Growing up in Queens in the 1970s, Padma Lakshmi remembers eating a spaghetti dish her mother made with upma, an Indian porridge. The Top Chef host and executive producer, who came to the U.S. from India at age 4, says such culinary mash-ups are common in immigrant kitchens.
"Immigrant foods are really interesting, because they're this third thing: They're not traditionally like the food in the countries of origin, but they're not totally Westernized," she says. "A lot of that, of course, happens because of necessity: When immigrants come here, typically, for the most part, both parents have to work and so they streamline the cooking."
Lakshmi started out as a model and actress, never intending to have a career in food. But she loved to cook and to collect and write down recipes — especially from her relatives. She decided to pitch a cookbook, Easy Exotic, and was surprised when the publisher signed on.
"I think they wanted to capitalize on the fact that everyone does want to know what a model eats," she says.
More books followed, including the 2016 memoir, Love, Loss, and What We Ate. Now, as the host and creator of Hulu series Taste the Nation, Lakshmi travels around the U.S. to learn how foods from different cultures contribute to American cuisine. Among the places she visits: New York, to talk to her own mother about finding Indian ingredients and produce in Queens decades ago.
On being one of the only South Asian models in American and European fashion magazines
I think that was part of my appeal. I really didn't start to feel attractive until I went to Europe. I knew I had a pretty face, or whatever, all growing up. But I didn't feel like I was beautiful, or that kind of beautiful, until I went to Spain and until this person sort of "discovered" me, for lack of a better word, and told me that I could model it. And that happened a couple of times in my career. ...
I have a big scar on my arm, which is seven inches long from a car accident I had at 14. I started modeling before the days of retouching. So I got really good at covering it with makeup, but still, it didn't dawn on me that I could actually make a living from my looks. So the fact that it happened at all was a shock to me. ...
I was always the only Indian girl in any casting I went to. And I do think that a lot of the attention I got was because there were no other Indian models. I mean, since then, there are many Indian models and they've done way more work than I ever did as a model. But I think just being the first gave me a little bit of a cachet.
On feeling better about her body with age
It's really funny, because when you're a brown person and you live in a white world and you see nothing but white images on billboards, on the covers and inside magazines, on TV, you kind of internalize a subconscious self-loathing about your skin color.
And, of course, in Indian culture, there's a ton of colorism. I remember my grandmother always admonishing me to take an umbrella outside so that I wouldn't get too much sun. We kids, especially the girls, were discouraged from going out into the sun to play from the hours of 11:30 to 4:30.
And to this day, I still have problems sitting in the sun or playing or in or swimming in the sun because I just feel like it doesn't seem right. I mean, on the one hand, I think it saved me because they don't have a lot of sun damage for my age. But on the other hand, those things that get told to you as you're a young girl and a teenager, they stick with you all your life. And now, you know, at almost 50 years of age, I feel so much better about my body and I feel better about my physical self than I ever have.
On the car accident she survived at 14 and the affect that had on her faith
We were driving on a Sunday and we were on the highway and we were rear-ended and we fell down an embankment and we were trapped in the car. We were cut out of the car by something called the jaws of life, which are big, huge metal cutters. And my parents were airlifted to one hospital and I was taken by ambulance to another. I fractured my hip and I broke my right upper arm, or humerus bone. I also broke my hand because at some point my hand went through the windshield. ... My mother broke five ribs and her sternum and her arm as well. And my stepfather broke his leg in four places and his hip in two. It was horrible. We were all homebound and in bed for months afterwards. ...
I did lose faith. I think I always vaguely believed in God and I went to the temple when my mother took me. But I've always been a very secular person. ... I didn't know what to make of it. ...
It was a very, very, very bad car accident. I mean, if you saw the pictures of the car afterward, your stomach would turn. You would think no one could get out of that car accident alive. And yet, here we are. My mom chooses to think of it as, "Well, it was God that saved us from dying in that car accident." Whereas I said, "If there's a real God and there's any omnipotence to them, why did they just prevent it in the first place?"
On being sent back to India at age 7, shortly after telling her mother that her stepfather's brother had touched her inappropriately
I think my mom just wanted to get me out of this situation quickly. She was also studying for her master's degree at night and she was a nurse in the daytime. I mean, that was her day job. And, you know, I think now if you talk to her, she would tell you [she] should have kicked him out of our house.
But I don't think that my stepfather ever believed me. I remember talking to him about it and being very nervous. But I think that they got divorced because he didn't believe that this was the case.
And so I was on a plane very quickly to India, where I stayed for a year and a half. I did all of third grade and part of fourth grade in India. And my impression was that I spoke up about what happened to me and I was sent away. As a 7-year old, that is what it felt like. That is the evidence I had. If my mother said, "I'm sending you away to keep you safe," it certainly didn't [come across] in any deep way. And so I think that went very deep. That experience really left its mark for a whole host of reasons.
On being raped by her 23-year-old boyfriend when she was 16
It was New Year's Eve and we had gone out and then I was in his apartment. I had just laid down to rest and I woke up to him on top of me trying to penetrate me, and it was very painful. I really didn't feel I had any leg to stand on. I mean, what was I going to complain about and to whom? I don't know what would have happened if I had.
