For her latest project, Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi explores the different communities that make up America — and, of course, what they eat.

By Padma Lakshmi as told to Samantha Simon
Jun 17, 2020 @ 12:00 pm
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Credit: Courtesy Padma Lakshmi

Last summer I traveled across the United States to film my new show, Taste the Nation, cooking and dining with communities as diverse as the Apache people of the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona; the Gullah Geechee people of South Carolina, a vibrant culture founded by former slaves–turned–landowners; crabbers and farmers in the South Carolina Sea Islands; and German descendants in Milwaukee.

I foraged for wild onions with seed saver Twila Cassadore under the desert sun and then ate pack rat. I pressed tortillas in El Paso, Texas, with the sounds of U.S. border control helicopters pounding overhead. I made papaya salad with Thai war brides in Las Vegas, who are some of the strongest and funniest women you’ll ever meet. I shaped tamales with Rosa Carhuallanqui, a Peruvian dance teacher in Paterson, N.J., who is resilient and inspiring after years of enduring a terrifying civil war in her native country.

Meeting these people reinforced something I have always known: We are all connected and much more alike than we are different. We all want to be able to send our kids to a good school, to have a comfortable home that feels secure and is free from violence. We want to cook the food of our ancestors and be able to support our families through hard work. We want serenity, prosperity, safety, and, above all, acceptance. And every single human deserves a chance at achieving this. This basic belief has fueled my work with the United Nations as a goodwill ambassador; it’s made me fight for the rights of immigrants through the ACLU. And that work has led to this show.

Lakshmi on Taste the Nation.
| Credit: Courtesy Hulu

As an immigrant myself, I’m so thankful for the life my mom provided for me here in America. Our lives would have been much different had we stayed in South India. I created this show to highlight the contributions of immigrant communities to our national food landscape — to learn about their origins, their food and traditions. Many of these people are being targeted by our current government. The politicians supporting harsh, often inhumane, immigration policies should be required to go — as I did — and break bread with the immigrants they feel so deeply threatened by. I believe they would come away realizing that we all share a common humanity. We definitely share a hand in making America the vibrant culture it is.

That’s what food does: It unifies us. Even now, at a time when we may not be able to physically travel because of the coronavirus pandemic, we can travel and explore our culinary curiosities through the flavors of the dishes we prepare. We are all blessed with the great gift and privilege of living in a melting pot, and there’s more of America to discover right under our noses. In understanding each other better, we’re sure to come away with a better understanding of ourselves.

Lakshmi’s new show, Taste the Nation, premieres on June 18 on Hulu.

For more stories like this, pick up the July issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download now.