Tomatoes for Neela is a gentle, but urgent, plea not to take your family's food traditions for granted.
By Kat Kinsman | December 07, 2021
Who taught you to cook? Plenty of us have learned—and not too shabbily—from pages, stages, and screens, but I'll always be envious of people who had another set of hands guiding them along the way. If the dough feels this way, it's ready. The sauce is just about ready to come together when it makes this sound, or drips from the spoon just so. My secret ingredient that I'll never ever write down is this, and don't you dare tell a soul—this is my gift to you.
If you were lucky enough to have that wisdom shared with you by an elder family member, a neighbor, or a family friend when you were growing up, did you realize at the time what a privilege it was? Did you take notes, mentally or scrawled on paper, so you could memorize these recipes with all your senses, so even when that person wasn't right there in the room, you could almost conjure them into it? You might not arrive at the dish exactly how they would, but at least you have a roadmap.
If the past 21 months have taught us anything, it's that we can't count on anything to stay the same. The opportunities to gather and celebrate—or even just spend normal, blessedly mundane time together—have often come with difficulty and risk. Millions of us have learned the incredibly hard way that when we lose a loved one, with them goes the the wisdom of their touch, taste, and all the infinitesimal details that made, say, your mother's meatloaf or your auntie's stew into something so much greater than a meal that nourishes your body.
Author and TV host Padma Lakshmi's latest book, Tomatoes for Neela, is in theory intended to be read by children from ages three to seven, but its core message is one that people of all ages could stand to absorb. The story's hero, a young girl named Neela, shops and cooks alongside her amma (mother), consuming every last morsel of wisdom and carefully documenting every step of the process as they make an heirloom tomato sauce that helps her feel closer to her paati (grandmother) who lives far away in India. With dreamy illustrations by Juana Martinez-Neal, Lakshmi's book is a gentle, but urgent, ode to treasure the food traditions that are passed down through the generations, and tie us all to our cultures and forebears in ways we often take for granted.
At the inaugural Family Reunion event in Middleburgh, Virginia, a few months back, Lakshmi spoke of how she spent much of the past year and a half in lockdown, finding her way to joy by "cooking new recipes of my fore-mothers, replicating a lot of things that I ate in childhood, revisiting old methods of doing things, and taking my time." She made certain that her 11-year-old daughter, Krishna, paid attention every step of the way, especially after she came home from her father's house asking for pomegranates.
"Children wouldn't know in this land of plenty that things have seasons," Lakshmi realized. She made sure to include a moment in the book where Neela's mother takes her to a green market to buy tomatoes, and understand how, where, by whom, and when they are grown, and why they came to be an essential part of their family's food traditions.
Lakshmi revealed she drew from her own habits as a child to inform how the fictional Neela connected with her cooking elders, as well as some unexpected benefits. "I would write down the recipes from all the aunties. It is very important to write down and record these family recipes," she said. "Through recipe writing, you can teach children a lot of academic principles, like fractions and times tables, and you can give children the gift of good eating, especially in their first four years of life. These small increments of time over food with your family add up."
And the importance does not diminish with age—if anything, it intensifies. "Point a phone at your aunt and record her talking about the recipe," Lakshmi advised, and I echo this. This sort of documentation may not currently be an ingredient in your family's recipe, but it's easy to start. Buy a copy of Tomatoes for Neela for someone in your life—young, old, or anywhere in-between—and make a date to cook together in person, or even from afar. Tomatoes may not be in season at the green market where you live (which is a shame because the book includes recipes for tomato sauce and tomato chutney), but find a recipe that deserves to live on, memorize it with your skin and all your other senses, and take notes along the way, just like Neela would.
Get Tomatoes for Neela ($14) amazon.com