I'm also talking about 1986, and the term "date rape" was nowhere in anybody's vocabulary in '86. And I think that is really important to remember as well. I don't know the know if I registered it as rape at the moment. It was certainly traumatic. I certainly didn't want to be alone with him again and we broke up shortly after that. And I yelled at him in the moment, like, "What are you doing?" And said that it hurt and please get off me. But I don't think my 16-year-old self identified that as date rape until later.
[Having the vocabulary later to talk about sexual assault] was very helpful to me because I thought there was something I did to invite that, which I obviously hadn't. I was asleep and I think I knew that I was ashamed enough about what happened, that I lied about my virginity to everyone who wanted to know, I guess. But even to my first boyfriend in college.
So I knew that something bad happened and that I should hide it. But I didn't know it was date rape until we as a culture started talking about it. And it was then that I started processing it. But even then, I buried it so deep that I just pretended like it didn't happen. And in a way it didn't because of how deep I buried it. If I don't talk about it, it doesn't exist in my history.
It was really traumatic. It was very physically and emotionally taxing. I had to go to bed for three days. I didn't leave the house after it was published at all. I remember doing the corrections with the editors as I was going to the opera with my daughter and crying my makeup off as I was reading the edits that the Times wanted. But that was the last thing I did, was take my daughter to see the opera. And then I stayed home and I stayed in bed because I was shaking. Ripping off a 30-something-year-old Band-Aid is a very violent thing to do to yourself.
On ending her memoir by thanking her grandparents for giving her a love of books and cooking
I'm so close to my grandparents because not only did I live with them for that year and a half or two years as a toddler, every summer my mother sent me back for three months to India. So throughout my whole childhood and adolescence, I spent 25 percent of my time in India with them. And my grandmother is a very practical woman and she's not very affectionate. She's not very cuddly like most grandmas are. She grew up in a family with 17 siblings. And so she taught me how to be practical and efficient in the kitchen and how to do things properly. She had a great, great palate and sense of cooking.
So I hung around her and at the hem of her sari, I learned about all of these spices and how to use them and what they did, whether you could taste them or not in any dish, because they were used to balance other things, etc. My grandfather was one of the most well-read people I have ever met in my life to this day. He was somebody who quoted [Henry] Wadsworth [Longfellow] verbatim by heart. He loved books. He loved Shakespeare. He loved Americana. He had traveled through America in the '50s and '60s for work, and so he had a real affinity for American culture.
So through her, I have my skill as a cook and love of food. And through him, I have my love of books and of being a writer. If you asked me, of all the things I do, if I could say what [I am] in one word, I would say, "I hope I'm a writer."
Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Padma Lakshmi, is the host and an executive producer of the cooking competition show "Top Chef." Now she's the creator and host of a new show streaming on Hulu called "Taste The Nation," in which she travels to cities around the U.S., learning how foods from different cultures, including foods brought here by immigrants, contributed to what we think of as American food. Lakshmi goes to Milwaukee to explore German bratwurst and the origins of the hot dog. She learns the West African cooking traditions of the Gullah Geechee in Charleston, S.C., and talks with her mother about finding Indian ingredients and produce in the 1970s when she was raising Lakshmi in Queens, N.Y. Lakshmi's mother came from India to live in the U.S. to escape a difficult marriage. Lakshmi stayed behind with her grandparents in India until she was 4, when her mother was able to send for her.
Lakshmi began her career as a model and actress. She's also a cookbook author and wrote a memoir called "Love, Loss, And What We Ate." In a 2018 New York Times op-ed during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, she wrote about how she was raped at age 16 and explained why, like Christine Blasey Ford, she never reported it to the police. Lakshmi is an ACLU ambassador for women's rights and immigration and a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador.
Let's start with a clip from the first episode of "Taste The Nation," in which Padma Lakshmi travels to the Mexican American border cities of El Paso and Juarez.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TASTE THE NATION")
PADMA LAKSHMI: You can't visit this area without acknowledging what's going on in Washington right now.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: President Trump promised there will be 400 miles of the border wall in the next two years.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Protesters in cities across the U.S. demanded that the Trump administration end its zero tolerance policy at the border.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LAKSHMI: This policy has led to many migrant refugee families being put in cages as they await asylum protection. The border has become the center of a polarizing national argument about immigration policy. But on the ground, the situation is a whole lot more complicated.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LAKSHMI: Inside this tiny kitchen, all of that seems a world away. This is H&H Car Wash and Coffee Shop, recipient of a James Beard Classics award and hands-down the most frequently suggested place for an authentic El Paso meal. Here, immigration isn't a controversial topic. In fact, many of the employees commute from Juarez daily. But no matter which side of the border they wake up on, the women that work here are masters at their craft and the backbone of this business. Today's specialty - chiles rellenos.
GROSS: Padma Lakshmi, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on your new series.
LAKSHMI: Thank you.
