"What makes Taste the Nation distinct from many other programs is the context it provides," says Scaachi Koul of Lakshmi's new Hulu food travel docuseries. "An episode about Gullah Geechee food in South Carolina is actually about jazz, hip-hop, Black ingenuity, and the history of how enslaved people from West Africa developed a unique cuisine in the United States that eventually influenced so many other cuisines in the South. 'The culture happens between the healing and the hurt,' food writer and historian Michael W. Twitty says in conversation with Lakshmi. It’s not a sentence you might expect in an episode that’s essentially about how great rice is, but it fits: It’s impossible to talk about food without addressing its history. That’s largely what Taste the Nation is trying to accomplish, a 10-episode series about what 'American' food actually is. Instead of profiling cooks who make burgers, sandwiches, and barbecue, the show centers immigrants (and the descendants of enslaved Black people), highlighting the difficult, often thankless work they do to make room for themselves and their families in the US. It’s part No Reservations, part Salt Fat Acid Heat, with an even more explicit political aim to give a much-needed history lesson...Such a goal is a tall order for any program, but is more necessary than ever considering the current food media climate. In the weeks leading up to Taste the Nation’s premiere, there has been a kind of reckoning in food media."
Taste the Nation isn’t just educational—it’s visually arresting, clean and straightforward with sweeping nature shots: "Each episode is guided by (Padma) Lakshmi’s frank, authoritative narration" with a quest that "is heavily laced with optimism," says Yohana Desta, adding: "Taste the Nation was envisioned as a docuseries about immigration. But since Lakshmi’s métier is food, she decided to use that to explore not just immigration, but also American history and the sticky line between assimilation and survival. One episode revolves around Thai women in Las Vegas who married white American soldiers, while another traces how Germans living in Milwaukee during World War II were quick to bury their heritage—though their cuisine is now a bedrock of the city’s food culture. Much of the series traces how war and colonization shaped dishes that have come to be iconic."
Taste the Nation deftly breaks form from the traditional culinary travelogue again and again: "In some food shows, it seems like hosts are stretching to make a political point (or they go out of their way to skirt around it)," says Ashlie D. Stevens. "Lakshmi, instead, confronts it head-on. In this way, it's similar in form and tone to David Chang's Ugly Delicious, though Taste the Nation is organized around location — Lakshmi visits 10 cities including Charleston, Phoenix and San Francisco, and one type of cuisine — rather than dishes. You can't eat in El Paso, she says, without acknowledging what is going on in Washington, without acknowledging the racism at play in Trump's immigration policy rhetoric, without acknowledging the families and children in cages."
Lakshmi and her team have gone deeper in their exploration of migrant cuisines than any other show: "I’m not going to lie. When I first heard the elevator pitch for this show, I was… a little underwhelmed," says Zach Johnston. "As an Indigenous person covering the food world, another show about 'immigrant' cuisine in America really felt like more of the same. Whether overtly stated or not, almost every food and travel show over the past 20 years has been about America’s immigrant food scene. I thought to myself, 'What’s really new to say there?' When I found myself in tears at the end of the eighth episode, I realized just how wrong my assumptions had been. Lakshmi and her team have gone deeper in their exploration of migrant cuisines than any other show I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot). In episode one, 'Burritos at the Border,' the host dives into the world of Mexican food in El Paso, Texas. The show takes a very candid look at how the humble El Paso burrito is a cornerstone of Mexican 'immigrant' cuisine in the city and how that community is part of the city’s foundation. But Lakshmi goes further — doing something I’ve never seen in a food show before. She pivots and talks with chef Emiliano Marentes about Indigenous Mexican cuisine."
Taste the Nation benefits from its hyper-focus: Lakshmi's mode of culinary storytelling isn’t new—Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat, and David Chang’s Ugly Delicious have all interrogated what food and cooking can tell us about culture and our own worldview," says Randall Colburn. "But while Taste The Nation is somewhat slicker in presentation than those shows, it benefits from its hyper-focus. As Lakshmi chats and cooks with locals, she’s often met with stories of how American and European ingredients fundamentally altered the diets of these communities. In an affecting episode about indigenous populations, a local helps unpack the painful history of fry bread, a traditional Native American dish that was born from ingredients that were 'basically forced upon' them by the U.S. government. In many instances throughout the series, food is both a communal comfort and a gateway into the more painful aspects of assimilation."
Padma Lakshmi was intrigued by the unknown: “It was a real odyssey because I was going into the corners of our country that I would have never had the opportunity to go to otherwise,” she says. “I’ve never been on a Native American reservation. I have never been on a fishing boat. I have never foraged for my own food. I have never chopped sugarcane. There were all these things that were firsts for me, which is what I wanted the experience to be.”
Taste the Nation was inspired by Lakshmi's work as an artist ambassador with the ACLU dealing with immigration issues: "Shortly after the 2016 election, I started getting involved with them," she says. "And as an immigrant myself, I felt really offended by a lot of the rhetoric coming out of Washington that, in my opinion, vilified immigrant communities and the contributions that they have made over generations to this nation. So, it was through my work on the issue that I felt compelled to write a cookbook celebrating all the foods that immigrants had brought here. And then, in tandem, I was working on a TV project on immigration. My producing partner saw the research that I was doing for the cookbook and we melded the two ideas together. It’s been a real joy to see something that was just an idea in your head turn into a full-blown series. I’m very lucky that I got to do it."
Lakshmi wanted to go where the interesting immigrant stories are and use food as a Trojan horse: "I’ve done travel shows and two documentaries before…but I really had a very specific point of view for this show," she says. "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."