It is clear at this point that “Taste the Nation” is not just an all-terrain road trip filled with food. This series is one that explores how interconnected food, tradition and personality are – and in a country that is an undeniable melting pot, what happened when the personality of certain immigrant groups is politicized.
Lakshmi – who immigrated from Madras (now Chennai), India when she was four, and who is a staunch defender of the independent food service industry and immigrant rights – energetically questions these complex issues through the lens of his apparent love for food. After watching it for 15 seasons as a host of “Top Chef”, it’s a joy to see it in this context.
We rightly start at El Paso, a community that anthropologist Gina Núñez-Mchiri describes in Lakshmi as “borders, a third space”, which is a microcosm of American culture in general. El Paso is located about 13 km from Jaurez, Mexico, and its traditions are a fluid blend of Mexican and American. The residents have taken the best of the cuisines of the two countries, mixing and adapting them.
On site, Lakshmi visits chef Emiliano Marentes and his restaurant Elemi, known for its menu that highlights Mexican cuisine before European influence and colonization. Together they make a taco with candied mushrooms, quesillo cheese, grilled avocado, black beans and smoked eggplant – all served on a scratched corn tortilla.
Lakshmi takes a moment to describe it: oozing cheese, creamy beans, salted mushrooms. The kind of taco that is so good it could make you cry. Anyone who loves food gets what they feel, that moment when you’re between bites and hanging in some kind of ecstasy, but we are anchored by Marentes.
“It is difficult for me to think that people will accept my tortillas before accepting my cousins,” he said.
“Taste the Nation” is filled with these moments; it’s a series that skillfully breaks the shape of the traditional culinary travelogue over and over again. In some food shows, it seems that hosts are stretching to make a political point (or they go out of their way to get around). Lakshmi, on the contrary, confronts him head on. In this way, it is similar in form and tone to David Chang’s “Ugly Delicious”, although “Taste the Nation” is organized around the location – Lakshmi visits 10 cities including Charleston, Phoenix and San Francisco, and a type of cuisine – rather than dishes.
You can’t eat in El Paso, she says, without acknowledging what’s going on in Washington, without acknowledging the racism at play in the rhetoric of Trump’s immigration policy, without recognizing families and children in cages.
Why? Because when you eat in El Paso, your experience is based on immigration and border crossing.
Before leaving town, Lakshmi stops at the H&H Car Wash and Coffee Shop, a restaurant specializing in chili relleno and breakfast burritos. Most of the women who work behind the counter commute daily from Jaurez.
She is surprised to meet the owner, Maynard Haddad, who is a second generation Syrian immigrant and a staunch conservative. He voted for the two Bushes, Reagan and supports Trump (“He’s full of shit, but I like him,” says Haddad). But he says he loves Mexicans – he grew up with them, and people know it – and has trouble understanding recent changes in border policy.
“In El Paso, nothing is ever black and white,” says Lakshmi.
And throughout the series, it becomes more and more evident that the concept of “American cuisine” is not black and white either. In ten episodes, Lakshmi and his guests delve into questions like is the hot dog really American? What does modern indigenous cuisine look like? Why has Indian food not taken precedence over America like Thai or Chinese cuisine? What is this strange Chinese American dish called chop suey? And how much of what we consider “traditionally American” food is rooted in the contributions and traditions of enslaved West Africans?
Lakshmi has a real presence here, much more than his certainly fun moments on “Top Chef”. We see her speaking in several languages, from Spanish to Tamil, seeing her really getting her hands dirty by cooking and eating fresh produce from the soil, and by showing her whimsical sense of humor that was previously relegated to her Instagram posts. Her story as an immigrant is also woven through the episodes, not just that of Indian cuisine, and at the heart of her relationship with food.
Watching “Taste the Nation” right now is a little surreal, as the new coronavirus pandemic has made travel nearly impossible and crushed many independent restaurants in the county, and as thousands have taken to the streets to protest against the recognition that blacks matter.
But honestly, this show could not have started at a better time.
In the hands of Lakshmi, “Taste the Nation” meditates on the contributions of our country that have been recognized and commercialized, and those that have not. It’s a reminder that many restaurants that make America unique will not do so without our support. And, quite simply, it’s about looking up from your plate and recognizing the person who prepared the food served there.
All episodes of “Taste the Nation” are now broadcast on Hulu.