GROSS: Let's pick up where the clip left off. How do you explain that how at the same time Mexican food has become so popular in the U.S. - there's, like, a taco or burrito place just about on every block nowadays - and at the same time, Mexicans have been vilified by Trump and he's succeeded in terrifying some people about Mexican Americans coming across the border. Do you have any insight into that contradiction?
LAKSHMI: You know, in that episode, I interview the owner of that car wash and Mexican diner, and he is a Trump supporter. And there is a big disconnect between people's political views or, you know, their traditional voting ways and what they do or how they conduct themselves in their daily lives with their neighbors. And what I'm trying to do with "Taste The Nation" is say that those two things, policy on immigration and people's daily lives in America, are one and the same. And, you know, it's a really big problem.
One of the inspirations for the show was I remember two or three years ago when all this stuff was happening, and, you know, Ted Cruz voted, you know, a lot of the time in the way you would expect Ted Cruz to vote. And yet, he was seen quite often at this Mexican restaurant, and he got heckled and had to leave. And I thought, you shouldn't really be able to eat Mexican food if you're not also willing to welcome Mexicans into the country. And this is the problem. You know, it's always like, well, no, we don't like Mexicans, but we don't mean Jose; we just mean all the other Mexicans. And so people compartmentalize their politics away from their daily interactions, and this is wrong because it affects people all around us.
GROSS: So, you know, you mentioned the restaurant in El Paso, H&H Car Wash and Coffee Shop. And this is a shop that started years ago as a sandwich shop for the people while their car was being washed. And the owner of that shop - his son, who is middle-aged, runs it now. And you interviewed him. His last name is Haddad. He's Syrian. He's not Mexican. He's the person who you mentioned who, like, likes Trump, plans to vote for Trump but, at the same time, has this incredible Mexican restaurant that he owns.
LAKSHMI: Yes. It's kind of crazy. I mean, you know, his father, by the way, snuck into the country from Mexico - this Syrian man. And a lot of people have said, well, why didn't you take him to task for that, you know, disconnect? And, you know, he is more than middle age. He's been sitting in that rocking chair for 63 years. And I just knew that if I did challenge him, even though every bone in my body wanted to, obviously, I would've gotten less information from him. I really wanted to show the complexity and contradictions of this very big issue in our country as it is without trying to, you know, sort of meddle in it.
GROSS: So one of the episodes in your new series is devoted to Indian food and to your mother's cooking. What are some of the foods that you grew up with?
LAKSHMI: I grew up eating dosas, which is featured in that episode, which is a rice and lentil crepe with fermented batter. You know, the south of India doesn't really use wheat. That is usually something that's in the north. And so I grew up with southern Indian foods, but my mother did remarry a North Indian, so we do have North Indian food, too. We ate a lot of beans. We ate a lot of lentils. We ate a lot of vegetables. And then, you know, my mother, for a time, was a single parent here, and there were things that we couldn't get readily in those days, and so she would make do.
And she would buy Cream of Wheat, for example - use a box of Cream of Wheat to make a dish called upma, which sort of has the consistency of stuffing, say, but it's made on the stove. And, you know, I love upma. It's an easy thing to make quickly with some sauteed vegetables. But my mother couldn't find the right type of flour, which is called sooji in Hindi or rava in Tamil, and so she would use Cream of Wheat. When I started making upma, you know, when I was in college, I used couscous. And nowadays, I make upma with quinoa.
And I think immigrant foods are really interesting because they're this third thing. You know, they're not traditionally like the food in the countries of origin, but they're not totally Westernized. And a lot of that, of course, happens because of necessity. When immigrants come here, typically, for the most part, both parents have to work, and, you know, so they streamline the cooking. I remember my mother used to make spaghetti upma, which was just this weird Frankenstein of a dish but that I loved. So we grew up eating a lot of that. I grew up as a vegetarian. You know, we're Hindu Brahmins. And I didn't really eat meat until, I would say, I was a teenager.
GROSS: How did it taste to you the first time you ate it? And what was it?
LAKSHMI: You know, it was a process. It was a long, gradual entrance into carnivorousness. First, I would just eat the pepperoni on top of pizzas. And then I would eat baloney sandwiches or cold cuts, you know, so it was sort of meat denatured, you know? It didn't resemble anything with bones or any animal shape. And then slowly, slowly I started eating hamburgers. And then I started eating hamburgers with bacon. And so it all happened with these, you know, sort of American foods that kids or teenagers like. And I'm still - I mean, obviously on "Top Chef," and on "Taste The Nation" as well, I eat everything on "Top Chef." It's required in my contract because it is a competition show, and so there are certain, you know, rules associated with that. But I'm still pretty squeamish about a lot of different meat products. Like, I don't like organ meat. I would never order a big, bloody steak or tripe, anything like that. I'm not into offal.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Padma Lakshmi, author of the new Hulu series "Taste The Nation." She's also a host and judge and executive producer on the cooking competition series "Top Chef." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOOKER T AND THE MG'S "GREEN ONIONS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Padma Lakshmi. She hosts the new Hulu series "Taste The Nation," in which she travels to cities around the U.S. talking to chefs, home brewers and historians about how foods that immigrants brought with them have changed American food culture. Of course, she does a lot of tasting, too.
