In the first season of “Taste the Nation,” Padma Lakshmi tasked herself with visiting immigrant communities across the country, explaining their entire trajectories from country of origin to the United States, and how they and their food adapted to their new home — in 30 minutes or less. It’s a hugely ambitious premise that succeeded more often than not, in large part thanks to Lakshmi’s confident, compassionate brand of hosting. Whether stirring a pot, kneading dough, or just chatting pleasant nonsense in a new friend’s kitchen, she’s perfectly congenial and more than a little mischievous. She’s always the first to offer a comforting hand when her interviews get emotional, and/or crack a winking joke about how suggestive her attempt at a dumpling looks. In these segments, Lakshmi demonstrates how much she’s learned from perfecting her “Top Chef” poise over the years, and just how good she is at letting the people she’s interviewing feel like they’re part of a real, human conversation.
In a set of four new “Taste the Nation” holiday specials, which dropped Nov. 4 on Hulu, Lakshmi further develops and hones her approach to the series’ over-arching premise. She visits New York City’s Lower East Side for Hannukah, Cape Cod for Thanksgiving, Miami for Cuban Christmas (Buenanoche), and Los Angeles’ Koreatown for Lunar New Year. While she seems even more comfortable in these home visits than ever, Lakshmi’s explanatory voiceover remains a distractingly didactic reminder of the tricky balancing act she’s trying to achieve. The clash between the casual Lakshmi laughing in the kitchen and the Lakshmi patiently narrating and teach everything in the plainest terms can make “Taste the Nation” feel bifurcated, as if it’s alternating between speaking to two different audiences: the one that counts itself a part of the community she’s visiting, and the white one at home that knows nothing.
Still: the very conceit of these holiday episodes keeps them more focused than the previous ones, revealing a key difference in approach that gives this iteration of “Taste the Nation” even clearer purpose.
In the first season of “Taste the Nation,” there are enough clumsy moments comparing these immigrant communities versus the “Americans” surrounding them — as if these immigrants are not quite American, after all — to undercut their larger points. And as Jenny G. Zhang wrote last year for Eater, the series sometimes swerved into an omnipresent and damaging narrative: “that immigrants are good and should be treated justly because they work hard and contribute to society, that these Brown and Black people and their detractors can find common ground through food, and that this is a quintessential demonstration of what makes America so great.” Of Zhang’s criticism, Lakshmi responded that they would “try to do better” in following seasons, and in the holiday episodes, they often do.
Focusing on a single holiday frees “Taste the Nation” of the overarching need to describe an entire immigrant community’s experience in vanishingly little time, or else convince a skeptical white audience of their inherent worth. Instead, the show can just get more specific about how a community commemorates a holiday, and the ways in which traditions evolve — whether by choice or circumstance — to fit a new shape in a new country. Throughout the specials, Lakshmi explores how Hannukah became a sort of necessary counterpart to commercialized Christmas, how Lunar New Year knits Korean-American families together, and how Buenanoche connects Cuban exiles to their Cuban-American descendants with a shared sense of national pride.
The best episode (and one that’s all too relevant this month in particular) shines the spotlight on the Wampanoag Nation, whose ancestors bore the brunt of colonial wrath during the first supposedly idyllic “Thanksgiving.” In “Truth and the Turkey Tale,” Lakshmi speaks with Wampanoag fishermen, historians and chefs who consider this holiday to be a catastrophic turning point in history, when white settlers took what they wanted and rewrote the narrative to make it seem like they were doing Native Americans a favor. There’s food, of course. The episode ends with Lakshmi eating a dinner of ingredients that may look familiar to the Anglo Norman Rockwell vision of Thanksgiving, but were in fact stolen from the Wampanoag land and rebranded for white comfort and profit.
Many of the meals Lakshmi eats on this show are nostalgic, but the Wampanoag one is downright defiant, a reclamation of traditions warped beyond recognition. It’s “Taste the Nation” at its best and most insightful, allowing marginalized people to not just share their fraught history with viewers, but force them to confront their own parts in perpetuating it. Unlike the first season, there is no attempt here to say that breaking bread will fix these wrongs: only a solemn acknowledgment that the wrongs exist, and will continue to exist, as long as this supposed melting pot of a country refuses to acknowledge them with the depth and lucidity they deserve.
“Taste the Nation: Holiday Edition” is now available to stream on Hulu.