Neela, a young girl, loves to cook with her mom. Saturday is her favourite day of the week. This is the day they visit the green market.
So begins Padma Lakshmi’s charming entry into the world of children’s book, “Tomatoes For Neela,” which mixes the author’s memories of family cooking with practical food advice, a nod to farmworkers and even a pair of recipes.
Lakshmi, the host on Bravo’s Top Chef and Taste the Nation on Hulu says that “it is just a very personal story that centers round a young single mom who also happens to be a recipe writer like myself.” It’s about teaching children how cook, respecting Mother Nature, and when to eat.
Neela and her mother make a tomato sauce from tomatoes purchased from the green market. They also make enough for some to be jarred for winter to give to grandmother when she visits from India. The grandmother looks down at framed photos and savours them. Neela meticulously writes down all the recipes.
Neela talks about tomato history and how some cultures fear them. Different types, such as cherry or heirloom tomatoes, are suitable for different dishes. Because plum tomatoes have fewer seeds, she uses them to make her sauce.
My grandmother and mother, through food, taught me so many things about life, culture, and being a human in this world. Lakshmi says that she hopes that this book will encourage families to cook together, to appreciate the family recipes they have been using, and to also be mindful of their environment.
The words are brought to life with beautiful artwork by Juana Martinez-Neal, who was awarded a Caldecott Honor for “Alma and How She Got Her Name.” Lakshmi shared an online folder of family photos to help make Neela and her mom resemble the author and her daughter, while Martinez-Neal tapped into her own memories of going to markets in Peru for fresh produce to recreate a bustling green market.
Her images are alive with texture and movement. They give the reader a feeling of a bustling kitchen filled of love. Warm smells and mom’s bangles create a gentle rhythm as she cuts.
It could feel very flat and two-dimensional. But we tried to make it a full sensory experience. We have sound, taste, and touch. Martinez-Neal says that we have all the feeling of it.
Martinez-Neal suggested the idea of including farmworkers in the book. Martinez-Neal suggested that the book include farmworkers. She says, “It’s easy to forget who’s doing that work.” Lakshmi loved this idea and provided context and additional information about farmworkers at book’s end.
“We don’t often consider all the hands that impact our diets and our daily lives. Lakshmi says that the pandemic has demonstrated how valuable each person in the food chain and how they should all be valued.
Lakshmi’s real daughter, Krishna, returned home from school many years ago begging for a pomegranate. Her mother explained to her that pomegranates are best grown in the fall. It was now the time for tomatoes.
She says, “I wanted to discuss when fruits and veggies grew in season because, as a child, you don’t have any way of knowing why certain foods should be eaten at certain times.” Mother Nature has a plan we should follow.
Lakshmi, on the last page of the book, dedicated it to her daughter “who has meaning to everything.” This is a fitting thank you for the work of two female artists who celebrate their families through food.
Lakshmi says, “It’s an enormously autobiographical novel.” “I’m not a children’s author. Beyond making up stories for my child at bedtime, I have never written for children’s audiences. “So I had to write about something that I was familiar with.”