Let's talk about the beginning of your professional life. You started modeling in Europe. I think that started, if I understand correctly, when you were an exchange student in Madrid. You were spotted by somebody who thought you'd make a great model. And that's how your career started. I've never been a model, but I've seen a lot of movies where somebody gets spotted and becomes a model. And in some of those movies and TV shows, they actually become a model. In some of the other movies and TV shows, they're taken to a dark room that's really the site of a porn film (laughter) or some kind of...
LAKSHMI: (Laughter) Yes.
GROSS: ...Some kind of pervert who just wants them to get naked. So when you got this invitation to audition or whatever it was, how did you have the confidence that it was legit?
LAKSHMI: Well, I went to a cafe with my friend Santiago Molina, who, you know, had graduated a year before I did. And I went to this bar with him. And the booker from the modeling agency was known to him, first of all. Fernando Moreno (ph) is his name. And he just said I think you can model. But, I mean, I wasn't taken to any dark room. I was asked to go to the modeling agency - to the office - the next day. And so Santiago picked me up at school because, yes, I was an exchange student, and we went to the agency so that I could meet all the other bookers and the owner of the agency. And that's how I started. And I will never forget, you know, right when they took all my measurements and, I mean, this is horrifying, but it was winter and so I hadn't shaved my legs. You know, it was January or something. And I was mortified at my legs. I just - I wish I had known, but I didn't want to say no, so it was a rocky start.
GROSS: Well, when you started modeling, I don't think there were many or maybe even any people of Indian descent modeling in European or American magazines. Were you considered, like, an outsider because of that?
LAKSHMI: I mean, I think that was part of my appeal. You know, I really didn't start to feel attractive until I went to Europe. I knew, you know, I had a pretty face or whatever all growing up. But I didn't feel like I was beautiful or that kind of beautiful until I went to Spain and until this person sort of discovered me, you know, for lack of a better word, and told me that I could model. And that happened a couple of times in my career. You know, it also happened with Helmut Newton because I have a big scar on my arm, which is seven inches long, from a car accident I had at 14. And so, you know, I started modeling before the days of retouching. So I got really good at covering it with makeup.
But still, it didn't dawn on me that I could actually make a living from my looks. So the fact that it happened at all was a shock to me. But I do think that, you know, there weren't any Indian models at all. Maybe there was one here or there. But, you know, I was always the only Indian girl in any casting I went to. And I do think that, you know, a lot of the attention I got was because there were no other Indian models. I mean, since then, there are many Indian models. And they've, you know, done way more work than I ever did as a model. But I think just being the first gave me a little bit of a cachet.
GROSS: You know, you mentioned Helmut Newton. And, you know, he was famous for his - what can I say? - very, like, sexualized poses, often very S&M. He wanted you to show your scar, I think, as opposed to covering it up. What's one of the more unusual poses that he wanted you to take or unusual clothing or lack of clothing (laughter) that he wanted to shoot you in?
LAKSHMI: It's really interesting because when I got the job with Helmut, you know, everyone in the agency in Italy was so happy. It was like, oh, my God, you got booked with Helmut. And as the days wore on and the shoot was going to happen, I started getting nervous because it was supposed to be a nude shoot. And it was, you know, I can't remember - I think it was for a Japanese collector or something. And I just didn't feel comfortable. And so I canceled on Helmut Newton three days before the shoot. And I went from being the most popular girl in the agency to the least likable person (laughter) in the agency because of that, you know, squandering my only chance. But I just didn't feel good about it. And so, you know, that happened. And then he called back, you know, thankfully. And he said, well, OK, she doesn't have to be totally nude. What if she's just partially nude? And you know, she can keep her knickers on. And I was like, OK. And so he had me leaning back on this beautiful vanity at the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo. I was stockinged, and I had a tea cup or a coffee cup, I suppose, on my knee. And you just saw my, you know, the bottom half of my face and my cleavage.
And then I started feeling comfortable with him. He talked a lot about his wife, June, who's also a photographer who I also shot with after that. And he has the air of a very kindly grandfather or uncle. You know, you don't - it's funny. The atmosphere in the studio or room when you're shooting with him was not sexual at all. But he really did like you to arch your body and elongate it. You know, he took a picture of me - it was rainy, so I had this kind of duster jacket that was thigh length. And in one picture he just had me wear the jacket and nothing under it. And you couldn't even see that much, really. And another one he liked my shoes that I walked in with, so I had nothing but shoes on. And I was, you know, naked except for, again, my underwear.
And the pose that he really wanted was me sticking my arm out so that the keloid in my scar - you know, it's a keloid scar, so the texture of the skin is a little more shiny. And he wanted that to catch the light. And you couldn't even see my face in it, which, frankly, was a relief in some ways because, you know, I also have these very conservative relatives all in India. And thank God this was before the Internet because you know, you could do things and get away with them in Europe, and your family would be none the wiser.
GROSS: Did you think it was odd that he actually wanted your scar to be accentuated in the photograph?
