“Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi has a new Hulu series called “Taste the Nation.” She travels across the U.S., from the Iranian diaspora in LA, to the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, to the home of slave descendants in South Carolina. In each episode, her stories are informed by her identity as an American and an immigrant from India.
Padma Lakshmi talks to KCRW about what American food means now.
KCRW: There are lots of cooking and traveling shows, most famously by Anthony Bourdain. As an immigrant, what stories did you think were missing from all the cooking/traveling TV shows already out there?
Padma Lakshmi: “I didn't know necessarily that anything was missing. If you look at the different travel shows that there are on food, each one of those shows is very different. I mean, Tony [Anthony Bourdain] was obviously a very different person than I am. I'm a Brown woman, not a white man.
I am looking at this content as an immigrant, looking at other immigrants. I'm a mother. So we talk a lot about family in this show. I think that's why all these shows are different.
In my case, I wanted to give a platform to the foods of America that I love and the people of America that I grew up with, and a positive look, or just a truthful look. How about that? A truthful look at what immigrants’ lives are like in this country.
Because I saw and read a lot of rhetoric about immigration and what they were supposedly doing to the country of bringing in gangs and raping our women and stuff like that. That wasn't my experience growing up. And this is my rebuttal to all of that stuff.”
You address immigration in the first episode. You're in El Paso. You meet a man named Maynard Haddad, who owns a car wash/coffee shop. His staff is mostly Mexican. They cross the border every day and make this incredible food for his business. Haddad is of Syrian descent. He supports President Trump, who demonizes Mexicans. How does Haddad square that?
“I don't know. I needed to exert a lot of self control during that interview because every fiber of my being wanted to say, ‘That's hogwash, don't you see that there's this total disconnect between what you're saying? And how can you vote for somebody who is so negatively impacting everyone that you depend on and people you're calling family?’ But had I done that, I think Maynard would have shut down, or I don't think I would have gotten as much out of him.
What my job in this show is, is just shine a light on the complexities of this issue and the disconnect between people's political views and their experiences on the ground in day-to-day life. And you can see that wonderful, older lady who mans that grill there, she walks across the border every day. What used to take her 20 minutes at Border Patrol can now take her to two, two and a half hours each way sometimes. Then in between those two periods of time, when she's waiting to get across, she has to be on her feet for 10 hours in front of a really hot stove.
This is the life of many, many immigrants. We eat their food. We're willing to profit from their labor, but we're somehow not connecting or equating their humanity with other people's humanity. I find that really hard to take, and the only thing I know how to do is use my art or my craft, as a food professional, to highlight that, to maybe make people think.”
When you film a segment like that, does it make you question the idea of America as this great melting pot, that we are stronger for the contributions of immigrants? Because when it comes to becoming American, you talk about how that gets erased or homogenized or flattened out.
“Sure it gets erased, and that's why the show exists. I mean, that's why I want it to exist. Because I'm a Brown woman in a white male food industry. I have watched white male chefs take credit for all these international ingredients that immigrants brought here, without giving attribution, without saying where these things come from, and that effectively erases not only the origin of that food or ingredient, it erases the history of the people who brought it to you.
So that's why we go to the San Carlos Apache Reservation. That's why we forage with the seed carrier Twila Cassadore. I wanted to show that all of these things exist, and we need to go to the source. I just would like the people who are experts in these foods that we love so much get the chance to talk about it.
In the Gullah Geechee episode, I learned so much throughout the research for the show, but specifically for that episode, because I really was nervous about not getting it right.
African Americans are descendants from West African slaves. They didn't come to our shores with a blank slate. Those enslaved people came to our shores with centuries of food traditions, and skills, and knowledge that the colonialists did not have. They needed slavery. Our economy needed slavery to succeed and get built in the way that it did. And you don't hear that, and I think that's really important.
And I wanted to give African American food the same treatment I would give Thai food or Persian food, because it is a tradition, and it does have an ancestry that spans continents and centuries.”
How are you received when you come into these communities as a celebrity?
“Obviously, we do a lot of research and legwork. My field producers go out and find people who have stories we want to feature. So they're expecting me, right? It's very organized and well researched. The pre-production is quite significant.
Because I go into these communities, and I embed myself there for the week. And in some cases, they want to take a lot of pictures like before and after. But the same thing happens when I go to a Knicks game. So we try to just get that out of the way.
