Padma Lakshmi Talks New Hulu Series, Food Industry Racism, & Glitter
Padma Lakshmi Talks New Hulu Series, Food Industry Racism, & 'Glitter'
"If you think about the most interesting things happening in food, it all comes from immigrant cuisine."
What is American food?
That's the central question driving Hulu's latest culinary show Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi , a series that travels town to town across the country to explore immigrant communities who have brought their food to America with them, and how their cultures have shaped the country. American food is not just hamburgers and hot dogs; it's burritos, it's Pad Thai, it's kebabs, and all the other flavors that make food in this country so great. With Taste the Nation , it's Lakshmi's mission to make us curious about the actual people behind the "fast food."
"If you think about the most interesting things happening in food, it all comes from immigrant cuisine," Lakshmi tells PRIDE . That proves to be true in every city she visits, including the border town of El Paso, Honolulu, Native American communities, the Gullah Geechee people in South Carolina, San Francisco, and more.
During our chat with Lakshmi, she opens up about her new show, bringing a new understanding to immigrant culture and food, missing Pride festivals, her role in Mariah Carey's cult-classic film Glitter , racism in the food industry, and why she wants to share these powerful immigrant stories.
PRIDE: In the midst of a pandemic and worldwide calls demanding justice for the Black people who died at the hands of police violence, there's quite a bit going on right now. In general, how are you doing?
Padma Lakshmi: I'm good. I'm disappointed in our country and some of our media. I am trying to understand it better just like the rest of us. I'm also thankful because I'm safe, my family doesn't have COVID, we have health insurance, we're okay. So I'm thankful that we are sheltering in place in relative comfort when so many Americans aren't.
I'm bummed that I won't be able to go to Pride this year, which would be right now! It would be this week. I was thinking about it all last weekend because I love Pride weekend. I work out extra hard to get ready for it.
Same! [laughs] The times we're living in right now are so strange. I n the intro of Taste the Nation, you pose the question, "What exactly is American food, and what makes us American?" I really like that question because a lot of us have come to think of American food as hot dogs and hamburgers. Why is that question important to you?
It's a very direct prompt to my audience saying this could be a regular lifestyle or travel food show, but this is going to try to answer a deeper question about the identity of our country and who gets to shape that. It's a big question about who is responsible for our collective culinary history and hopefully allow those people to speak for themselves rather than having people appropriate their food and culture and not give credit where credit belongs.
Typically, we see these kinds of shows traveling around Europe or Japan and exploring food and culture. You travel around the U.S. and really dive into American cities and cultures. Why?
I was frankly offended by a lot of the rhetoric and negative vilification of immigrants in this country. As an immigrant myself, it kind of pisses me off that they were talking smack about the very people who built this country. The ways in which immigrants from different countries all over the world came here, struggled, made a life for themselves, and in the process, contributed economically, culturally to the American identity and landscape. This is my answer to that.
I started being politically involved in that sector through the ACLU and at first, I was just talking about my immigrant experience and how that informs my viewpoint on the subject but then I got sick of talking about myself. For my own benefit, I wanted to learn about other immigrant experiences that were maybe similar to mine but also different and explore that. This show allows me to address that through the language of food because that's the language people are used to me speaking in. It allows me to also highlight a lot of the stories that don't usually get play in our mainstream media. These stories are interesting to me. They're new, but they're not. People should know about them.
I am really passionate about food and I'm really passionate about the issue of immigration. It was for me a way to bring into my professional life something that I have been working on outside of work with the ACLU.
I don't know if you're keeping up with the Bon Appétit drama , but there are a lot of conversations going viral about their "toxic" work culture in the publication's kitchen, racist tweets resurfaced from higher-ups in the company, and employees pointed out pay inequalities between chefs of color and their white counterparts. Is that something you've ever come across in your time in the food industry?
How much time have you got, Taylor?
I am acutely aware of that subject. I know a lot of the people involved. I have noticed that as a Brown woman in television and in food, it is much harder for me to get coverage or greenlit than it is for white males.
And I hate to point that out, I hate to blame whatever I haven't been able to do on that fact. I like to think that I'm a self-determined person and it makes me cringe.
But now, when I see what's come to light about that magazine, I realize that it wasn't just in my head, there wasn't this invisible force I imagined, it really was just that. It had nothing to do with my work or anything like that, it was just discrimination and it's so blatant. And so many people have started coming out with stories that are so similar that you can't negate it. You can't minimize it. It's so shameful.
We've been reaching out to different outlets to cover the show because obviously, because with COVID, I've been unable to go out on a regular press tour, and it's been really hard to convince certain outlets that this is a story worth covering and now I know why in one case.
Maybe that'll change now but maybe it won't. I don't know. It's about time that that got called out.
What do you hope viewers take away from Taste the Nation?
I hope that viewers understand that these stories and the lives of the people I'm covering are really valuable and important and that they're worth paying attention to.
The things that we've often swept under the rug are also the things that make us the strongest. Immigration is not something to be afraid about. It's something to be celebrated because it makes our culture more interesting. If you think about the most interesting things happening in food, it all comes from immigrant cuisine.
I hope that other people will be inspired to find out more about these cultures. I hope the program has shown the humanity in these communities and people watching the show are then more curious about their neighbors and take that extra step to walk across the street or around the corner to meet their neighbors and be curious about them and not just get the take out.
Last question, and my editor Raffy asked me to ask this so it's a direct quote. "What are the chances of Glitter making a comeback so it can get the praise it deserves?"
[cackles] You know, I owe a big part of my success to the gay community. And it's only family that always brings Glitter up. Tell your editor that he does not disappoint in bringing that up and thank you for acknowledging my work!
Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi premieres June 18 on Hulu . Watch the trailer below!