LAKSHMI: At first, I found it curious. You know? And I remember I worked with a makeup artist who I've worked with a ton named Antonio Gazzolo (ph), who's sadly passed away now. But you know, I remember him - because I had had a treatment on my scar from the time I was booked to the time I did the job to just take some of the redness out, you know, with a chemical peel. And it was only one inch that the doctor was trying before he went whole-hog, so to speak. And I remember Helmut being really angry and, you know, saying, like, what did you do to your scar? And then he told Antonio to restore the scar with some lipstick of a similar red, fleshy color so that it would look like it did in the Polaroids that his agent sent to him to see what I look like. And so that happened, as well. And I remember Antonio saying this is a crazy business. You know?
It was also the moment of grunge, where there were a lot of tattoos and things like that. So you know, I was happy that he loved my scar. This scar that I always tried to hide, this scar that always made me feel self-conscious all through my adolescence was what this famous fashion photographer thought was really cool and beautiful. And it really changed my opinion of my own body. It was a real lesson in self-esteem. And it was sort of the start of a journey of self-acceptance for me. You know, it's really funny because when you're a brown person and you live in a white world and you see nothing but white images on billboards, on the covers and inside magazines, on TV - you know, you kind of internalize a subconscious self-loathing about your skin color.
And of course, in Indian culture, there's a ton of colorism. You know, I remember my grandmother always admonishing me to take an umbrella outside so that I wouldn't get too much sun. We kids were - especially the girls - were discouraged from going out into the sun to play from the hours of 11:30 to 4:30. And to this day, I still have a problem sitting in the sun or playing, you know, or swimming in the sun because I just feel like it doesn't seem right. I mean, on the one hand, I think it saved me because I don't have a lot of sun damage, you know, for my age. But on the other hand, you know, those things that get told to you as you're a young girl and a teenager, they stick with you all your life. And now, you know, at almost 50 years of age, I feel so much better about my body. And I feel better about my physical self than I ever have.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Padma Lakshmi. Her new Hulu series is called "Taste The Nation." She's also the host and an executive producer on "Top Chef." We'll talk more after this break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Padma Lakshmi. She has a new food series streaming on Hulu called "Taste The Nation," in which she travels to cities around the country talking about and tasting foods that were brought here by immigrants and that have shaped American food culture. She cooks with her mother in the episode about Indian food. Lakshmi came to America from India when she was 4. She's also the author of cookbooks and a memoir and is a host and judge on the cooking competition series "Top Chef." She started her career as a model and actress. When we left off, we were talking about how photographer Helmut Newton found the long scar on her arm beautiful. The scar was from a car accident when she was 14 and still healing from a painful, blistering, rare skin condition called Stevens-Johnson Syndrome.
So, you know, I had mentioned that you were in a car accident when you were 14. What happened in the accident?
LAKSHMI: We were driving on a Sunday, and we were on the highway, and we were rear-ended, and we fell down an embankment, and we were trapped in the car. We were cut out of the car by something called the jaws of life, you know, which are big, huge metal cutters. And my parents were airlifted to one hospital, and I was taken by ambulance to another. I fractured my hip and I broke my right upper arm, or humerus bone. I also broke my hand because, at some point, my hand went through the windshield. I don't know if it was to save us or whatever. My mother broke five ribs and her sternum and her arm as well. And my stepfather broke his leg in four places and his hip in two.
GROSS: That sounds so horrible.
LAKSHMI: It was horrible. We were all home-bound and in bed for months afterwards.
GROSS: Who took care of you? None of you could take care of each other.
LAKSHMI: We had one-to-one nursing that was around the clock, and my mother was brought home and had a hospital bed for months after the car accident and after she had come out of the hospital. It was horrible. And, you know, it happened exactly two days after I got out of the hospital with Stevens-Johnson Syndrome. And the only reason my mother took me out is because she's a religious Hindu woman, and she promised that she would do penance by performing a ceremony at the Hindu Temple, which was 50 miles from where we lived. And on the way back from the temple, we had this car accident. It was horrible.
GROSS: Did that make her lose faith?
LAKSHMI: No, but it made me lose faith (laughter), you know? My mother is amazing. She, all her life, got up at 5:30 in the morning and prayed and lit incense and read from the Ramayana. And then she cooked some of our dinner, and then got ready for her shift at the hospital, and then came home after a full shift and cooked and all that stuff that women do when we have to.
GROSS: But you lost your faith?
LAKSHMI: Yeah, I mean, I - is that a cat I'm hearing?
GROSS: Yes, that's my cat Rowdy (ph) in the background. I think he's hungry.
LAKSHMI: OK (laughter). So I did lose faith. I mean, I think I always vaguely believed in God, and I went to the temple when my mother took me, but I've always been a very secular person. But, you know, I actually did a Moth story about this, about the car accident and losing my faith. I didn't know what to make of it. I couldn't understand a god that would make me so sick and then allow me to get out of the hospital only to go right back in in such a traumatic and violent way. It was a very, very, very bad car accident. I mean, if you saw the pictures of the car afterward, your stomach would turn. You would think no one could get out of that car accident alive, and yet, here we are.
