NEW YORK – Neela is a young girl who loves cooking with her mom. Saturday is her favorite day of the week. That’s the day they go to 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.
“It is just a very small personal story that centers around a young single mother who also is a recipe writer like me,” says Lakshmi, the host of Bravo’s “Top Chef” and “Taste the Nation” on Hulu. “It’s just really about teaching children how to cook from an early age, respecting Mother Nature and eating when things are in season.”
Neela and her mom make a sauce using tomatoes bought from the green market and create enough to jar some for winter, saving it to share with grandmother when she next visits from India. In the meantime, the grandmother gazes down from framed photos, present in spirt. Neela carefully writes down all the recipes.
There’s also a lesson in tomato history, with Neela discussing the fruit’s origin in Latin America and that some cultures actually feared them. She learns that different types – like heirlooms or cherry – are good for various dishes. She uses plum tomatoes to make her sauce because they have less seeds.
“Through food, my grandmother and my mother taught me so much about life and culture and being a person in the world. And so I’m hoping that, through this book, I can encourage families to actively cook together, to value the recipes that they’ve been making for their family get togethers and also to remember all of the different people who bring us our food and to be mindful of our environment,” says Lakshmi.
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 full of life and textures and movement, giving the reader a sense of a busy kitchen full of love, with warm smells and mom’s bangles creating a gentle rhythm as she slices.
“It could feel like something very flat and two dimensional, but we tried to bring it to a full, sensory experience – we have sound, we have taste. We have the feel of everything,” says Martinez-Neal.
The idea of adding farmworkers to the book came from a suggestion by Martinez-Neal. “It’s so easy to forget who is doing that work,” she says. Lakshmi loved the idea and added context and reference material about farmworkers at the end of the book.
“We often don’t consider the many hands that have an impact on our diets, on our daily lives. And what the pandemic has shown us is how valuable everyone in the food chain is and how they should be valued,” says Lakshmi.
The germ of the book was triggered when Lakshmi’s real-life daughter, Krishna, came home several years ago craving a pomegranate. It was summer and her mother explained that pomegranates grow in the fall. Now was the season for tomatoes.
“I wanted to talk about when fruits and vegetables grew in season because, if you’re a kid and everything is available to you all the time, you have no way of knowing why we should eat certain things at certain time,” she says. “Mother Nature has a plan that we should live in harmony with.”
On the last page, Lakshmi dedicated the book to her daughter “who gives meaning to everything,” a fitting thanks for a work from two female artists who are celebrating their families through food.
“It’s a hugely autobiographical book,” says Lakshmi. “I am not a children’s author. I don’t have experience writing for this audience beyond just making up stories at bedtime for my own child. So I needed to write about something I knew.”