some cuisines that have become staple in U.S. households – from tacos to hot dogs.

The food landscapes explored include Peruvian fare in New Jersey, Gullah Geechee in South Carolina, Native American in Arizona, Chinese in San Francisco, Thai in Las Vegas, and Japanese in Honolulu.

Lakshmi, who has previously hosted food shows like The Food Network’s “Padma’s Passport and Planet Food,” along with Bravo’s “Top Chef,” now in its 17th year, told Eater in June that being an executive producer for “Taste the Nation” stems from her desire to be herself and have creative control.

“I was tired of women having to be delicate, or kind of coquettish, or sweet, or well-dressed,” she told Eater. “I’m sick of fucking wearing heels. I did my own makeup. I lived in my car. I didn’t have a trailer or anything. And it was so liberating.”

In the 10-part Hulu docuseries spanning 30 minutes each, Lakshmi focused on immigrant and indigenous cuisines, and explores the rich food cultures that have shaped the United States’ “melting pot.”

The show tactfully dealt with the issues of assimilation, colonization, and “othering” among others. It is uniquely set as it invites those unfamiliar with these issues to the narratives and the people who are an intrinsic part of America’s social fabric yet are rarely seen or heard in the mainstream.

In the Eater interview in June, Lakshmi said that show’s idea came about in 2016, soon after the U.S. elections, when she was working with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Being an immigrant, she was offended by the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the White House. “So using that dish is kind of a Trojan Horse to get me embedded into this community,” Lakshmi told Eater.

Even though the show opens with Lakshmi introducing herself with catchphrases like, “I’m an immigrant, and I’m not alone,” she sharply asks – “What exactly is American food?”  – a question that is at the heart of the show.

Lakshmi dealt with the issue of immigration head on in the opening episode titled “Burritos at the Border,” set in El Paso, Texas, where the camera zooms in on an appetizing tortilla covered with scrambled eggs, until the sound of a hovering border patrol helicopter disrupts the mood, thus immediately setting the tone of the show.

Most of the episodes draw heavily on the immigrant experience, and the origins of these foods, the narative glazed with historical facts, and peppered with soul-searching questions.

In one such 30-minute segment, the phrase, “Mexicans didn’t cross the border, the border crossed Mexicans,” is dropped on us, pointing to the 1845 conflict between the United States and Mexico, during which the U.S. annexed Texas.

Lakshmi talked about the burrito’s origin in Juarez on a burro (donkey) cart, dwelling on the differences between the use of flour and corn tortilla: The white flour (wheat) tortilla is a symbol of earlier colonization as opposed to corn, a native crop associated with ancestral cooking.

From there, she almost seamlessly transitioned into how President Trump’s immigration policies have impacted migrant workers’ lives as they travel every day for work from Juarez to El Paso.

The episode digs deep as she delves into the issue of “othering” – often a subject of contemporary food debates – where certain foods have become a staple in American food culture but the hands that make it are still discriminated against. One of the guest chefs in the episode, who shows Lakshmi how to make a corn tortilla from scratch, laments: “It’s hard for me to think that people are going to accept my tortillas before they accept my cousins.”

Laksmi summed up the feeling for the Washington Post in June: “You know, I was getting pissed off with everybody else trying to tell the immigrant experience except the immigrant, whether it was politicians or journalists or op-ed people.”

She told the Hollywood Reporter that it was tough to get the show picked up by a network and she found it frustrating “to convince people that there’s an America out there that isn’t white — and that people would respond to it and that this show hadn’t been done before.”

In an episode titled “Don’t Mind if I Dosa,” she shared her kitchen with both her mother and daughter, narrating her immigrant experience, and describing how Lyndon Johnson’s Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 – also known as the Hart-Celler Act – paved the way for Indian immigrants to set roots in America.

In the same episode, she led a nuanced discussion about what it means to be an Indian American and to assimilate. Lakshmi opened up about how, in high school, she changed her name to Angelique. The episode also featured former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara who, while savoring a dosa with Lakshmi from a popular dosa food cart in Washington Square Park, shared his experience of being bullied as a child growing up in New Jersey.

Born to a Tamil-Brahmin family in South India, Lakshmi arrived in the U.S. with her mother at age four and called Queens, New York, her home. The former supermodel is an ACLU ambassador and has been very vocal about immigrant and women’s rights.

For more on Padma Lakshmi, check out Padma Lakshmi, “Taste the Nation,” and the American Dream.