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Taste the Nation With Padma Lakshmi Reclaims the American Dream

Photo: Dominic Valente/Hulu

Food has a magical ability to transport us to specific moments in our lives. One spoonful of a warm soup immediately reminds you of your grandmother’s kitchen. A bite of your favorite sandwich takes you back to a college Eurotrip. But the culinary time machine goes back even further: Beyond triggering beloved familial memories, comfort foods can also reveal one’s lineage long before our ancestors stepped foot on American soil.

Padma Lakshmi’s Hulu series Taste the Nation aims to unpack this notion, immersing itself in stories of immigrants’ journey to this country and how they preserved their culture through traditional dishes that are now upheld by younger generations. Within ten episodes, it explains with an air of optimism just how immigrants shaped what we’ve come to know as “American” cuisine. Despite centuries of erasure, the series gives immigrants the opportunity to represent themselves and their cultures on a mainstream platter.

Taste the Nation is a combination of visually enticing travel, sociopolitical commentary on cultural identity, and, of course, enough delicious-looking dishes to have foodies salivating every other minute. Lakshmi heads to Las Vegas to reveal Thai women’s survival methods after marrying Vietnam war-era U.S. soldiers during bites of pad thai, explores San Francisco’s Chinatown with comedian Ali Wong, uncovers Iran’s war-torn history on a trip to Los Angeles’ Persian Square, and more. The concept is admittedly familiar, as seen with Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, David Chang’s Ugly Delicious, and other lesser imitators. But what gives Lakshmi an edge is that she’s an immigrant herself — a point she proudly expresses in the show’s opening. While food obviously isn’t new territory for the longtime Top Chef host, judge, and executive producer, who also has two cookbooks, an encyclopedia, and a food-based memoir, her perspective as an immigrant informs the show just as much as her culinary expertise.

Lakshmi came to America at age 4 with her mother, where they settled in Queens before later moving to Los Angeles. Her story, along with her work as an American Civil Liberties Union ambassador for immigration and women’s rights, is what actually sparked the idea for Taste the Nation. “I got involved with [the ACLU] shortly after the 2016 election to do some work on immigration rights,” she said in a Domino interview earlier this month. “And then I just wanted to research other people’s stories — I got sick of always self-referring when I was doing these rallies or speeches.” Lakshmi’s life experience often parallels the immigrants she befriends on screen, differentiating Taste the Nation from the surface-level interrogations of its food travel show predecessors.

The show’s mission is twofold: discussing how this country’s backbone was assembled by immigrants, as well as how assimilation has played a role in the immigrant experience. Nearly all of the subjects have the same throughline: While chasing the American Dream, the social demands of the “melting pot” altered, watered down, or outright erased their original cuisine and culture to fit an overwhelmingly white lifestyle.

Ethnic food has threaded together the very fabric of American cuisine, but Taste the Nation shows us that it had to pass through multiple filters to get there. In the second episode, Lakshmi travels to Milwaukee to learn how a German immigrant named Oscar G. Mayer Sr. and his sausage-making business transformed the hot dog into an iconic representation of U.S. food culture. In episode five, older Chinese chefs discuss how they created meals that would be acceptable for mid-century American palettes, thus the birth of chop suey, a name which renowned restaurateur Cecilia Chiang translates to “broken things mixed together.” Because of the aftermath from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, their traditional dishes were hidden inside the confines of their home kitchens while chop suey became synonymous with Chinese restaurants across the country. Assimilation led these chefs to ease up their use of spices and throw out what Americans saw as unusual ingredients, Chiang tells Lakshmi, making food appealing for those very people whose money immigrants relied on to survive.

Taste the Nation also links the cycle of assimilation to colonization, as early European settlers used their dominance to forcibly uproot indigenous people from their lands. For one episode set in Arizona, Lakshmi is invited to try fry bread and packrat and forage at the San Carlos Apache Reservation. There, she discovers American food’s origins before the post–Christopher Columbus genocides and what indigenous cultures lost when the U.S. government began supplying their communities with canned and processed foods. Fry bread, for example, is a Native American staple born from forced assimilation; its key ingredients, like baking powder and white flour, are relatively new additions to the indigenous diet. The result has been destructive: According to Indian Health Services, Native Americans born today have a life expectancy that is five and a half years less than the general U.S. population. The typical American diet is notoriously unhealthy — a direct link to consequences for immigrants and their families as they are encouraged to homogenize. Research shows that the longer immigrants live in America, the worse their rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes become.

