Food Writing

Why is the nation a given? A review of Padma Lakshmi’s “Taste the Nation”

It begins with a sound, rather than a taste. We’re introduced to food and its context through a different sense, one we’re not used to ascribing to food, and it’s a proverbial taste of what the show is going to bring us. It begins with the sounds of the borders, of surveillance, of fear, and of the violence that living in a border town begets. This is El Paso and the new food show on Hulu, Padma Lakshmi’s “Taste the Nation.”

In it, as the show proclaims early on, the food is ‘the bonus’. It’s a show not afraid to show and engage the politics, the places, the people, and the messiness of what makes these places ‘real’. It’s goal is to dig beyond the headlines, beyond the polarities of the debate, and find what life is really like in the many parts of America. It’s complicated, it’s messy, and it’s delicious.

But, from the very beginning, the premise of the show is confined and limited by scope of the titular ‘nation’. Which is why it makes sense that the first episode begins with the border. Borders are a way the nation is defined, through exclusion (who’s in and who’s out), and by the violent and arbitrary ways they are enforced and made.

It’s a show that wants to engage the messiness of the process, it wants to dig deep and not shy away from complicated politics in favor of food escapism. It wants to talk about Donald Trump, it wants to talk about colonization, it wants to talk about slavery and travel bans and feminism.

But, at it’s very heart, it refuses to interrogate the idea of the nation itself.

One interviewee, one of the ‘complicated’ examples of how real life rarely follows the neat political divisions, drops his summary of why Mexicans cross the border: because America is ‘the greatest country in the world’ and it is left to hang, left untackled, unpacked, and unchallenged. American exceptionalism is a theme that runs through the show. It’s echoed later in the first episode when a chef proclaims that he is ‘lucky enough’ to be born on the right (American) side of the border. There’s a ‘right’ side and a ‘wrong’ side, and this narrative is never complicated, despite the emphasis on the porousness of, and movement across and through, the borders. This is echoed again in episodes like the dosa/Indian food episode as one interviewee reminds us how (through immigration) the nation was built, became successful and became strong. While it’s a narrative that complicates how the nation become ‘great’, it never complicates if the nation was ever great to begin with.

The show itself is compelling and beautiful television. It embraces the hands and the people who make the food. Which is rare. As one chef in the first episode puts it: people are more likely to accept my tortilla then they are to accept my cousin.’ And, that’s a problem.

As for Padma, she was meant to have a show like this. She’s intelligent about the food and its histories. She’s multilingual. She’s empathetic and able to connect on a personal level with the interviewees as a woman, as a woman of color, and as an immigrant. She’s no Anthony Bourdain (an easy comparison and one she has responded to) and that’s to her benefit (as much as Tony was/is beloved). She is unshaken by the comments from an elderly white gentleman who comments on how she’s ‘a stunner’ (while the camera insists on playing the moment as ‘endearing’, persistently panning back to show her holding his frail hand). She playfully jokes with chefs, she is the confidant who meets the female workers behind the café on lunch break, and she’s not afraid to look right at the camera, tossing a wink or a kiss, and exuberantly inviting the watcher in the intimacy of the experience.

And yet, I can’t shake that the premise of ‘the nation’ that thwarts every attempt the show makes to tackle politics head on. It’s particularly evident again in the episode that features various Indigenous peoples and nations in what is currently Arizona. In it, Padma persistently declares that Indigenous food is the ‘real American food’, the ‘original’ American food, ‘the OG’ American food. But it’s Indigenous food, from Indigenous nations that are sovereign from America (which I’ve written a more extensive essay on). You can’t talk about Indigenous food sovereignty without troubling the concept of America and how it came to be, and how the nation of America is the reason Indigenous nations don’t have (food) sovereignty.

Ultimately, the show fails to deliver on its promise of engaging the messiness of food and politics, falling back on tired tropes of how ‘misconceptions’ about Iranians will be fixed through simple introductions to Iranian food, of how ‘food will bring us together’ (a myth I’ve also written about before), and how food will open doors so we can all realize how similar we are. The violence of the American nation is reduced to the inevitable middle ground of how ‘both sides’ need to forgive, ignoring the power differentials and violences of the ‘sides’. Alongside the BMW product placements (this is still TV and capitalism after all, and the piper needs to be paid) and the trend of bringing on celebrity friends to eat with (please, let this end!), is the tired tropes of how food is a bridge to change perceptions and unite us all under the rubric of the nation.

For all the praise it has received for its willingness to embrace food as political, for telling stories that are rarely told in mainstream media, and for passing the mic to diverse voices, it fails to grapple with the hard questions: Why is the nation a given? And what about if the what is dividing us is in fact the very concept of the nation? Why must food be bound by the nation at all? What does the project of a ‘national food’ culture accomplish? What if America was never great to begin with? Can food actually bridge across structures of violence, especially ones embedded in colonial nationalism and capitalism?

It’s a lot to ask of a TV show, I know. But we must be able to dream about and demand more. We are living in a revolutionary time and to demand and dream of more is a revolutionary act. Half measures that leave structures of violence in place are not what the moment needs; half measures that recuperate the nation are not what we need; reform is not what we need. We must dream of and demand and expect more.

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