Padma Lakshmi on Creating ‘Taste the Nation’ and Letting Immigrants Tell Their Own Stories

The host speaks on activism, the shortcomings of legacy food media, and why this show is her most personal yet.

Padma Lakshmi Breaking Bread and Stereotypes
Courtesy of Dominic Valente/Hulu

After 20 years immersing herself in food culture, Padma Lakshmi still had a burning question without a clear answer: what even is “American food,” anyway? “We throw around a lot of platitudes like, ‘nothing’s as American as apple pie.’ Well, apple pie is not American,” laughs Lakshmi. “Not one ingredient in apple pie is indigenous to North America. Not even the apple! So what are we talking about here?”

To find the answer, Lakshmi created “Taste the Nation,” her new docuseries launching June 18 on Hulu. Each episode travels to a different part of the country to highlight a different immigrant community, eat its food, and celebrate its place in American culture. Over the course of the 10-episode season, Lakshmi visits El Paso to humanize those living at the border, the Arizonian desert to give credit where it’s due to indigenous cultures, and even her own hometown of Jackson Heights, Queens to share her own family’s favorite dishes and stories of survival. “When you scratch the surface, everybody’s story is compelling,” as Lakshmi puts it. “All you have to do is listen.”

Variety recently caught up with Lakshmi about her road to getting the series made, how her advocacy for immigrant rights inspired it, cultural appropriation in cuisine and what food media like “Bon Appétit” needs to do in order to be truly inclusive.

How long have you wanted to do a show like “Taste the Nation”?

I’ve wanted to do a show like this for a couple years…I wanted to see, “what does our country look like? Who’s living in all of our 50 states? Who gets to decide if you’re American, and who gets to decide what ‘American food’ is?” I’m an immigrant, and I’d been speaking a lot about my own personal story at these rallies for the ACLU, so I just wanted to branch out and really see what other people’s experiences were like.

I’ve done travel shows and two documentaries before…but I really had a very specific point of view for this show. To me, the travel is an effect of wanting to canvas the country properly, and just survey the situation in a deeper, meaningful way. It’s not like going to a city and seeing what’s cool there; those shows are great, too, but that wasn’t the point of this show, ever. I wanted to go where the interesting immigrant stories are and use food as the Trojan horse to embed myself there and find out what life was like for them on a daily basis, and what their experiences were in order to demystify some of the very insular communities for the larger American public.

My main point is there is no less humanity in a Thai immigrant than there is in a third generation German one, like who sits in the Oval Office. At the end of the day, we all want the same things, right? We all want to be able to send our kids to school comfortably. We want to be able to provide a home where our families can thrive and flourish. We want to be able to take care of our parents in their old age. Those are universal values. Those are not values that have an ethnicity.

How did you choose where you went and who you spoke to?

We had about 15 different communities that we were interested in. We didn’t want to just do it in New York and L.A. I really wanted to give you the breadth of the United States and have the show be at once very expansive: to show the geographical magnitude of our country, and the diversity of how beautiful it is in all of its parts. But then I also wanted it to be incredibly intimate when we were actually embedded in those communities.

There were certain episodes that were really important for me. The Gullah Geechee episode [in South Carolina] was incredibly important to me. I wanted to look at African American food independent of its connection to white colonial food. It often gets just all lumped in with soul food or Southern food. [Many] African Americans obviously are not immigrants, they are here as a result of forced migration, and deserve acknowledgement of this long history that they come to these shores with. And those people that were brought here through Charleston were often sought after by slave traders because of their specialized knowledge in rice cultivation. So I wanted to look at that.

It was also really important for me to do a Native American episode because also we don’t know enough about that culture and community, and we should. If we don’t look our shared history squarely in the eye, we will never understand how to evolve our society with freedom from the shackles of our past sins.

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Padma and Emiliano Marentes, the Mexican-American owner of Elemi. Hulu

The first episode takes place in El Paso near the Mexican-American border. What kinds of stories did you want to make sure you included there?

I just wanted to see what outside interventions from DC have meant to their daily lives…with the wall, added security, family detention and all of this strife, I really wanted to know what its effect was on the local community who was trying to go about their business and their jobs…I really wanted to get granular and say, “how does this affect these people who are working in restaurants or running a car wash?” A lot of times the statements we make or the policy we think we’re creating in the best interests of people don’t really allow those people to weigh in. And those are the people we should ask for their opinion. That’s what that episode was about.

I think those stories are important because those are the stories of America. That’s what makes America great. It’s not our economic might and it’s not our military might. And by the way, we have economic might because of the labor of immigrants. You can look at patterns of immigration, alongside patterns of economic downturn and upswing. And you will see that in decades where we haven’t had as much immigration, the economy goes down. So this rhetoric of saying that immigrants are taking away your job and they’re going to ruin our economy, actually the exact opposite is true.

How did you get involved with the ACLU, and what is it about their work in particular that spoke to you?

I started working with the ACLU early in January of 2017 shortly after the inauguration, and what prompted my work was the vilification of immigrants immediately after President Trump was sworn in, with the Muslim ban and family separation at the border. So much was being done in the name of American citizens that, as an American citizen who did start out as an immigrant, I felt frankly offended, and I wanted to do something. The ACLU has a really great track record of making sure that Americans understand their rights, and that justice is not for the few privileged, but for everybody, as our constitution says. I mean, they were the body that protected Planned Parenthood from being annihilated by conservatives over 100 years ago! So they have a long history of doing this.