GROSS: How did you go from being a model and then an actress to food - to writing about food and hosting TV shows about food?
LAKSHMI: I never intended to have a career in food. I didn't know anybody who did, so it never crossed my mind. I always loved to cook. You know, I was a theater major and an American lit major. And afterwards, I modeled because I started doing it for the money, and it allowed me to pay off all my college loans, which were quite significant. And then, I started auditioning. And when I did my first movie, it was a costume drama, and I played an Indigenous woman. I was friendly with some actors who had been to my home and had eaten my food and then had a meeting at Miramax, actually. And, you know, then I went to this premiere, and they said, oh, I think I've heard of you. Are you a model? Did you cook? Do you have a scar on your arm? I said yes, and they said, oh, they said you were a really good cook. I just happened to be with these people.
And I said, yeah, it's always been a fantasy of mine to write a cookbook because I would always carry a spiral notebook when I went to relatives' houses, and I would always jot down recipes. And I always collected - if I had any disposable income, I would use it to buy cookbooks in my teens and 20s. And so I said, OK. And I was terrified because I had never written anything, you know, beyond an article for my school paper. And so I wrote three recipes. I remember I typed three recipes out. I didn't even have a computer then. I did this on an electric typewriter. I made one of the recipes with my mother, put it in a Tupperware dish, and then I wrote an essay - like, literally a school paper - about why I love cooking. And I took that, and I flew to New York, and I went straight to the publisher's office, and I presented the publisher with the recipe. I said, you know, just eat this tonight, warm it up in the microwave. And I handed it to her, and that is how I got my publishing contract.
You know, I don't think that they thought I was going to make some big splash in publishing or the food world. I think it was a marketing ploy. I think, you know, they wanted to capitalize on the fact that everyone does want to know what a model eats. And the truth is, models are freaks of nature. We are not normal people. And we're just born this way because of a genetic cocktail that our parents gave to us. You know, most of us have a really high metabolism.
GROSS: Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Padma Lakshmi, host and creator of the new Hulu series "Taste The Nation." She's also host on the cooking competition series Top Chef, and is an executive producer of the show. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BERNARD PURDIE'S "KEEP ON SHINING")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Padma Lakshmi. She hosts the new Hulu series "Taste The Nation," which she also created. In the series, she travels to cities around the U.S. and talks to chefs, home brewers and historians about how foods that immigrants have brought with them have shaped American food culture.
So let's talk more about your early background. Your mother came to the U.S. to escape a difficult marriage. You were 2. She left you behind with your grandparents until she could really get settled here and be confident that she could take care of you and support you. By the time she brought you over, you were 4. Do you remember being 2 years old when she went to America? - because I'm not sure I remember anything when I was 2. I always think my memory started somewhere around when I was 3. But I don't really know.
LAKSHMI: I don't remember the day she left. But I remember sitting at the gate of the compound where my grandparents' house was. You know, they lived in a building, in an apartment building. And it had a sort of, you know, big gate. And I remember sitting there. And I remember my grandmother having to keep coming and bring me inside and saying, it's getting late. What are you doing just sitting here by yourself?
And I remember waiting for my mom to come home from the office in America, you know, that she was going to this place to work in America - that's how I pronounced America - and that she would be home like everybody else, eventually, from work. I don't think I understood that America was a different country that was far away. And so I do remember just that gate. I remember the way that the cement step felt and sitting there because there was this bush with berries. And I remember picking those berries a lot.
GROSS: When she did bring you to the U.S., did you recognize her? Did you feel like you knew who she was? Or did you have to get to know who she was?
LAKSHMI: That's a great question. I was very excited to be joined with my mother. I came as an unaccompanied minor. You know, those days, you could do that. And I got to America. And I remember her standing there with a friend, with a male friend. I don't remember at all now what he looked like. But I remember she had a knitted blanket, sort of a crocheted blanket, slung over her arm. And I remember walking to her. And that is my first memory of being reunited with my mother. But I think I instantly remembered her or was willing to take for granted that I was close to her. I don't think there was any emotional reentry.
GROSS: So when you joined your mother in New York, was she living alone? Had she remarried or anything? What was your family life like?
LAKSHMI: She was living alone. She had a small apartment on the Upper East Side of New York City. And she showed me around the apartment. She showed me how to use bathroom tissue because in India we use water. So that was a change. The doorbell kept ringing because I arrived on Halloween night. And I saw this big platter of candy that I assumed was in celebration of me coming home. And she explained, you know, the concept of Halloween. And I thought, gosh, what a wonderful country, you know? You just dress up and they give you candy, anybody, even strangers.
GROSS: So when you were 7, at this point you had a stepfather. And his brother, which was, like, your step-uncle, touched you between your legs. And you told your mother. And then she sent you back to India. What was her reason for sending you away? And what was your interpretation as a child of why you were being sent away?
