More often than not, sitting down to watch a travel and food show means you’re looking for pure escapism mixed with a whole lot of #FOMO. Rarely do these shows demand more of you than letting the “next episode” countdown expire. Fluff is fine, of course, but to pretend that the vast majority of travel and food TV is anything more than that is disingenuous. For too long, the genre has hinted at deeper themes without actually exploring them (there have been exceptions, obviously).
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. The show absolutely peddles in travel and food porn but it asks viewers for more than just their spare time. Lakshmi wants you to think, to care, and to throw out the bullshit you’ve been erroneously taught about the United States as a country. It’s the food and travel TV version of tearing down racist monuments.
Taste the Nation also feels like a natural evolution for Lakshmi. On the surface, the show is about immigrant cuisines in the United States and how those food cultures combine to inform the American identity. The Top Chef host is an immigrant herself. She arrived in America from India when she was only four years old. In many ways, her story — going from a poor immigrant kid raised by a single mom to one of the most recognizable names in fashion and food — is a riff on the American dream. With this show, she’s using her platform to honor the unspoken code among marginalized people to help build one another up and share opportunities.
I’m not going to lie. When I first heard the elevator pitch for this show, I was… a little underwhelmed. As an Indigenous person covering the food world, another show about “immigrant” cuisine in America really felt like more of the same. Whether overtly stated or not, almost every food and travel show over the past 20 years has been about America’s immigrant food scene. I thought to myself, “What’s really new to say there?”
When I found myself in tears at the end of the eighth episode, I realized just how wrong my assumptions had been. Lakshmi and her team have gone deeper in their exploration of migrant cuisines than any other show I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot). In episode one, “Burritos at the Border,” the host dives into the world of Mexican food in El Paso, Texas. The show takes a very candid look at how the humble El Paso burrito is a cornerstone of Mexican “immigrant” cuisine in the city and how that community is part of the city’s foundation. But Lakshmi goes further — doing something I’ve never seen in a food show before. She pivots and talks with chef Emiliano Marentes about Indigenous Mexican cuisine.
So much of what most Americans consider “Mexican” food is the fusion of European foodstuffs (wheat, beef, pork, chicken, dairy, etc.) with Indigenous Mexican ingredients and techniques (corn, avocado, squash, beans, chilis, cacao, adobo, barbacoa, etc.). Padma and Marentes help unpack that for a mainstream audience.
That segment serves as a tee-up to episode eight, called “The Orignal Americans.” In that episode, Lakshmi travels to the Southwest to learn about Indigenous American food from actual Indigenous Americans. There’s no white celebrity chef white-splaining what “American” food is. There’s no pretension about these foods being “exotic” or “weird” or “foreign.” The episode opens with podcaster Andi Murphy laying down the reality of fry bread and only goes deeper from there. In fact, there’s a level of gratitude on display that’s incredibly refreshing and passed all my personal litmus tests.