Padma Lakshmi children’s book features souvenirs, food tips and recipes
NEW YORK – Neela is a young girl who loves to cook with her mother. Saturday is her favorite day of the week. This is the day they go to the green market.
Thus begins Padma Lakshmi’s charming entry into the world of children’s books, “Tomatoes for Neela”, which mixes the author’s memories of home cooking with practical dietary advice, a nod to farm workers and even a pair of recipes.
“It’s just a very small personal story that revolves around a young single mom who’s also a recipe writer like me,” says Lakshmi, host of “Top Chef” from Bravo and “Taste the Nation” on Hulu. “It’s really about teaching kids to cook from an early age, respecting Mother Nature and eating when things are in season.
Neela and her mother make a sauce with tomatoes bought from the green market and create enough to pot for the winter, keeping it to share with Grandma on her next visit to India. Meanwhile, the grandmother looks down from framed photos, present in the spirit. Neela carefully writes all the recipes.
There’s also a lesson on the history of the tomato, with Neela discussing the origin of the fruit in Latin America and how some cultures actually feared them. She learns that different types – like heirlooms or cherries – are suitable for different dishes. She uses plum tomatoes to make her sauce because they have fewer seeds.
“Thanks to the food, my grandmother and my mother taught me so much about life and culture and about being a person in the world. And so I hope that through this book, I can encourage families to actively cook together, to value the recipes they have prepared for their family reunions and also to remember all the different people who bring us our food. and be mindful of our surroundings, ”says Lakshmi.
Words come to life with beautiful works of art by Juana Martinez-Neal, who received a Caldecott honor for “Alma and how she got her name”. Lakshmi shared an online file of family photos to help Neela and her mother look like the author and her daughter, while Martinez-Neal drew on her own memories of going to Peruvian markets to shop for fresh produce to recreate a lively green market.
Her images are full of life, texture, and movement, making the reader feel like a bustling kitchen full of love, with warm smells and mom’s bracelets creating a gentle rhythm as she slices.
“It might look like something very flat and two-dimensional, but we tried to bring it to a full sensory experience – we have the sound, we have the taste. We have the feel of everything,” says Martinez- Neal.
The idea to add farm workers to the book came from a suggestion from Martinez-Neal. “It’s so easy to forget who is doing this job,” she says. Lakshmi loved the idea and added some background and background material on farm workers at the end of the book.
“Often, we don’t consider the many hands that have an impact on our food, on our daily life. And what the pandemic has shown us is how valuable everyone in the food chain is and how they should be valued, ”Lakshmi said.
The seed of the book was unleashed when Lakshmi’s real daughter Krishna came home several years ago with the urge for a pomegranate. It was summer and her mother explained that pomegranates grow in the fall. It was now tomato season.
“I wanted to talk about when fruits and vegetables were growing in season because, if you are a kid and everything is available to you all the time, you have no way of knowing why we should be eating certain things at a certain time. moment, ”she said. . “Mother Nature has a plan with which we must live in harmony. “
On the last page, Lakshmi dedicated the book to his daughter “who makes sense of everything,” a fitting thank you for a work of two female artists who celebrate their families through food.
“It’s an extremely autobiographical book,” says Lakshmi. “I am not a children’s author. I have no experience in writing for this audience beyond making up bedtime stories for my own child. So I needed to write about something I knew.