LAKSHMI: I think my mom just wanted to get me out of the situation quickly. You know, she was also studying for her master's degree at night. And she was a nurse in the daytime. I mean, that was her day job. And, you know, I think, now, if you talk to her, she would tell you, I should have kicked him out of our house. But I don't think that my stepfather ever believed me. I remember talking to him about it and being very nervous. But I think that they got divorced because he, you know, didn't believe that this was the case.
So I was on a plane, very quickly, to India, where I stayed for a year and a half. I, you know, did all of third grade and part of fourth grade in India. And my impression was that I spoke up about what happened to me. And I was sent away. You know, as a 7-year-old, that is what it felt like. That is the evidence I had, you know? If my mother said, I'm sending you away just to keep you safe, it certainly didn't go in in any deep way. And so I think, you know, that went very deep. That experience really left its mark for a whole host of reasons.
I think, you know, now, my mother carries so much guilt about not only that episode, but of having to leave me in India from the ages of 2 and 4, where I didn't see either of my parents. I have no connection to my biological father. They separated when I was 1. And they legally divorced when I was 2. So you know, to me, my grandparents functioned - and my grandmother still functions - as parents more than grandparents. And I'm very close to all my family in India. And I still go back very often. I think my mother, like most parents, did the best she could. But it was hard.
GROSS: Was one of the lessons that you took away from this that if something happens to you, you should keep it a secret?
LAKSHMI: I think one of the lessons that I learned and internalized was that you shouldn't make waves, you know? You'll just make it worse. And I think a lot of women feel like that about this topic. I also think a lot of immigrants don't want to give any excuse or give no quarter for being dismissed or, you know, not having an opportunity or not being able to stay in the country. I think both those things were at work.
GROSS: So did you return to your home in America after your mother divorced?
LAKSHMI: Yes, I did. In fact, when I returned, my mother had moved from Queens into Manhattan, back to the Upper East Side, you know, exactly two blocks from where her old apartment was. She worked at Sloan Kettering. And at that time, they had subsidized housing. So that's where we were.
GROSS: Why don't we take another break here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Padma Lakshmi, host of the new Hulu series "Taste The Nation." She's also the creator of the series. And she's host and an executive producer on the series "Top Chef." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LULLATONE'S "ALL THE OPTIMISM OF EARLY JANUARY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Padma Lakshmi. She hosts the new Hulu series, "Taste The Nation," in which she travels to cities around the U.S. learning how foods that immigrants brought with them have shaped American food culture. When we left off, we were talking about the years she spent growing up in India and America. Her mother sent her back to India when she was 7 to protect her after Lakshmi told her mother that Lakshmi's step-uncle had touched her inappropriately. I want to let our listeners know that this next part of our interview contains very brief but disturbing account of how Lakshmi was sexually assaulted when she was a teenager.
I want to jump ahead to 2018, when you wrote an op-ed in The New York Times during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings when Christine Blasey Ford was being challenged because people were saying, including President Trump, that if this really had happened to her, if what she accused Brett Kavanaugh of doing really happened, she would have reported it to the police - if he jumped on top of her and put her hand over her mouth and nearly choked her, strangled her.
So you wrote an op-ed piece in which you came out as having been date-raped when you were 16 by the 23-year-old that you were dating. And you didn't tell anyone. And you didn't go to the police. And you said, so you absolutely understood why she wouldn't have done it. I was wondering if the incident from when you were 7 added to your unwillingness to talk with anybody about what had happened to you when you were 16.
LAKSHMI: It definitely weighed on me. I don't think it weighed consciously on me. Like, I didn't sit there and think about it. But, of course, it did. You know, I was a 16-year-old dating a 23-year-old - already questionable. It was New Year's Eve. And we had gone out. And then I was in his apartment. So I had just laid down to rest. And I woke up to him on top of me trying to penetrate me. And it was very painful. And so I really didn't feel I had any leg to stand on. I mean, what was I going to complain about and to whom? You know, I don't know what would have happened if I had.
You know, I'm also talking about 1986. And the term date rape was nowhere in anybody's vocabulary in '86. And I think that is really important to remember as well. I don't know if I registered it as rape at the moment. It was certainly traumatic. You know, I don't think my 16-year-old self identified that as date rape until later.
GROSS: When you did hear the word date rape for the first time, was it helpful to you to hear that word and to have that concept?
LAKSHMI: It was very helpful to me because I thought there was something I did to invite that, which I obviously hadn't. I was asleep. And I think - I knew that I was ashamed enough about what happened that I lied about my virginity, you know, to everyone who wanted to know, I guess, but, you know, even to my first boyfriend in college. I knew that something bad happened and that I should hide it. But I didn't know it was date rape until, you know, we as a culture started talking about it. And it was then that I started processing it. But even then, I buried it so deep that, you know, I just pretended like it didn't happen. And in a way, it didn't, you know, because of how deep I buried it. If I don't talk about it, it doesn't exist in my history.
GROSS: So what was it like for you to write the op-ed and have everybody know about it?
LAKSHMI: It was really traumatic. It was very physically and emotionally taxing. I had to go to bed for three days. I didn't leave the house after it was published. And I remember doing the corrections with the edit as I was going to the opera with my daughter and crying my makeup off as I was reading the edits that The Times wanted. But that was the last thing I did was take my daughter to see the opera. And then I stayed home. And I stayed in bed because I was shaking. And, you know, ripping off a 30-something-year-old Band-Aid is a very violent thing to do to yourself.
