EDITORIAL DIRECTOR, LIFE/STYLE + CULTURE
DECEMBER 23, 2021
Padma Lakshmi just might be the most important voice in food right now. She’s an incredible advocate for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) chefs in the restaurant industry, a deeply thoughtful voice for change in how we talk about food (underscored by her scathing response to a lazy critique of Indian food by the Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten), and a TV host intent on using her platform to shine a light on foodways and culinary traditions that haven’t gotten the mainstream attention they deserve.
The fact that she manages it with such deep empathy and ebullient charm is truly astounding. But it’s also become her standard — even her speeches to the Top Chef contestants now routinely display her advocacy, passion, and ability to navigate complex issues with nuance.
Perhaps nowhere is Lakshmi’s skill in evidence so clearly as on her Hulu show, Taste The Nation. In our initial review of the series, Zach Johnston wrote: “The issue of real depth vs. virtue signaling is where Padma Lakshmi’s new show on Hulu, Taste The Nation, rises above every other series in the genre.” It’s a quality in abundance in the recently released Taste the Nation: Holiday Edition. This mini-season looks at Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, Nochebuena, and Lunar New Year in a manner that expands the traditional Christian idea of the “holidays” while also underscoring their importance as connection points between families, communities, and — in the end — the nation as a whole.
Anyone paying even the least bit of attention to politics and culture can see that the issues of diversity, inclusion, and cultural respect that Lakshmi highlights aren’t just about food. They touch… well, every piece of our lives. As such, I recommend Taste the Nation: Holiday Edition as family viewing over the break. Not only does each episode feature plenty of delicious-looking food but it’s also full of Lakshmi’s expansive ideas about what constitutes “American food,” in general. Thanks to the host’s deft touch, rather than separating people the four episodes actually serve as a bridge — reminding us of our commonalities while basking in the richness that unique traditions bring to the metaphorical table.
I spoke with Lakshmi about cultural appropriation in food and the big ideas explored in Taste the Nation below.
In investigating the holidays, it feels like you were also investigating some of the false narratives around our holidays, Thanksgiving, in particular. Do you feel that people are starting to realize some of those false narratives? Were there things that surprised you when filming the Thanksgiving episode of this show?
We are really struggling with how to do justice to not only the Wampanoag Nation, the Aquinnah Mashpee, but also just the whole subject of Thanksgiving because we had already had a decolonized Thanksgiving with Brian Yazzie. So I didn’t want to be repetitive because I also think that that is a specific trap that a show like ours can fall into, and that happens to the Indigenous community often. They often get painted with one brush and an Indigenous person in Navajo Country has a completely different experience than somebody in Cape Cod.
When we were deciding to do the holiday edition’s four episodes, I thought I’m sure that the Indigenous people are sick of being trotted out every Thanksgiving as “the other guys.” We can’t do that. I really wanted to feature an Indigenous community. But I was very skeptical and scared, to be very frank, about messing it up and making the same mistakes that we all have made.
Then we started our research and I had really hard-working research producers who brought me stories that we’d sit down and hash out and try to form an episode to see how these stories tell us something that is new and, first and foremost, accurate. When we got into our research, we found out that the Mashpee and Aquinnah people of the Wampanoag Nation are the “Indians” that are talked about in the Thanksgiving mythology that we were all fed through our education in the U.S. public school system.
That to me seemed like a good way in. The other thing is we only hear about one side of that Thanksgiving narrative. It’s always told from the European colonizer’s point of view or the descendants of those colonizers. We’re always told, “oh, there were some Indians and it was all kumbaya”. We don’t know that it was. Frankly, the only thing we know for sure is that the Mashpee and Aquinnah brought five deer to that first dinner. We don’t know if it was peaceful. We don’t know if it was a diplomatic mission. It may have been. They probably brought the deer because they thought they were going to starve because a lot of those settlers were starving. So it was their way of ensuring that whoever was coming had something to eat.
Would that be an Indigenous food you’d point people towards?
Traditional Thanksgiving meals maybe should have venison rather than Turkey, if we want to be traditional about it. So, then, the show really is predicated on allowing different communities to have the mic and I’m kind of a conduit. I’m the audience as a representative, and I’m learning as well. There are communities that I’m very familiar with, but also communities I’m not familiar with. The Aquinnah and Mashpee people were ones that I wasn’t familiar with. So I was learning right along with all of my research team and was happy to do so.
