Padma Lakshmi Talks about Family Recipes and Her Brand-New Picture Book With Us
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Padma Lakshmi — supermodel, cookbook author, host and executive producer of Top Chef and Taste the Nation — was inspired to write her debut picture book, “Tomatoes for Neela,” from “telling a story to my child so that she would know when things grew in seasons,” she said. “This is a story that I told to her over years and years.” The book is a celebration of a family’s food culture and the passing down of recipes; a primer on tomatoes; a manifesto to eat locally; and a gentle portrait of a single-parent home. Caldecott honoree Juana Martinez-Neal’s warm and detailed illustrations are the perfect complement to this tale of intergenerational love.
Cubby spoke to Lakshmi about cooking with her daughter and mother, the practice of writing recipes, and balancing her creative pursuits with parenting. Here’s what this food icon had to say:
“Tomatoes for Neela” is your first picture book. What were the challenges and discoveries of writing in this genre?
I wanted a story that could be universal. I had to be mindful that not all 4- to 8-year-olds are the same. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t think that what worked for my daughter would work for all kids because every child is different. I counted a lot on my editor who was wonderful and thoughtful about the text and also the back matter. We tried to balance a lot that parents could share with their children or do with their children. My hope is that the book inspires families to come together, to note down recipes that are special to their family, and to have respect for where their food comes from and who’s bringing it to them.
“Tomatoes for Neela” is a story of a child, her mother, and her mother’s mother. It’s a matrilineal story, a quietly feminist story. Was that intentional? If so, why?
I was just writing from my own experience. This is what happens in my house. I wonder if it will alienate male children or non-binary children or fathers, but it isn’t meant to exclude anybody. My family is very women-centric: This is the story of my life and my home and all the parameters that exist around that.
Everybody has wisdom to impart to a child’s education. It’s important to have voices from different generations to contribute to a child’s learning. We’re all so busy in our isolated and siloed lives that often we don’t have time or the bandwidth to think about connecting, but it can be as simple as a Skype or FaceTime call to our relatives. Just prop up that iPad or phone in the kitchen to include that person!
This is something I learned very deeply firsthand during quarantine. I missed my mom. [There’s a] video of a chat on my Instagram: I’m FaceTiming my mom and she’s teaching me how to make pakoras. I never made pakoras because it’s always a big oily mess, so I always let my mom do it. I technically know how to make them, but my mom is better at it. With great humility, I was like, “Okay. I’m going to the source.’ That was the the inspiration behind including that third generation — the grandma in India is involved and connected.
What do you hope young readers take away from Neela’s story?
I hope young readers become inspired to cook more and learn about how to make the foods that they enjoy. Anytime you get a child interested in the food they’re eating, you give them the gift of good food and nutrition. I hope the book stokes an interest in cooking together in the kitchen not only as an activity, but also as a daily ritual, a matter of practice.
I hope that families who read this book together realize that all their stories and their foods are important. We make tomato sauce and tomato chutney, but others make tomato soup. A third [family] makes tomato egg drop soup. I want to encourage parents to buy a notebook for their kids so that they get into the practice. Writing recipes is a great way to teach children about spelling, about fractions, about organizing their thoughts in sequential order, about explaining something clearly to someone else.
How has parenting influenced your creative journey?
It’s much harder to be creative and be disciplined when you’re a parent. I’m a single parent, and when you have an only child, they don’t have the socialization with siblings built in. Either you have to get up early in the morning or you have to put your kids to bed or give them a video or invite a friend over for them to be with, and then really prioritize your time.
And then, of course, the spirit doesn’t necessarily move you from 9 to 11 at night. That’s not how creative thought works! It just comes when it comes, and so it’s really more important to be super organized and create space for that creative spirit to move you. It’s a practice. You really do have to sit your butt in the chair for X amount of hours. If nothing is coming to you to write on that keyboard or notepad, then you have to read something. You have to stimulate your mind in whatever way. [Creativity] takes some deep concentration, and that’s hard when you have little ones tugging at you.