Sharing her journey from celebrity chef to first-time children’s book author, Padma Lakshmi sat down with Viking Children’s Books editorial director Tamar Brazis to discuss the forthcoming release of her debut picture book, Tomatoes for Neela (Aug. 31). Their conversation took place on Thursday, May 27 from 12:30–1 p.m. ET during the U.S. Book Show, presented by Publishers Weekly.
The idea for Lakshmi’s book came to fruition when, much to her chagrin, Lakshmi’s young daughter asked for fresh pomegranates in July. “I was horrified; it’s high summer and you don’t eat them until it’s cold,” she said with a laugh. Upon realizing that many children may not understand the origin of what they are eating, she decided to put pen to paper.
“I wanted to create a story that taught my daughter about respecting the seasons, knowing when different things grew and also where our food comes from,” she told Brazis. Having grown up in both the United States and India (where she spent her childhood summers), Lakshmi saw this book as an opportunity to take their weekly jaunts to the local farmer’s market and create a story that celebrates her Indian heritage, family and their shared love of food.
Planting the Seeds
For as long as Lakshmi can remember, she has maintained a personal library of cloth-covered notebooks containing recipes that she created with her mother and grandmother in their respective kitchens. “There was a big difference in their cooking styles and I wanted to make sure I recorded those,” she said. “I added recipes each time we cooked, so we wouldn’t forget the nuances of what we created and why we liked it.” When her daughter decided to turn a journal she had been given into her own recipe book, Lakshmi realized she could start a tradition that would bridge the gap between generations. “For our relatives who couldn’t be here, it brought a pantheon into the kitchen,” she added.
In Tomatoes for Neela, the story hinges on the relationship between mother and daughter going to the market and their emotional connection to the girl’s grandmother who lives in India. Lakshmi’s own grandparents played an influential part in her writing: her grandfather for instilling a love of books, and her grandmother as a pragmatic cook who created memorable meals for a large family on a two-burner stove. Tomatoes also play a starring role in this book—not only as a ubiquitous ingredient in Indian cuisine, but for their place in Lakshmi’s cultural (and culinary) assimilation; she loves to add an ice-cold slice of beefsteak tomato to her BLT. In her book, Lakshmi shares easy-to-assemble dishes with young readers, including recipes for tomato sauce and tomato chutney.
Also included are fun facts about tomatoes and a tribute to the farmers who harvest the beloved vegetable—an idea that was suggested by the book’s illustrator, Juana Martinez-Neal. Lakshmi recognizes the disconnect between the tomato on the dinner table and the hands that picked it. “This book is an attempt to shorten that distance. Those people deserve to be paid well and to have safe conditions,” she said.
While Lakshmi has already established a presence in the cookbook space, she is excited about entering the children’s book market. A lifelong reader, she recalls N.M. Bodecker’s book of nonsense poetry, Let’s Marry Said the Cherry, whose title poem she knows by heart. “The books I have the most connection to are kids’ books. If you can influence a child’s growth that way, your work will be really meaningful,” she enthused.
Having relished the entire process of watching her first book for young readers come together, Lakshmi hopes that Tomatoes for Neela will not be her last. Her fervent hope is that this book not only helps kids become more interested in their food and where it comes from, but that they’ll ultimately develop a healthy mind and body. “If a child grows up to be a person who is interested in what they feed themselves, you will give them an appreciation about their own nutrition that will supersede your presence in their lives,” she said.