Food, at its essence, is sustenance; that much is simple. Where things get complicated is in all the manifold ways it sustains us. Consider the burrito. In the first episode of Padma Lakshmi’s new Hulu show, Taste the Nation, the food writer and longtime Top Chef host travels to El Paso, Texas, where she attempts to isolate all the different ingredients in one of America’s favorite dishes. At the Jalisco Cafe, a chef griddling oozy eggs with beans on a stovetop tells her that the perfect burrito comes down to an attention to detail. The dish, another interviewee tells Lakshmi, is pure practical convenience: It’s quick to assemble and eat on the way to work. It can also signify a mother’s love, a whole meal swaddled in a pillowy tortilla and tucked into a child’s pocket before the day begins. And, in a city where the hum of helicopters surveying the border adds ambient foreboding to every interaction, burritos also represent the essence of American food: cuisine from one culture cloaked in the imposed ingredients of another (in this case, wheat flour). “A burrito,” Lakshmi observes, “is tradition wrapped in colonization.”
Lakshmi has been a graceful, gamine presence on American TV screens for almost 15 years now, so familiar from her Top Chef duties that the significance of Taste the Nation feels almost underplayed. On camera, she’s engagingly ribald, describing a razor clam as “phallic, elephantine” and good-naturedly scarfing down stadium food in a triptych of shots that radiate an absurd sensuality. Lakshmi’s flirtatious manner, her unquenchable glamour, allow her to Trojan-horse Taste the Nation’s true intentions for viewers who might be expecting a vaguely patriotic travelogue through America’s most iconic meals. What she’s offering instead is one of the most fascinating food series to emerge in recent years: a ruthless indictment of how a nation’s cultural heritage has been constructed out of the people and traditions that it has consistently and brutally rejected.
Initially, Taste the Nation wasn’t even supposed to be about food. After the 2016 election, she told Eater, Lakshmi was working with the American Civil Liberties Union and had decided to research a project on immigration, as an immigrant who was offended by the rhetoric coming out of the White House. She landed on food as a way to become more intimately acquainted with some of the communities she wanted to investigate. But what becomes clear through the series’s 10 episodes is how distinctly American cuisine encapsulates a paradox, in which dishes made by immigrants are quickly appropriated as national staples while the people who make them are rejected over generations. Perhaps because a country founded on the violent displacement of Native Americans will always expect violence from successive new arrivals, wave after wave of immigrants has tried to use food as a pacifying, neutralizing force. “It’s all ‘Don’t be scared of us,’” is how the comedian Ali Wong characterizes Americanized Chinese food to Lakshmi as the pair eat their way through San Francisco’s Chinatown. At the end of the El Paso episode, Lakshmi idly mulls why shared tastes can’t bring people together in a more substantial way. “Who,” she ponders, “doesn’t love a taco?”
This knife-edge dance between adoption and rejection comes to define Taste the Nation, as Lakshmi considers what a particular dish or place reveals about immigration, assimilation, and the hunger for home. In Milwaukee, she examines how the seemingly effortless absorption of hot dogs and lager as American staples belies an uneasy history of German immigration to the United States. In an episode dedicated to chop suey, a dish almost totally removed from authentic Chinese cooking, she explores its enthusiastic U.S. adoption in the 19th century even as Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred immigrants from China for decades. “How do you convey who you really are in a place where nobody understands you?” Lakshmi asks in one episode. Taste the Nation also conveys how often authenticity and uniqueness have to be sacrificed in the quest to be accepted.
At home, in New York, Lakshmi shares her mother’s story of coming to this country in search of a better life, and cooks coriander chicken with a pioneer in the mainstreaming of Indian food, Madhur Jaffrey. Lakshmi is particularly attuned to the women she interviews, and to their understanding of food as a totem of love, security, and prosperity. “Your mom was like me,” a Peruvian immigrant named Aida tells Lakshmi in one scene, raising a toast to the bravery of another woman who made a leap into the unknown. Saipin Chutima, who has become the doyenne of high-end Thai cuisine in Las Vegas, explains that when American diners initially rejected her cooking because they were used to greasy, inexpensive Thai fare, “I was not afraid, because I have 10 fingers; I can do anything.”
In the series’s most striking episodes, Lakshmi looks at communities whose traditions and history tend not to be included in kitschy celebrations of culinary Americana. One features the Gullah Geechee people of the southern coast, described by Lakshmi as among “the most beautiful cultures you may have never heard of,” whose ancestors were enslaved and transported to America to turn swampland into rice fields. With the culinary historian Michael Twitty, Lakshmi makes red rice, a meal whose varying components traditionally came from whatever happened to be available. At this point in history, the dish has been so broadly incorporated into southern cooking that even Martha Stewart has a recipe for it. But as Lakshmi and Twitty prepare it, the context they provide adds fraught symbolism: the wealth of the early American economy built on the blood and forced labor of enslaved people. It’s this quality, the particular “dichotomy of the splendor and the suffering,” Lakshmi argues, that truly defines American cuisine as a whole.
Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives the show isn’t. Still, for all the comparisons it has garnered to adventuristic travelogues like Parts Unknown, Taste the Nation kept reminding me of Guy Fieri’s long-running Food Network series, an unabashedly populist celebration of “real” American food. Fieri, with his cherry-red hot rods and his unique bowling-shirt chic, is the antithesis of a food snob, as enamored of a deep fryer as he is of a farm-to-table joint. His conception of American cuisine has always been an inclusive one. Bosnian refugees, Jamaican matriarchs, British purveyors of pub fare—all are welcome in Flavortown. But while Fieri makes acceptance seem easy, Lakshmi exposes the overlooked battles that have defined the making of the American melting pot. She documents how Indigenous food traditions were lost when Native Americans were forcibly removed from their land and given government-supplied commodity foods that made them sick. She considers questions of food sovereignty, colonization, and trauma. She does all this with a kind of educated breeziness, and speech peppered with colloquial “dudes” and “mans” that resists heaviness, but respects viewers’ ability to figure things out for themselves.
At the end of the El Paso episode, Lakshmi interviews Maynard Haddad, a second-generation Syrian American entrepreneur who owns the H&H Car Wash and Coffee Shop, a Tex-Mex restaurant. Haddad employs a number of Mexican cooks who cross the border every day to get to work. He also voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and expresses no reservations about doing so, although he’s irked by how much harder his chefs’ commutes have become. Lakshmi doesn’t press him on the disconnect. She wanted, she told Eater, to document his point of view, not try to manipulate it. She’s been criticized for this unwillingness to hold to account someone with views that directly threaten his staff’s lives and livelihoods, and for her faintly platitudinous conclusion that food might be able to unite people divided by much more than physical borders. But the episode has already exposed the conflict at the heart of American cooking, the inequity of a culture that gets to selectively take and absorb whatever it wants without having to offer anything significant in return. Haddad can profit from Mexican food and the labor of migrant workers while directly betraying those same employees because that’s exactly what American cuisine has always done.