At this point, it’s hard to know how we’ll remember 2020 – things like Australia catching on fire and Murder Wasps are already treated as afterthoughts. My hope, if I may express a hope, is 2020 will be remembered as a turning point. After years of cynicism and pessimism, where being skeptical is mistaken for being intelligent, where no one argues for any reason other than to win the argument, is it possible we’re moving towards a new era of earnestness? Watching Padma Lakshmi’s new show, Taste the Nation, I think we just might be.
“Taste the Nation is a show about what connects us as Americans and as human beings,” wrote Lakshmi on an Instagram post to promote the show. “It’s a project I’ve spent years developing. We traveled across the country visiting indigenous and immigrant communities to find out what American food is today.”
Food and identity are deeply intertwined – and what better way to explore those interconnections than to travel through the United States?
Through the show, Lakshmi has a platform beyond the confines of Top Chef to really explore what it means to be an American. Her interviews are casual and heartfelt – they are more like conversations between people than anything else. As she discusses food and cultures, her own identity and experiences are front and center. For example, when discussing Indian comfort food with Preet Bharara, Lakshmi comments “I never knew my kid’s food preferences would affect me so emotionally.” It turns out her daughter doesn’t like lentils, much to Lakshmi’s surprise. “That’s not genetically possible!” she exclaims. It’s both a light-hearted moment, and something much deeper. Lakshmi, as a parent, wants to share something important about her culture with her child who is growing up with a very different cultural experience.
Then there’s the episode focused on the Gullah Geechee of South Carolina. The Gullah have preserved their West African cultural heritage, even through slavery. Today, members of the Gullah Geechee work to teach the next generation their language and food in the context of climate change and gentrification. It’s that current struggle and the struggles of the past that make the Gullah Geechee so much a part of the American story. “The thing about it is the culture happens between the healing and the hurt,” comments BJ Dennis, an expert on Gullah cuisine. “That’s where our culture has been made.”
What’s striking about these moments is the directness of their presentation. Lakshmi tells the audience in the intro what the show is about. There’s no hidden agenda, or cynical takes. Taste the Nation is about how America is a complex interconnection of cultures, identities and narratives. Food is something all people have in common, so Lakshmi uses it as a tool to explore our differences as well as our commonalities. She clearly believes food is something all people can gather around and then use as a way to learn about one another. In other words, she’s being earnest. And maybe a little dose of earnestness is what we all need right now.