Padma Lakshmi children’s book serves up memories, food advice and recipes

NEW YORK – Neela is a young girl who loves to cook with her mother. Saturday is her favorite weekday. That’s the day they go to the green market.

This is how Padma Lakshmi’s charming introduction to the world of the children’s book “Tomatoes For Neela” begins, which combines the author’s memories of the family kitchen with practical food tips, an allusion to the farm workers and even two recipes.

“It’s just a very small personal story about a young single mother who, like me, writes recipes,” says Lakshmi, host of Bravo’s “Top Chef” and “Taste the Nation” on Hulu. “It’s just about teaching kids to cook from an early age, respecting Mother Nature and eating when it’s season.”

Neela and her mother make a sauce from tomatoes they bought at the green market and make enough to pour in a few for the winter to share with grandmother the next time she comes from India. Meanwhile, the grandmother looks down from framed photos that are spiritually present. Neela carefully writes down all the recipes.

This cover photo, published by Viking Books for Young Readers, shows Tomatoes for Neela, a children’s book by Padma Lakshmi with illustrations by Juana Martinez-Neal. The book mixes the author’s memories of cooking with her family with practical nutrition tips, a reference to the farm workers and even two recipes. AP

There is also a lesson in tomato history where Neela talks about the origin of the fruit in Latin America and that some cultures actually feared it. She learns that different types – like heirlooms or cherries – are good for different dishes. She uses plum tomatoes to make her sauce because they have fewer seeds.

“My grandmother and mother taught me so much about life, culture and being human in the world through eating. And so I hope that with this book I can encourage families to actively cook together, to appreciate the recipes they have made for their family celebrations, and also to remember all the different people who bring us our food and to take care of our environment, ”says Lakshmi.

The words come to life with beautiful artwork by Juana Martinez-Neal, who received a Caldecott Honor for “Alma and How She Got Her Name”. Lakshmi shared an online folder of family photos to make Neela and her mother look like the author and daughter.

Full of life, texture and movement, her images give the reader a sense of a busy kitchen full of love, with warm smells and mom’s bangles that create a gentle rhythm as you cut.

“My grandmother and mother taught me so much about life, culture and being human in the world through eating.” – Padma Lakshmi

“It might feel like something very flat and two-dimensional, but we tried to make it a full, sensual experience – we have sound, we have taste. We have the feeling of everything, ”says Martinez-Neal.

The idea of ​​adding farm workers to the book came about at the suggestion of Martinez-Neal. “It’s so easy to forget who is doing this job,” she says. Lakshmi loved the idea and added context and reference material about farm workers at the end of the book.

“We often don’t think about the many hands that influence our diet and our daily life. And what the pandemic showed us is how valuable everyone is in the food chain and how they should be valued, ”says Lakshmi.

The germ of the book was sparked when Lakshmi’s real daughter Krishna came home a few years ago longing for a pomegranate. It was summer and her mother explained that pomegranates grow in autumn. It was now tomato season.

“I wanted to talk about when fruits and vegetables grew in season because when you’re a kid and you have everything available all the time, you don’t know why we should be eating certain things at a certain time,” she says. “Mother Nature has a plan that we should live with in harmony.”

On the last page, Lakshmi dedicated the book to her daughter, “who gives everything a meaning”, a fitting thank you for a work by two artists who celebrate their families with food.

“It’s a very autobiographical book,” says Lakshmi. “I’m not a children’s author. I have no experience writing for this audience other than making up stories for my own child before bed. So I had to write about something I knew. “

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