Friday, December 9, 2022

Padma Lakshmi Celebrates Slow Food In New Children’s Book ‘Tomatoes for Neela’

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In her new children’s book, chef Padma Lakshmi pays homage to slow food.

One of my earliest childhood memories involves tomatoes. It was summer, hot and humid in Western Pennsylvania, the best of times — those long, lazy days, the scent of flowers wafting through the warm air, and on one particular day: tomatoes. Lots and lots of tomatoes. Tomatoes like I’d never tasted them before. Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi experienced something close to that, too, based on her new children’s book, “Tomatoes for Neela.”

As a child, I loved playing in our garden. My dad grew beans and corn, and big, towering sunflowers I was convinced were grown by magic spell. One day, late in the season, a neighbor brought us a big basket full of their homegrown tomatoes. They were plump and ripe, bursting with an invitation to sink my teeth right into their ruby flesh. My mother’s eyes gleamed. She brought out plates and a knife and began to slice them delicately like it was dutiful and reckless all at the same time. “Taste this,” she said to me as if I had planned to do anything else.

What Should Tomatoes Taste Like?

I had eaten tomatoes plenty of times before then. An acutely picky eater, tomatoes were one of the foods I didn’t hate (my dislikes, I’d later discover, were all animal-based foods and the impetus for going vegan in my teens). I loved tomatoes in sauce, of course, but raw tomatoes could be mealy or afterthoughts, buried in sandwiches or salads, hidden from their glory. Still, though, I loved them, especially small cherry tomatoes I could pop right into my mouth. These heirloom garden varieties, though, sang. That first, juicy bite tickled every taste bud with its sweet, sour, savoriness all at once. It was balanced and bright— and when you taste something that’s perfect, you can recall the many times it wasn’t. Sure, I had eaten tomatoes before, but this was the first I’d ever truly tasted one.

We ate them plain, we put mustard on them, we drizzled them with salt. We ate them until they were gone, and talked long after about their perfection just like those brilliant, fleeting days of summer.

Lakshmi tells a similar story of “Neela” who loved to cook with her mother. She especially loves visiting the farmers’ market in the summer, where the family stocks up on ingredients, including precious heirloom tomatoes, which she loves to snack on.

They remind her of her grandmother in India and the food she cooks. Neela’s mother explains that heirloom tomatoes come from seeds saved every year from the juiciest, ripest, and best-tasting tomatoes. The history of a thousand years is preserved in the flavors as well as the many cooking traditions.

Modern Tomato Farming

Tomatoes bred to grow year-round appear, on the surface, as flavorful as those summer-only heirlooms. But they are everything that’s wrong with our food system — a veiled attempt at overriding the preciousness of the seasons. We can defy nature all we want, but we can’t override her.

A tomato, like melons or squash or other seasonal foods, is more than the sum of its parts. A tomato is as much the warm summer air and long days as it is red and round. Sure, we can grow them indoors in winter, but those facsimiles ignore the set and setting that make tomatoes so inherently valuable in the peak of summer.

This ethos is at the heart of the slow food movement and the macrobiotic diet, two rallying cries from the counterculture movement of the 1960s and ’70s. But, modern agriculture loves to raze for profit, and the beloved tomato is no exception. It has become the poster fruit for both the benefit of slow food — perfection when in season — and the failings of modern agriculture — an unripe, mealy, and flavorless orb.

The tomato farming industry is also highly criticized for its treatment of farmworkers. Lakshmi touches on this in the back of the book. Barry Estabrook explores it deeply in his critically-acclaimed 2011 book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, inspired by his James Beard award-winning article on the subject.

Image courtesy Penguin Random House

Slow Food Traditions

Neela’s mother tells her about the history of the tomato, its roots in Aztec culture, and how, much like the ubiquitous cacao beans we turn into chocolate, made the long journey from the Americas to Europe and India, where they’re now staples in those cuisines, too.

Neela loves helping her mother, her amma, and her grandmother, her paati, shopping at the market and cooking in the kitchen. With each season comes new food traditions: shelling peas in spring, peeling sweet potatoes in fall and winter, stirring in spices, and in those warm summer days, turning heaps of tomatoes into rich sauces and chutneys.

Neela’s story highlights the need to remind ourselves that everything does indeed have a season. And that waiting isn’t in vain — there are always rituals and traditions, and foods to enjoy at their just-perfect time. Even those tomatoes Neela and her mother plucked from the market come back when it’s time. In the winter they’re poured over pasta and slopped up with bread, a glimmer of the summer sun in the dark winter months.

Why can’t we buy tomatoes in winter? — Neela asks her mother as they stir sauce in the kitchen. Her mother tells her that it’s best to have fruits and vegetables when “Mother Nature likes to grow them”. And, especially when it comes to tomatoes, it is.

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