Talking with the Taste the Nation host about holiday traditions.
BY NANDINI BALIAL
NOV 16 2021, 4:00 PM EST
A documentary series about culinary traditions across America, Padma Lakshmi’s Taste the Nation is as much about people as it is about food. Former model and Top Chef host Lakshmi conducts easygoing, intimate conversations, letting her subjects speak for as long as they want about whatever they want. The show cares deeply about history as context for cooking, and it never shies away from the marrow-deep pain and alienation some communities have experienced in America.
The first season arrived in June 2020, and Hulu has green-lit another one, but in the meantime, we’re getting a 2021 holiday special, truncated due to COVID-19 restrictions on filming. The four episodes explore Hanukkah in New York City, Thanksgiving in the Aquinnah and Wampanoag Indigenous communities in Cape Cod, Nochebuena (“The Good Night,” or Cuban Christmas) in Miami, and Seollal (Korean Lunar New Year) in Los Angeles. As usual, the food—from the shatter-crisp latkes of New York’s Russ & Daughters to the nettle pesto focaccia prepared at Orange Peel Bakery by Aquinnah chef Juli Vanderhoop—is mouthwatering, but the moments of human connection and tension are what make the show.
In the Nochebuena episode for instance, when relatives of chef Mika Leon, sitting around a picnic table waiting for a whole pig to roast, begin to talk about politics. Chef Mika is a liberal who’d rather pay higher taxes and not have a racist president, but her uncle sits at the table wearing a MAGA hat. He speaks plainly at Lakshmi’s behest: “I’d die for this country, I’m a patriot. And I’ve always been a conservative.” Both sides, Chef Mika says, accept each other.
There’s a deeply moving interview with another uncle, Cha Cha, who everyone says makes the best cocktails in the family. The Cuban government prevented Cha Cha and other members of the LGBTQ community from being openly gay, so in 1980, he joined the Mariel boatlift exodus to the United States. Cha Cha weeps as he talks about his partner, with whom he is able to live freely in America. (For what it’s worth, I thought the criticism of Cuba’s communist government lacked nuance—maybe the sole flaw of the episode.)
For Lakshmi, food is not just a way to preserve identity, but a means for sharing ideas, traditions, and hopes. Last week, she kindly took the time to chat with me about the return of Taste the Nation to the airwaves.
I have a quick personal question before we get into Taste the Nation. When people mispronounce your first name, it’s like my eardrums pop. It’s like when someone says, “Chai tea.” It just enrages me. I also have an Indian name that people do not correctly pronounce, and I’ve gotten that my whole life.
Nandini. How do they say it, by the way?
Nan-dee-nee, naan-duh-nee, nun-dai-nai. Also, we came to Texas, and there are far fewer Indian people in North Texas, so it was a shock for my schoolteachers and anyone to be like, “How do I say this name?” Maybe it doesn’t bother you anymore?
You know, I have so many other things to do [both laugh] and you sort of have to pick what you’re gonna be pissed about, to be honest. So if I got upset every time someone mispronounced my name, I would spend all my time being upset and correcting all these people. To say that “dh” sound, Padh-ma, rather than Pad-ma or Paad-ma, their mouth doesn’t make those sounds. And I’m sure I butcher a lot of names in French or some other language. My French is very, very bad. I try to employ my empathy muscle, and I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. I think people do want to pronounce everyone’s name the right way. I just think some people aren’t good with accents. [Laughs.]
I was rewatching the fourth episode of the Holiday Edition, which is about the Korean Lunar New Year. The reason I like that episode so much is I felt a little tension between moms and daughters. It felt like the first time I had felt any tension since you spoke with Maynard Haddad [a Trump-supporting Republican and diner owner in El Paso, who grew up around and loves the Mexican community]. I was wondering how you navigated that moment, because you were being very gentle.
I wanted to give an accurate portrait of a family gathering, and they were very generous with allowing us to be in their home all day long. We were there from morning to night, very early to very late. We literally took over their home to film all this. And they were very generous with us. And I knew that I was seeing one day in the life of these women. If you saw me and my mom on a bad day, you would maybe see much worse than what you see there. We wanted to give an accurate portrait, but I’m not looking to out anybody. I’m looking to get to a deeper truth about that community at large. I had to navigate that in editing also. I want to protect my talent. I want them to feel like I wasn’t out to get them, which I’m not. My job was to nimbly, accurately portray the family without overemphasizing that tension, or diminishing the existence of it. You see it all.
I think the thing that helped at the very end, and I don’t know who around the [Cho family] table said this, but someone said, “Family counseling with Ms. Padma Lakshmi.” And I thought that was the perfect note to end on. That brought it to a really nice, gentle close. As you say, this happens everywhere.
For me, in doing the show, it’s not a journalistic show, I really want to give nuance as much as I can in those 30 minutes. Because nothing is black and white. Nobody is all bad or good. Every community has its own foibles, but have very universal issues that we’re all dealing with, whether we came to this country 200 years ago, or three weeks ago. That push and pull between specificity and universality is always going to be there in the stories that we tell. The special sauce lies in the balance of those two things.
Definitely. You did a sort of dual interview with Congresswoman [Pramila] Jayapal of Washington State and a terrific interview with food writer Sohla El-Waylly back in May. Both those interviews touch on the difficulty women of color have breaking into politics and food. I read about how your pitch for the show was rejected seven times. How did you respond to the rejections?