GROSS: I'm just trying to process some of the things that have happened to you physically over the course of your life.
LAKSHMI: Yeah. It's a lot (laughter).
GROSS: It's a lot. Yeah. So let's just - I'm just trying to process this. So you know, like, you're from India. So you looked a little different from a lot of the kids who you grew up with. You had a bad car accident when you were around 14. And right before that, you had, like, a rare illness where you break out into blisters on your body. Correct me if I'm wrong about that. Then you became a model...
LAKSHMI: That's right.
GROSS: ...Like, cherished, prized for your beauty, you know, photographed by famous photographers. But, you know, you were also inappropriately touched when you were 7. You were date-raped when you were 16. And then you've also founded - or co-founded the Endometriosis Foundation of America because you have endometriosis. And it took literally decades before you were correctly diagnosed. You've had several surgeries. It's a painful disease. You had chronic pain, especially for one week a month during many years of your life. And you didn't understand why.
So there's this kind of contrast between what was happening to you physically and the pain that you experienced through accidents and surgeries and illness and the beauty that launched your career as a model and actress. And you are still, like, very beautiful. And you're on TV a lot.
LAKSHMI: Thank you.
GROSS: Yeah. But I'm wondering if there is also a disconnect for you between what people saw when they saw you in a magazine or on screen - and what they saw was beauty - and what you felt about the inside of your body, which, in so many ways, had caused you literal pain.
LAKSHMI: Yeah. It was a disconnect. I mean, there - it really was. I mean, I just would get dressed up and go out and do the red carpet or whatever I had to do. And then I would just come home and throw off my heels and crumple in bed with a heating pad and take, you know, lots of pain medication. But I knew when my period was coming. And so I wouldn't take modeling jobs at that time.
So I knew not to take any major appointments or anything important during that week. And I would just make excuses to change the schedule because nobody wants to talk about their period all the time and say, I can't do this because my period's coming. You don't want to be left out or not considered for jobs, you know, because you can't handle a basic function of women's reproduction that every other woman can.
GROSS: I should ask you what endometriosis is because I think a lot of our listeners probably won't know.
LAKSHMI: Endometriosis is a condition where a woman cannot dispel all of her uterine lining - or the endometrium - through her menstrual cycle every month. So the body reabsorbs what it cannot expel through the period. And that tissue becomes reanimate and sticks to all the organs and reproductive system and wreaks all kinds of havoc. It's like rings on a tree. So every month, there's more deposits. And so when your uterus contracts to try to get rid of that lining, it hurts because, all of a sudden, there's leftover tissue. It's very painful. It's one of the three main causes of infertility in women.
GROSS: Your memoir from a few years ago ends with you thanking your grandparents for instilling in you the love of books and cooking. Tell us a little bit about that.
LAKSHMI: My grandmother is a very practical woman. She's not very affectionate. She's not, you know, very cuddly like most grandmas are. She grew up in a family with 17 siblings. And so she taught me how to be practical and efficient in the kitchen and how to do things properly. And she had a great, great palate and sense of cooking. And so I hung around her. And at the hem of her sari, I learned about all of these spices and how to use them and what they did.
My grandfather was one of the most well-read people I have ever met in my life to this day. He was somebody who quoted Wadsworth, you know, verbatim by heart. He loved books. He loved Shakespeare. He loved Americana. He had traveled through America in the '50s and '60s for work. And so he had a real affinity for American culture. And so you know, through her, I have my skill as a cook and love of food. And through him, I have my love of books and of being a writer. You know, if you asked me, you know - of all the things I do - if I could say what am I in one word, I would say, I hope, I'm a writer.
GROSS: Well, I've enjoyed reading your writing. Padma Lakshmi, thank you very much for talking with us. And I hope you and your daughter stay well.
LAKSHMI: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure talking with you, Terry.
GROSS: Padma Lakshmi is the creator and host of the new Hulu food series "Taste The Nation." She's also the host and an executive producer of "Top Chef." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Larry Tye, author of a new book about Senator Joe McCarthy and how in the 1950s he used fearmongering, guilt by association, political double-dealing and bullying in his reckless accusations against Americans he alleged were communists. Tye got exclusive access to McCarthy's personal papers and medical records. And Tye was the first journalist to take a deep dive into transcripts of McCarthy's subcommittee hearings that were not held in public. Tye says Donald Trump learned a lot from the McCarthy playbook. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF ENNIO MORRICONE'S "DEBORAH'S THEME")
GROSS: We'll close today's show with music by Ennio Morricone. He died today. He was 91. He wrote the scores for about 500 films, received two Oscars and was best known for the music he composed for Sergio Leone movies, including "The Good, The Bad And The Ugly," "Once Upon A Time In America" and "Once Upon A Time In The West." We'll close with his music from "Once Upon A Time In America." I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF ENNIO MORRICONE'S "DEBORAH'S THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.