“Nothing could be more American, right?” Padma Laskhmi asks from inside the Wienermobile as it drives through the streets of Milwaukee. A giant plastic version of a food whose ingredients include the words “mechanically separated,” built atop a GM car, carrying the host of a reality TV show—well, that does seem like a perfect slice of the United States of America.
“What exactly is American food? And what makes us American?” Padma asks at the start of every episode of her Hulu series Taste the Nation. The answer to her question, most of the time, is that “American” food is actually immigrant food, from hot dogs and beer to chow mein, having been brought here, nurtured, and adapted by immigrants, whether people seeking refuge or enslaved people brought here without their consent.
All of the episodes of Taste the Nation highlight American foods and the people who created and continue to make these quintessential dishes. But what makes it an extraordinary show is that every episode approaches those opening questions from a completely different angle and entry point. Each episode is different, part history lesson, biography, travelogue, and culinary investigation, all wrapped securely inside Padma’s curiosity and generosity.
Taste the Nation doesn’t hide the fact that its central focus is the connection between immigration and food. It opens with an episode set in El Paso, with helicopters circling overhead monitoring the border. It generates appreciation for the care and craft of cooking without forgetting or minimizing the exploitation, racism, and dehumanization that people have experienced. That could make for a leaden viewing experience, but the series is full of life.
Padma is terrific as host of Top Chef, whether she’s introducing a challenge or relaxing in Champagne Padma mode, but she’s exceptional here: curious, empathetic, and funny (“my lips burst open with the force of the burp!”). She’s an immigrant, too, having come to the United States from India when she was four, and shares parts of her own story and experiences—though without centering herself, like hosts of similar shows have done.
Food is “the most primal way to commune with another person,” Padma says in the Persian food episode, and the show is a living embodiment of that idea. Padma’s conversations are often over a meal at a table or in a kitchen with people who share their stories and talk about what’s important to them about their food and culture, and how they maintain connection between the two.
Some of the people Padma talks to are celebrities, like comedian Ali Wong or 99-year-old chef, or celebrities in the culinary world, like James Beard Award-winning writer Michael Twitty and restauranteur Cecilia Chiang, who brought Mandarin cuisine to the United States in the 1950s—and had her own PBS series. (Chiang died at age 100 in late October.)
But I had the sense that the show is mostly highlighting people and groups whose stories normally don’t get told and whose contributions to culinary history have been subsumed or altogether erased. That includes Native Americans, who of course were not immigrants who brought food to America. They were lived here and had their food taken away from them.
I’m embarrassed to admit that it never occurred to me that removing people from their land, as the United States government and people did to Native Americans, also meant removing people from their food sources, and from generations of experience and knowledge with their produce.
If you’d asked me for an example of Native American cuisine before watching episode seven of Taste the Nation, I probably would have only been able to say fry bread. I have a vague memory of biting into the crisp outside and pillowy interior of fry bread at a Native American festival when I was a kid. But that was the conclusion of my knowledge. What I learned watching the episode was that fry bread is what some native people made from European ingredients given to them the people who’d forced them off their own land.
While every episode of Taste the Nation offered similar information and education, it’s neither turning painful stories into light entertainment nor lecturing. The show finds a perfect balance of facts and feeling, of cooking and compassion.
There’s care given to everything from contextualizing individuals’ stories to the cinematography, which has slow-motion images of food and gorgeous landscapes but never devolves into food porn. (Hulu has 15 photographs available for press, not counting portraits of Padma, and of those, 10 are of food, so I fear that’s what Hulu thinks people actually care about.)
Taste the Nation was released this summer, and we’ve been making our way through it slowly, an episode at a time, this fall. As much as I love it, it’s not a show I’d want to burn through. It needs to be savored, and I need time to digest its information and ideas.
All I can really remember learning about immigration and the United States of America was the melting pot metaphor, which assumes that immigrants should be like ice cubes falling into soup: quickly assimilated. Taste the Nation dismantles that overly simplistic idea. By highlighting individuals, communities, and their culinary traditions, Padma Lakshmi’s show repeatedly and beautifully demonstrates how the experiences and contributions of immigrants are not just part of United States history, they’re literally what we already think of as American.
Taste the Nation: A+