Rejection is a part of my job. It has been a part of my career as a food person and a filmmaker. It was certainly part of my job as an actor, and even more part of a job as a model. So it is something that I have to accept. It’s not for the faint of heart. Honestly, I wouldn’t have said this before, but I’m glad those other networks rejected me, because I landed at the home I was supposed to be at. With each pitch, it clarified for me what the show should be and what it shouldn’t be. Had some of those people said yes, I may have never gotten to Hulu. I couldn’t ask for better partners in making this show.
Taste the Nation often turns into a food anthropology show, because you cover a lot of history. It often feels more like a history documentary that has a lot of incredible food in it.
That’s because I love history. I love history and anthropology. Those are the things that interest me. The food is just an excuse to get us into the communities. [Both laugh.]
And the context is so useful. The Gullah Geechee story [from Season 1] is one I think about every day. They’re fighting capitalism on so many fronts, including being forced to come here via chattel slavery, and now gentrification. In every episode of both seasons, food is communal. It is part of a collective action. One of the things you said that I really loved was that it was your hope people in red states felt less intimidated by the other. That they realize whoever they’re afraid of or don’t like is actually just like them. Have you gotten any feedback that that has been the case?
Honestly, I get so many letters about the show, and it’s been some of the most compelling feedback I’ve ever gotten about anything. Which is not surprising, because it’s the most compelling thing I think I’ve done professionally, in my life—other than my memoir, I guess, but that’s a very solitary experience, writing in a room by yourself. So it’s been really beautiful, because I’ve had people say to me a lot, “I love Thai food. But I never stopped to think about the hands making this food, or the people who are bringing me my takeout.”
This guy, whom I don’t know, just ran into me at the gym, he works out at the same gym, and he said, “Thank you for doing that episode [Season 1, Episode 6] about Persian food, because I’m Persian. Everybody also thought I was Arab. I watched it with my grandma. I called her, because I started watching it and couldn’t believe that someone was dedicating a whole episode to Persians in America. And I called her and immediately told her how to download Hulu” [laughs], “and we watched it together.”
So I get really good feedback. I don’t often know whether my feedback is from someone who votes red or blue. You mentioned tension when I was talking to Maynard Haddad. I personally didn’t feel any tension. It was told to me by my field producer that he will just end the interview in the middle of the interview with you. I was nervous about that. I wasn’t nervous because he was a Trump supporter. Those are the people I wanna talk to. If I just talked to people who thought and voted like me, then I might as well stay home.
Maynard is a man who’s complicated and full of all kinds of contradictions, as I’m sure I am. I look forward to those interviews. In the Miami episode [Holiday Edition, Episode 3], one of the relatives who comes to the Nochebuena dinner comes in with a MAGA hat. That was news to me too. I knew who was coming, and I knew kind of what their leanings were, and I wanted him there, because he’s a vital part of that family. I want to be balanced. I want to give an accurate picture.
My only quibble with the Holiday Edition is why no Diwali? Which is actually today and tomorrow.
Happy Diwali to you! I know that’s the big party you throw every year.
[Laughs.] Yes. This year it’s not going to be that big, frankly, because I’m afraid, and I’m still in production, but we are having a Diwali thing on Saturday. We’ll go to the temple on Friday in Queens. Why no Diwali [on the show]? Because we had already done an Indian episode in Season 1, and I wanted to feature communities we had not yet featured. And being that I’m Indian, if I had done Diwali, I didn’t want it to be like, “Oh, it’s my show.”
Obviously, I’d love to do Diwali if we do another holiday set of specials. I really wanted to do Ramadan and Passover rather than Hanukkah, because Passover is a high holiday. It’s a much more significant holiday to Jewish people. And my daughter’s half-Jewish. But we really wanted it to be timely. And because we could only offer four episodes with the COVID restrictions on filming, we thought, “Let’s use this to our advantage. Let’s have a holiday lens, which will give us another avenue to explore what’s important to these cultures.” So that’s why we do the four that we do. Diwali would’ve been so timely as well, as you say, but I was worried about favoring my own culture.
And that’s very fair of you, I totally get that. What will you eat tomorrow? At my mom’s, we’ll be doing luchis [fried bread], malpuas, and goat curry. What will you do?
Well, we won’t be having any meat, because it’s a religious holiday.
Right, South Indians.
Actually, we’ll just have sambar and yogurt rice, and we will go to eat dosas at the canteen on Friday. Because the big puja [prayer ceremony] is tomorrow night, because in India, it’ll be the second day. South Indians celebrate the second day of Diwali. So they’ll still be celebrating tomorrow, because it’s weird, they’re on India time, even though they’re in Queens. I didn’t know that and I didn’t plan well, because Taste the Nation is coming out, and I’m going to be sitting right here doing press tomorrow. We will do a puja at home Thursday night. I have my puja cabinet here. And on Friday, we’ll go to the temple, and on Saturday, we’ll have people over and music. We have Carnatic musicians.
That’s amazing. And your daughter sings, right? Does she sing Carnatic music?
She does. She’s been taking Carnatic vocal classes for years, but she had to give them up, because she’s studying for her bat mitzvah, so as soon as her bat mitzvah is over next year, she’ll go back to resuming classes. But she knows a few bhajans [hymns], so let’s see if the spirit moves her.