Padma Lakshmi has plenty on her plate these days, and she couldn’t be prouder.
The longtime judge of Bravo’s “Top Chef” has created a new Hulu docu-series titled “Taste the Nation” where she also serves as host. The show aims to celebrate the food of American immigrants and indigenous people.
And the series hits close to home for the 49-year-old. Lakshmi is an Indian-America who came to the U.S. when she was just 4 years old.
“Taste the Nation” takes Lakshmi to the Texas border city of El Paso where she talks to locals about the wall. She travels to South Carolina to go crabbing and explore Gullah Geechee food. The star also heads to Las Vegas to spend time with Thai immigrants, as well as Arizona to get better acquainted with Native American ingredients – just to name a few. In each episode, Lakshmi consults with community leaders, such as former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who gets candid about being bullied as a child.
Lakshmi spoke to Fox News about what inspired her to launch a series like “Taste the Nation,” the reality of apple pie, as well as the people that truly fascinated her on this journey.
Fox News: What inspired you to launch a series like “Taste the Nation”?
Padma Lakshmi: Three and a half years ago, I started working with the ACLU. The American Civil Liberties Union is a nonpartisan organization that’s been around for 100 years just to fight for every American’s civil rights. And I got involved with them on the immigration issue as well as women’s rights issues. And it was really out of that work that I started being curious about other immigrants in this country.
I came here as an immigrant when I was 4 from India. And it bothered me that all of a sudden our attitude about immigrants was changing. Because to tell you the truth, immigrants really built this country. Whether they’re German immigrants who built the beer industry and built the whole processing of food, like Oscar Meyer, he was an immigrant. Or it’s the Thai people or the Mexican people. And all of these communities have come to our shores and have really contributed to the larger American culture.
That to me is why America is so cool because it’s a combination, in a way, of the best of all of these cultures that live here. I wanted to look at these cultures because often they don’t get a chance to talk about their own food, the food we all love on a big main platform. And I thought it was time we heard from the sources.
Fox News: When we think of traditional American food, hot dogs, hamburgers and apple pie come to mind. What’s the reality?
Lakshmi: Not one ingredient in an apple pie is actually from North America. Not the cinnamon, not the lard or butter, not the milled flour, not even the apples in that apple pie that you just mentioned. Hot dogs, they come here from Germany. So do hamburgers. That’s why they’re called hamburgers, from Hamburg, and frankburgers from Frankfurt. But they’ve become ubiquitous as American food because of the contributions that immigrants have made.
Oscar Meyer came here and he figured out how to wrap food in plastic and ship it to different parts of the country without it spoiling. And because he did that, he was able to proliferate the enjoyment of German specialties all over the country. So it’s very possible that if Oscar Meyer was Chinese, we’d all be considering a whole other different, maybe egg rolls would be all-American. And to me, a lot of Americans eat lots of egg rolls too.
So it was just being open-eyed about who we are as Americans and looking at our history and learning from it. The food is really just an excuse to get to know the people. And I thoroughly enjoy traveling all over this country. It’s such a beautiful country with such diversity, not only in people but just in the landscape. And when I look at the show now, it seems like a lifetime ago, even though it was just last summer that I filmed it.
Fox News: You’ve met a lot of fascinating people from all different walks of life. Which community or individual really captivated you or even surprised you and why?
Lakshmi: I was surprised every day at work. There was so much that I learned just in doing the research for this show that frankly I should have known already. I am a product of the U.S. public school system, I grew up here. And yet there’s so much about the Native American community that I never learned about. Like the Trail of Tears and the origin of fry bread or the Gullah Geechee people that are descendants from West African and slave people.
They didn’t just come here and cook with scraps that they got from their master’s table. They came here with food knowledge that was pretty robust and vast. In fact, they are the ones who knew about rice cultivation. They knew about creating a rice patty that would drain and fill appropriately with the seasons. And they came here and they were sought after because of their agricultural knowledge.
A banjo, something we think of as very American, was brought here by African slaves. Benne seeds, which are really sesame seeds, were brought here by them. All of these things. And when you look at southern red rice, it is so clearly related to Nigerian jollof rice, but we never think of it that way.
Fox News: How important was it to also explore the culinary contributions made by African-Americans?
Lakshmi: I wanted to look at the contributions of African-Americans to the American food scene independent of their colonial masters because while they’re not immigrants, they are here as a result of forced migration. And I thought that that was really interesting, that they came here with all these African traditions that we don’t really talk about.
I think we should talk about it. I don’t think we should be threatened by immigration. I think we should have embraced it, we should celebrate it, because the many faces of who Americans are is, to me, what makes this country super interesting and super cool. Whether it’s food, music, movies, literature, sports, all of it, it’s just elevated and more sophisticated. And that, to me, is why America is actually a dominant force in the world.
Fox News: What do you hope Americans will get from this series?
Lakshmi: I’m hoping that the show will provide some comfort to people at this moment when we’re not really traveling. Hopefully, they can travel vicariously through the show and hopefully, it’ll make them curious about some of their neighbors, maybe it’ll make them more open to just say, “Hi,” and get to know your neighbors. I’m hoping that this will bring people together at a time when we’re so polarized in this country.
I think we need to talk to each other as human beings and as people, not as Republicans or Democrats, not in a red state or a blue state, just as Americans all wanting the same thing, which is peace, harmony, and for our families to flourish.
“Taste the Nation” is available for streaming. The Associated Press contributed to this report.