But sometimes, like those grandmas in the Thai episode, they didn't know who the heck I was. I mean, their daughter knew who I was and had to tell them, like, ‘Ma, you really want to interview with her. She's a serious food person. I'll show you on TV.’ And very quickly it becomes clear to them.
But of course I have a much different life now, right? But I grew up in communities very much like the ones you see. My mother still lives in La Puente, which is very much like that El Paso community. It is predominantly Mexican or Filipino. So I feel a great kinship with all of these communities for different reasons and in different ways.”
Your mom is in La Puente, California. But you grew up in Jackson Heights, right?
“We did, yeah, my elementary school days. I only went to high school in that part of the country. Me and my mother moved from New York to LA. She got transferred to City of Hope [clinical research center, hospital and graduate medical school in Duarte, CA]. She's an oncology nurse. She's retired now. And so that's where we settled.
… I went to William Workman High School.”
You came to America when you were 4 years old.
“Yes, and I came to New York. So that's why I feel like a New Yorker and I've lived here again as an adult, sort of right after college.”
What were your first food memories of the United States?
“I arrived on Halloween night. I remember the doorbell kept ringing. And my mom was sort of giving me this tour of her tiny apartment on the Upper East Side. And the doorbell kept ringing and she kept opening it. There were all these children dressed up … jumping up and down and yelling at her.
She was taking handfuls of candy from a platter that I thought was laid out for me in celebration of my reunion with my mom here in America. I flew alone.
… And I kept saying, ‘Why are you giving them candy? You should give those beggars money, if anything.’ Because I imagined they were street performers or street urchins that had come in and were asking for money. And she explained the tradition of Halloween to me. And I just thought, ‘Gosh, what a wonderful country. All you have to do is dress up in bright clothing, and they give you candy.’
I also found American food incredibly bland. Of course, this was the 70s. So I loved Chinese restaurants because I could ask for Tabasco and soy sauce. I could season the rice with both those things, and that is really what I subsisted on whenever we went out to eat.
I would also order hotdogs with everything on them — but the hot dog. So I would have a bun with all these fixings, you know, sauerkraut, mustard, not mayonnaise, ketchup, relish, everything. But no hotdog. The vendor would always look at us in disbelief, and we’d say, ‘No, we're vegetarians, but we really like everything else, and we'll pay you for the whole hotdog.’ That's what I would have.”
Did you ever reject Indian food and Indian culture while growing up?
“I rejected Indian culture but not Indian food. But when friends would come over to the house, I would beg my mother not to make Indian food. I would air out the apartment or house in LA. I would light incense and open all the windows, because I was very sensitive about how our house smelled and whether it smelled too spicy or like cumin.
I would tell her to make spaghetti. But even when my mother made spaghetti, it tasted Indian. … She’d put in chili and cumin. I would be like, ‘Why are you adding cumin?’ And she would say, ‘Because it needed something.’ She would add oregano too to the tomato sauce.. … But I wanted to be just like everybody else, you know, I didn't want to be ‘other.’
Also our parents, who came here as adults, feel this responsibility to their mother country, that they have to instill as much culture or maintain as much of the original culture in their children. So there's this pressure that the parents sometimes put on the children to live by Indian standards.
You know, Indian standards in India are evolving constantly. My grandfather sitting in India was much more liberal than my stepfather sitting in La Puente, because he had evolved with India. So you're having to please a code of behavior and expectations that aren't really relevant to your life outside of your home.”
There's the rub when it comes to trying to preserve the tradition through food. Because if you feel uncomfortable, you're going to try to assimilate by dropping the stuff that makes you different, which in many communities is the food.
“Right, but I think today in our society, we are having a moment where people are really leaning into their roots for lack of a better term. I think now it's cool. I talked to my nephews and they say… when they take their lunch in, everybody wants to try their food. Whereas when I took that Tupperware into my school, I was mortified and scared to open it. And with good reason, because everyone around me was eating these neat little Wonder Bread sandwiches with the crust cut off.
I love Indian food. I love the food of my nationality. But it is not a photogenic food, for the most part. I think things are changing, maybe because of my own personal emotional baggage that's coming out subconsciously in the show. I'm hell bent on proving that these people with weird accents, like my mother, and weird food that we don't necessarily always know about in its true form, are American too.”
—Written by Jennifer Wolfe and Amy Ta, produced by Michell Eloy