I learned how to make a blueberry slump, which is so delicious. I also learned about deer. I also learned that the Mashpee and Aquinnah Wampanoag people have been here for 12,000 years and they have been the keepers of this land and the caretakers of this part of America for all of those thousands of years. And they’ve been doing a great job. Preserving the land, mining it, tending to it, respecting it. That gratitude is such a big part of this culture. It’s not something that happens on the fourth Thursday of every November, it is something that happens all the time. There’s a daily practice of gratitude. There’s a monthly Thanksgiving feast. There are 13 because it’s on the lunar cycle. We’ve just kind of taken that concept and appropriated it for one day out of the year.
That was a real eye-opener and I wish I had learned that growing up because it would have been a very valid part of actual original American culture that I could have learned from and taken part in as an immigrant coming from India too.
So all of these issues that we’re trying to address or readdress in our society today are interconnected. Learning about their point of view and learning what it was like for them is important from a cultural point of view, but learning about their ways can also benefit all of us from an environmental perspective. That’s how you see in real-time and on a human level how a lot of these societal issues are interconnected and affect all of our daily lives. They’re not big political issues that are sort of philosophical concepts with a capital P they’re actually things that affect our streams, our rivers, our children, and how they interact with other children in the community.
I think we’re in an era where people are really curious about the cultural traditions of others. They want to experience cultures through food. And yet at the same time, there are conversations about appropriation. I know you guys have had those conversations on Top Chef. I see Top Chef contestants say “Vietnamese inspired” or “Senegalese inspired” rather than trying to claim a food way that they’re not familiar with. So what’s your current line right now on how you define appropriation, on how you define cultural fusion, and what excites you in that space versus what troubles you?
Thank you for that question. So I don’t think that anybody in the food community feels that only people from a certain culture have dibs on making food from that culture or enjoying that culture. There are people who are not from a particular ethnicity, but who have dedicated decades to studying that ethnicity and have genuine expertise about that food and should be able to speak with authority because they’ve earned it.
It becomes appropriation when you are claiming that you suddenly discovered this cuisine. That you are the first person to use turmeric and coconut together, and that you’ve created this “stew.” Then it’s a problem. I have spent the last 20 years in food talking about different cuisines, as you know, and I think I encourage other young people who want to get into food to do the same.
I don’t make only Indian food in my kitchen. That would be really boring. I spent six years of my life living in Italy, so I have a pretty good understanding of Italian food. I should be able to share that as long as I’m saying, I spent my twenties in Italy, this recipe was taught to me by my boyfriend’s mother who loved to make salsa verde. This is how she taught me to do it. I have cut a couple of corners here because I’m a working woman so this is my version of that. That takes three sentences and I just did it for you in 20 seconds here to just give your sources. That’s all we’re saying.
I don’t think it’s wrong to just discover the foods with the world and enjoy them and share them with your friends, in your writing, in a restaurant, or in any other place. The world is getting smaller and bigger at the same time. Technology is affording us the ability to travel without ever stepping on an airplane. Thank God it has, especially after the many months in quarantine we’ve all gone through. But I think it’s a problem when you think that you know it all and that you’re the sole interpreter of other people. That’s what was happening with immigrant culture and food. A lot of people were speaking about foods without going to the primary sources. I love Thai food and I make Thai food in my kitchen. But if I’m going to give you a recipe for green Curry, I’m going to ask a couple of Thai people first to check my work. I’m going to give credit to those Thai people. Actually, it’s nice to give credit to those people because you need notes, you need context, you need to give the origin story.
I would say about appropriation that I don’t want to just cook Indian food and I want people from all different backgrounds to cook and enjoy Indian food. I’ve spent my life trying to demystify Indian food for other people so that it’ll be approachable and not as intimidating for them to cook. I personally don’t get offended when I see white women wearing saris and bindis. I think the sari is a beautiful garment that looks good on a variety of people of different colors and shapes. It’s actually a very sensual garment that is very flattering if wrapped properly. I think other Indian people may feel differently in different generations. I can only tell you how I feel. If I was going to be offended every time somebody experienced my culture, I would be offended in every yoga class in every gym I’ve ever been to.
That is the best working definition for this issue that we are all trying to be sensitive around that I’ve ever heard, so I really appreciate that. I just want to ask you a final question. If you could send all of your viewers to one restaurant right now in America that embodies the Taste the Nation spirit which one would it be?
It’s not one place. It’s several places. Shamshiri Grill in Westwood, California. Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas. Elemi, in El Paso. Sly Fox Den, too, in Northern Rhode Island where I learned how to stuff this glorious fish with Ritz Crackers and other spices by this beautiful Indigenous woman who has such an infectious smile and laugh.
‘Taste The Nation’ is currently streaming on Hulu.