One of the most timely episodes of Taste the Nation highlights the Gullah Geechee community, who reside in the coastal Carolinas. Stolen from West Africa and shipped across the Atlantic, their enslaved ancestors were responsible for the region’s thriving economy, as their agricultural knowledge was transformed into forced labor on the rice fields. Now, that same rice is the basis of Gullah dishes like gumbo and red rice, which later turned into classic Southern staples. Southern food as we know it wouldn’t exist without Gullah culture and the Gullah people are determined to preserve their Black history. This same resistance, which traveled from slaves’ bloodlines to marginalized groups like the Gullah community, continues to be provoked by various threats. Climate change and gentrification may wipe out the rice fields that Gullah farmers have cultivated for centuries. Black people nationwide are currently fighting against racial injustice with protests sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. The protection of Blackness, from food culture to literal bodies, doesn’t have a clear resolution.

Fast-forward to the millennial era: The first-generation children of immigrants who once suppressed their rich culture are now embracing it. These same millennials serve as the main subjects that Lakshmi interviews in Taste the Nation. In one episode about Peruvians in Paterson, New Jersey, she meets with chef Erik Ramirez, who used familial home-cooking lessons as inspiration to open his acclaimed Brooklyn restaurant The Llama Inn. This ideology even crosses over to Lakshmi’s other food show: During the recent Top Chef: All-Stars L.A., first-generation Ghanian-American chef Eric Adjepong tied his heritage into nearly every dish. Now, at least in the more upscale corners of the food industry, the norm is to highlight authenticity rather than whitewash traditions. Yet the demands of assimilation continue to follow these chefs, as modern customers leave unfriendly Yelp reviews about authentic dishes they aren’t used to.

“I think that migration is responsible for a lot of the most beautiful things about humankind. At no other time in our history, as a civilization, has there been more movement, more migration on this Earth,” Lakshmi recently told Uproxx. “Even though there’s a lot of pain, blood, and plunder associated with this, the only good that can come from that suffering — all that pain of earlier times — is the sifting through it all, finding the good, and enjoying it.”

This idea lies at the core of Taste the Nation’s message: By sifting through the pain of assimilation, the show reveals how immigrants have kept their cultures alive. However, it sometimes fails to go beyond that optimism. The first episode in El Paso, Texas, targets the country’s immigration issue, opening with Border Patrol surveillance helicopters circling the sky. There, Lakshmi meets Maynard Haddad, a second-generation Syrian-American and Trump supporter (“He’s full of sh-t but I like him”) who owns a local diner called H&H Car Wash and Coffee Shop diner. Lakshmi doesn’t directly challenge Haddad — “I was never going to change his mind. I wanted to listen, to show,” she later explained on Twitter — and they continue to hold hands as he spews confounding political opinions. The moment weakens the very idealization the show lends to its immigrants.

Haddad claims to love the Mexicans who cross the border to provide labor for his business, which strikes a similar resemblance to what Donald Trump himself has said. The same person who tweeted, “The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!” in 2016 has placed immigrants in cages and vowed to build a border wall. On June 18, the Supreme Court ruled against the Trump administration’s plan to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which protects young immigrants from deportation. Four days later, Trump signed an order freezing immigration work visas through 2020.

While the American Dream has grown from assimilation to using authenticity as a sovereign tool to make cuisine part of America’s success story, the work is far from over. Taste the Nation holds onto optimism, but would fare even better by endorsing policies that could spark change beyond the show. Immigrant chefs need inclusivity benefits, non-white history should be taught more often in schools, and non-Native citizens should be encouraged to unlearn prejudice by self-educating through books, having honest conversations with friends and colleagues, and actively supporting policies that mitigate injustice. Once the dismantling of cultural poaching is achieved, that bowl of comfort food will taste so much sweeter.

Padma Lakshmi’s Taste the Nation Reclaims the American Dream