If you haven’t seen Padma Lakshmi’s new Hulu show, Taste the Nation(a show that explores the rich and diverse food cultures of various immigrant groups, seeking out the people who have shaped what American food is today), I highly recommend you seek it out. I’ve been a fan of the glamorous food writer and longtime Top Chef host since the first Top Chef season aired. In 2016 Lakshmi released her memoir, Love, Loss, and What We Ate, and while devouring it I was quite moved and surprised by its honesty. The remarkable story of her journey details profound strength and support from some extraordinary figures, instrumental in shaping her along the way. It’s a beautiful story, rich in sensory detail and evocative food lore. Her memoir further opened my eyes and heart to a life traversing geographies and cultures, both internally and externally and also deepened my love for all things desi. Padma’s resonant immigrant story mirrors so very many others, just like the beautiful souls in each rich, colorful, and delicious episode.
We are almost all immigrants here in America, and though the years and broken family trees might make one’s lineage hard to establish, we fortunately now have the means to access our ancestry. A few years ago, like many of you may have, I submitted DNA for genetic testing and analysis. I was curious about my ancestral immigration stories, if there were any.
In conversations we’ve had over the years, my Mom has done her best to verbally chronicle some lineage; our Mexican great grandmother (Nana), a French grandfather, our Mexican-American/American-Indian grandma (unfortunately I have NO happy grandma stories to share), but we are lacking the tidy trees that many families have and much of Mom’s narrating is openly speculative. There is no documentation of familial lines and the stories about where we come from, who is who and where were they’re from, have always felt inconclusive. Never having a relationship with my late birth father (who was adopted), I wanted answers, needed answers.
I recall a rather brown side to our family as a child in San Diego. An early memory is of a family gathering that included Mom’s aunts and cousins and their families, proudly Latino, loving and fun. While my siblings and cousins played outside, I was mesmerized by all of the happenings in the kitchen. Curious; enthralled by the action, camaraderie and aromas - it may have been my first culinary stirring, so to speak. Nana on a step-stool tending a bubbling pot at the stove, steaming dishes in and out of the oven, someone making guacamole – little snooty me was spellbound.
For most of my life I’ve begrudgingly ticked the box marked White, although I find that term inadequate, if not lacking and imprecise. I’m more often tempted to check the box marked Other Race and add “None of your fucking business” in the Describe area. My own small protest to the increasingly silly, useless and maybe even harmful emphasis placed on race, ethnicity, national origin and skin color; everyone aggregated into their little boxes.
Looking at me it’s probably pretty easy to categorize me as a non-diverse white guy. Lacking any noticeable ethnic features or accent, other than So-Cal with of hint of Midwestern. It turns out though, according to my DNA results, I am actually quite diverse. Regrettably I’m all the wrong kinds of diverse, according to the available boxes one must tick. Despite my diversity, I rarely feel the urge to make claims at being what my genetic testing results reveal as Scotch/English-French-Native American-Mexican-Caucasian-American raised by a non-practicing Jew, oy!
Not brown enough to embrace my Mexican heritage, Jewish only by association, and eye rolls from some Americas and French because I was not born in France, WTF?* So, who am I? Where do I fit in? What are my family immigration stories?
When in France, I do feel a sense of belonging like nowhere else, except in the kitchen. And when cooking, I am often drawn to classic, humble, rustic and homey French preparations that, because they have French names, people mistake for complicated, quaint, or even (if you can believe it!) snooty. And here’s what I embrace as my own, it’s through a Mexican inflected, NorCal lens that my French cooking takes on a unique quality that satisfies via classic comfort food roots, surprises with spikes of chili heat, punchy garlic, bright citrus and exotic spice and delights by being at once approachable and aspirational. It has GOT to look beautiful, but not forced or too beautiful – us food stylist’s on-going dilemma.
I love our immigrant rich country and I appreciate the many stories being shared, the cuisines being studied, narrated and celebrated, and the insight of the journeys, struggles and navigating of our vast and varied landscape by these determined, strong souls. People looking for a safe place to live, work, play and feed their families. I feel fortunate to have every one of them and their many additions to the gorgeously vibrant tapestry that makes America great.
* WTF? = What the French?
(Mussels with Chorizo. A lot French, a little Mexican, and very California!)
4 lbs. fresh mussels, scrubbed and debearded
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
½ pound fresh Mexican chorizo sausage, bulk, not in casing
1 shallot, diced small
1 serrano chili, sliced into thin rings
1 cup dry white wine or Mexican beer
1 yellow or orange bell pepper, finely diced
1 Roma tomato, seeded and finely diced
½ cup cilantro leaves, loosely packed
Discard any cracked or open mussels that will not close when tapped on counter. Place mussels in a large bowl or stock pot and cover with cold water, stir in 2 tablespoon salt and let sit.
Place a large, heavy bottomed pot over medium-high heat and add the olive oil and butter. When the oil is shimmering hot, add the chorizo and shallot. Cook, stirring often, until shallot is soft and chorizo loses its raw color, about 5 minutes. Add the serrano chili and ½ tsp salt and cook, stirring often for 1 to 2 minutes.
Add the wine, bell pepper, and mussels (lifted gently out of the water they’ve been in). Stir to combine and bring wine to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, cover pot and simmer until mussels have opened, shaking the pot a few times during cooking, 5 to 6 minutes.
Add the tomatoes and half of the cilantro and toss to combine. Serve topped with the remaining cilantro and a whole baguette on the side that guests can tear into and sop up the delicious juices with.