I also frankly liked that they were non-partisan, that they did not take sides with anybody and that their mission was very clean and pure. They were going to make sure that the civil rights of every American were respected, including but not limited to, white supremacists’ right to free speech, as took place in Charlottesville. So they don’t always defend sympathetic people, in my opinion, but they are true to their word and they are agnostic about who they give legal services to. As long as they feel that someone’s rights are being threatened, they will step in if needed.

How did you approach the “stuck between homelands” aspect of telling American immigrant stories?

I think that third space between two cultures is really interesting and can be really diverse. It comes up again and again…I wanted to explore that, because those are all identities that are true and real and exist within us.

For me, the main motivation was just to tell the truth and try to give as broad and deep an understanding of these communities and let them tell the story themselves. I was kind of sick of everybody else telling ‘the immigrant story.’ I really wanted to give voice to communities that we don’t really hear from in a mainstream way…that was my only goal. I have my point of view, it’s not a journalistic show at all, but I wanted to prove my point through the stories of all these other people who don’t normally get a microphone to tell it.

Were there any episodes you wish had come together that you would maybe revisit in a future season?

I’d love to go to Dearborn, Michigan and visit the Arabs there. That’s a really interesting community where you have layers and layers of countries from the Levant. Originally it was Syrians and Yemeni, and then during World War II, it was Palestinians. After that with the two Iraqi wars, it was Iraqis, and now it’s Syrians again. They’re all joined by the common language of Arabic, but it’s not just one country. Another is the Filipino community in Alaska, which not that many people know about. There’s a huge population there and that’s intriguing to me, because obviously Alaska’s climate is so different than the island tropical climate of the Philippines.

One thing “Taste of the Nation” does really well is trace the roots of a lot of foods and flavors that have reached “mainstream” success in “fusion” cuisine or by white chefs rebranding them. Why is it so important to show these origin stories?  

Because it’s only right to give credit where it’s due. Simple as that. It’s not fair that suddenly some white person discovers turmeric and then all of a sudden, turmeric lattes for everybody! Immigrant communities have been quietly responsible for a lot of what is cool in this country. Our music, our pop culture, our capitalism, our food, our fashion. They deserve the credit, and deserve to be acknowledged.

A lot of legacy media outlets, like Bon Appétit, are now finding their own fault in not giving that credit while being entrenched in whiteness. What do you think media can do to change that going forward?

I think [it] needs to have a good hard look in the mirror and realize that the legacy of American food today is not in your hands only, and not in your grandmother’s hands as well. You should allow the people who have a direct connection to that legacy to speak about it with authority. You should not need to translate for people; that is not for you to do.

And from a hard business point of view, you are also overlooking a huge share of the market that you’re not addressing, because you don’t give a s—. As a brown woman in food, I am acutely aware of the biases of big legacy media, not only at Bon Appetit, but of others. As somebody who’s very well known in the public eye for food and has been on television and published for the last 20 years, even I have trouble getting coverage in certain magazines and newspapers…I’ve experienced it just in the press tour for this show, actually. So when the s— went down [at Bon Appetit], frankly I was like, “Good riddance.”

Seeing all this happen makes for this weird combination of heartening and frustrating. It’s been going on for so long. Is it even possible to change from within?

I think sometimes a blunt instrument or action is necessary. It sends a message to other editors that is clear and loud, that you are not the gatekeeper. You should not see your role as that. You should see your role as a hunter and gatherer of new information, or information has that has always been there but that has been overlooked. That is your mandate as the head of a media outlet. It is to inform and illuminate things that have not been illuminated well enough thus far by the people creating that content.

People work so hard to get into positions of power and then they just take that power and reserve it for themselves. But the thing that I can tell you in my short life has made me feel the most powerful has been things like “Taste the Nation,” when I’ve been able to put the microphone to these people. It’s felt incredibly gratifying to be able to do that, but it’s taken me so long if you think about it.

In the episode about Indian food in Jackson Heights, Queens, you include your family. How did you unpack that episode while also unpacking your own story?

It was really hard because I could not really be objective about that episode. I was really concerned with it not being too self-centered, because to me that was antithetical to the whole series…but I could not ask to be let in into any of these homes and families and ask them to lay bare their lives and their very intimate feelings if I wasn’t prepared to do it myself. Had I done that episode and not included my own kitchen, my own mother, my own family, including my daughter, that would have been a double standard. I would have felt like a hypocrite. I think that that was the least I could do.

Everybody has such deep emotional connections to the foods of their families and their backgrounds. That’s really what I’m interested in. So many shows, [“Top Chef”] included, are more analytical or demonstrative. I really wanted to get out of the commodification of food. So much of what we do as a culture in connecting with people is done over food, whether it’s wedding, a funeral, a date, a business lunch. I wanted to look for everyday people, to whom food is so much more than just going to a fancy restaurant. I thought that food would be a good vehicle to get to people’s emotions. Nobody can get mad at a plate of food.

“Taste the Nation” premieres June 18 on Hulu.