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Padma Lakshmi finds voice in stories of others

  • HULU / VIA AP
                                Padma Lakshmi, right, visits the kitchen of Emiliano Marentes, owner of Elemi in El Paso, Texas, in “Taste the Nation.”

    HULU / VIA AP

    Padma Lakshmi, right, visits the kitchen of Emiliano Marentes, owner of Elemi in El Paso, Texas, in “Taste the Nation.”

“Am I stepping on anything?” Padma Lakshmi asks on her new show, “Taste the Nation,” as farmer Scott Chang-Fleeman guides her through rows of dirt. “Please, tell me! I don’t want to be a rude guest!”

At Shao Shan Farm in Bolinas, Calif., Chang- Fleeman tends to turnips, Chinese cauliflower, Taiwanese cabbage, an edible chrysanthemum called tong ho and more beautiful greens. He tells Lakshmi how growing these building blocks for the regional Chinese American cuisines of California has been a way of embracing his own biracial identity.

Throughout the show, now streaming on Hulu, Lakshmi shows curiosity, insight and an easy charisma. This will come as no surprise to viewers who know her best from her long-running role as a host and executive producer on “Top Chef.”

But the show also reflects her work as an activist and an American Civil Liberties Union ambassador for immigration and women’s rights, celebrating the food cultures of Indigenous people, immigrant communities and the descendants of enslaved people.

And as Lakshmi enters farms, homes and community centers, she seems acutely aware that she is a guest, more so than the white, male food and travel hosts who preceded her.

Lakshmi — who moved to New York from India as a child — is an immigrant herself. Each episode begins with her reminding the audience of this, holding out a photograph of her 4-year-old self.

The show, shot in the summer and fall of 2019, slips into a fluent, fast-paced, off-the-cuff visual style, and sure, there are moments when you’ll desperately want to eat what Lakshmi is eating — hot gumbo thickened with okra, kebabs turned over the fire, beef simmered in a coconut-rich curry, puffy flour tortillas wrapped around beans and scrambled eggs.

But what makes “Taste the Nation” brilliant is that it refuses to be another shiny, happy, escapist series about food bringing everyone together. Despite the name of the show — a play on the CBS News program “Face the Nation” — it isn’t about taste at all.

“This is my rebuttal to the fearmongering from Washington,” Lakshmi said in a phone interview.

The camera lingers on the people who grow, make and serve the food, using familiar dishes as a way to dig into history and specific communities. And Lakshmi doesn’t turn away from the violence and injustice that have often defined American foodways.

An episode about San Francisco’s Chinatown considers how the Chinese Exclusion Act shaped restaurant culture. And in Los Angeles, Lakshmi stops in front of a shuttered Iranian travel agency, noting how the travel ban threw people’s lives into disarray.

But it’s the first episode, in El Paso, Texas, that sets up the show’s nuanced, truth-seeking point of view.

Lakshmi investigates the history of the burrito, trying it at various places and finally landing at a diner called H&H Car Wash and Coffee Shop, where many employees commute daily from Juarez, just across the border.

Maynard Haddad, the son of a Syrian immigrant and an owner of the diner, tells Lakshmi that he’s conservative, that he plans to vote for President Donald Trump. In the same breath, he wonders why his Mexican workers are being harassed.

How is this kind of dissonance possible? Lakshmi doesn’t ask the question directly. Instead, she uses food to lead her audience right up to it and lets them reckon with it themselves.

The show’s weaker moments come when Lakshmi spotlights fellow celebrities. It is almost never interesting when two celebrities walk, talk and eat in the presence of a camera.

But Lakshmi does this infrequently.

“The whole point was to give the microphone to the people responsible for the most exciting food in the country,” Lakshmi said.

Each episode contains a full and often unexpected arc, with its own set of complications and contradictions. In the end, Lakshmi isn’t just the star of her own show. She’s chosen a far more powerful role: introducing her vast audience to a diverse constellation of voices.

The result is delicious and makes for genuinely good television — producers greenlighting vapid, celebrity-filled food shows should take note.

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