We obviously look forward to the holidays for the food. Whether it’s for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Passover, Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, Diwali, Día De Los Muertos, Seollal (Korean New Year), Nowruz (Persian New Year), or some other holiday, we always enjoy diving into a scrumptious feast with our loved ones to commemorate these occasions. But how exactly did some of these food traditions develop here in the United States, and what were the specific contributions of Immigrant and Indigenous communities?
With her new “Holiday Edition” set of episodes for her Hulu original Taste The Nation, famed cookbook author and Top Chef host returns to explore the roots of food and cultural traditions for the holidays of Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, Christmas (from the perspective of Cuban Nochebuena), and Seollal, meeting with the communities to showcase their histories and food culture.
These explorations are moving as Padma meets Jewish, Indigenous, Cuban, and Korean American communities. There are intimate interweavings of their histories in these episodes, directly facing the various traumas these communities have endured, ranging from their families surviving the Holocaust, genocide by white settlers, exile from their home country, or racist hate crimes. Padma and her team do well to let the community members she speaks with detail their own narratives as they cook and eat together for the holidays.
This season refreshingly pulls the curtain back on the simplistic narratives Americans are often told on how we came to commemorate some of these holidays, especially Thanksgiving. Through speaking with members of the Wampanoag Nation in Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, American audiences will see the reality of what Native people have endured through the brutal colonization of their land, and how they persevere despite the erasure of their struggles in the history we teach.
Instead of Thanksgiving, audiences will know more about the National Day of Mourning that calls attention to their struggle. All while watching the delicious foods the Wampanoag make from the ingredients of their land, such as an innovative pesto bread made with native nettles as its base, a sweet blueberry crumble, and fresh seafood. It’s a stunning and deeply humanizing episode that will hopefully make more Americans think critically about Thanksgiving.
The Hanukkah episode is also moving, as Padma speaks with Jewish Americans who are the descendants of refugees from Europe in the early-to-mid 1900s. They speak to the intrinsic nature of the Jewish American identity, and how they’ve carved a place for themselves in the U.S. Russ & Daughters Appetizers is a delectable bagel shop featured in the episode, selling not only the delicious Jewish delicacy but any topping you could want with it! From that to the meals at home, this is a wonderful showcase of Jewish culture. There’s also a deeper explanation to the origins of Hanukkah and tying it to the American ideal of freedom of worship, smartly tying back to the themes of the show.
Perhaps most moving is her conversation with a Holocaust survivor and refugee in her 90s, who expresses horror at what is happening to refugees today in the U.S. and some of the similarities to her experience being separated from her parents. The show makes a stunning showcase of our universal humanity through these conversations.
The Seollal episode is another intimate portrayal of Korean immigrants and Korean Americans, showing the cultural back and forth of retaining their cultural values for family and elder respect while seeking to make their way in a more independent American life. It’s a constant conflict across many immigrant communities.
But it’s not so black and white, and the show does a great job at exploring those nuances as it showcases a good amount of the range of the Korean American experience. All the while making Hotteok, Kimchi, rice cakes, and other delectable Korean foods for the Lunar New Year and year-round.
The Nochebuena episode, showcasing Cuban Americans, similarly shows a range of experiences for this immigrant community. Often grouped monolithically in their politics, the show wisely shows the range of Cuban sociopolitical views, which are diverse as virtually any other community. The nuance is refreshing, as is the highlighting of Afro-Cubans, and their key contributions to Cuban food culture, which are so often left out of the narrative. The food Padma is invited to help make here is similarly delectable and will have you salivating while you watch.
While I wish this particular mini-season was longer to explore all the holidays I listed above — and more — the quality of the episodes exploring the four are still admirable and well detailed. I understand, however, that the mini-season is geared at the “Holiday Season,” from around November-December, and thus focuses on what American audiences tend to recognize in popular media as “the Holidays,” with the inclusion of Seollal that is likely increasing in public knowledge in American spaces.
But even then, this feels like a lost opportunity to have an episode on Día De Los Muertos, to showcase Mexican communities and their traditions to make food offerings for the Dead on their ofrendas and the food they make for themselves around the holiday. Overall, I hope future releases of “Holiday Edition” have more holidays from a wider variety of BIPOC communities and those that don’t fit into the typical “Holiday Season.”
Despite how much I enjoyed the season overall, there is a small, but significant, blemish toward the beginning of the first episode that never should have happened. When describing the Lower East Side, which has a large Jewish community, Padma states, “It dates back to a time long before Palestine became Israel in 1948.”
The clear issue is that Palestine and its people, Palestinians, are still there, alongside the State of Israel. To phrase this in such a way, as though Palestine and its people don’t still exist and are still undergoing ethnic cleansing, is unacceptable. It’s an unnecessary and harmful stain on an otherwise wonderful series. I sincerely hope that Padma and her team apologize to Palestinian communities for what I hope is an honest mistake of phrase, and recognize that they are still here.
Overall Taste the Nation: Holiday Edition is a wonderful and moving season of this great series that allows immigrant and BIPOC communities to tell their own stories on how they celebrate the holidays. I wish it was more than four episodes and explored a wider array of cultural traditions from American communities, but I feel confident and hopeful that it will in the near future. I hope it does so for more underrepresented and misrepresented communities in particular. But for what it does now, it’s a great watch that will make you crave Holiday food even more.
You can watch Padma Lakshmi’s Taste the Nation: Holiday Edition now streaming exclusively on Hulu.