For her new series,“Taste the Nation,” TV star and author Padma Lakshmi traveled around the United States to explore American food everywhere from San Francisco’s Chinatown to Milwaukee, where she rode the famed Weinermobile.
On a recent episode of Milk Street Radio, she spoke with Christopher Kimball about growing up with a single mother, how American cuisine is ever-evolving and the sacrifices that come along with success. Get a taste of the interview from the excerpts below, and listen to the full interview on our website or via Apple Podcasts.
On her childhood in India
I miss my childhood in India because it was the last time that I felt like I really lived in the moment. A bowl of rice and curry was just the utmost thing. I miss the immediacy of life in India. My grandmother did not get a fridge until she was 30 and she didn’t know what to do with it except store ice water in it, so every meal was cooked fresh. We had eight to 10 mouths to feed and we had a two-burner stove. A lot went on in that kitchen. I miss this ever-evolving, rolling meal where you’re always thinking about food in real time.
On standing out
When I was in Madrid, everyone was Spanish and fair-skinned mostly. And so, in a way, I stuck out, but I felt like my difference was something valuable and something cool. I didn't feel like that gawky girl with the scar on her arm and the long, skinny neck. All of a sudden that long, skinny neck was like, "Wow, look at how beautiful and long her neck is. I didn't change, but the perception that the community I was in changed. I’m very glad I went to Europe, because it did wonders for my confidence. It allowed me to make a living that I don’t think I would have made had I stayed in the States.
On “American food”
I think American food, like its population, is an ever-evolving thing. For the last three or so years, we’ve seen a lot of vilification of immigrants and to me that is deeply unfortunate for a plethora of reasons. First and foremost because it is really, to me, what makes America so interesting and so powerful as a culture. Things that we all think of as all-American, like hotdogs, hamburgers and apple pie, are not all-American but were brought here—in the case of hotdogs, hamburgers and beer, by German immigrants. I mean, what’s more American than beer? But so are tacos and pad Thai. In terms of the TV series, I just wanted to say, who gets to decides what American cuisine is?
On balancing work and family
You can have it all, you just can’t have it all at once. I often don’t have time for a social life, but what I can say is that I’m with my daughter Krishna more than most full-time working women. I’m lucky in that respect. I think you have to make time for what’s important and you have to understand that you won’t be able to have everything because of that. I’ve sort of just made peace with that.
(Photo: Inez and Vinoodh)
Quotes have been edited for clarity.