“I didn’t know then, of course, that the crossing from New Delhi to New York was more than a crossing of oceans and continents; it was a crossing of cultures, of lifestyles, of ways of being and knowing. I would be debarking in a New World. I would never be fully at home in India again or ever fully at home in America. I couldn’t have looked back, even if I had thought to.”
Padma Lakshmi has had a varied career. In her twenties she was a model, and then a television host and actress. She published a cookbook about what she ate to lose weight after a movie role required her to put on twenty pounds, and as a result made the improbable transition from model to foodie, co-hosting the popular cooking competition Top Chef. Love, Loss, and What We Ate is a chronicle of the role food has played in her life, through times of love, and times of loss, and how she navigated the jump from a career that was based on her looks to one that engaged her heart and her mind. From a childhood in India, to an early adulthood spent traveling Europe, to a second career in America, she shows how food can be a source of comfort, a connection to identity, and an occasion to examine our biases about beauty.
Lakshmi begins at an ending, with her divorce from the famous Indian author Salman Rushdie after eight years together. Rushdie was twenty years her senior, and she was his fourth wife. Stepping back in time to their meeting and courtship, she shows how his intellect and smart circle of friends appealed to her at a time when she was looking for something more substantial than modeling in her life. Rushdie gave his much more critical account of this time in his own memoir, Joseph Anton, characterizing Lakshmi as ambitious and moody. Here Lakshmi provides her own side of the story, recounting her deep insecurities about trying to launch a new career after leaving modeling, and sharing her crushing diagnosis with advanced endometriosis. Taken together, the two books provide an account of how a marriage can fall apart, and as Lakshmi puts it, “at the end of a marriage, no one wins. There is only anger, sorrow, guilt, emptiness and defeat.”
It is easy to see how a career in modeling could make a person at once vain and insecure, hungry for approval and yet longing to live up to a higher standard. In her role as a host of Top Chef, Lakshmi faced pressures the other, male, hosts did not. Where they wore boxy suits, she had to don fashionable dresses. Eating all of the food they were judging would cause her to gain several sizes over the course of a season, something a suit could hide, but a dress did not. Whereas she felt the larger size fit an Indian standard of beauty, filling out a sari nicely, her television career was in North America, where she struggled to both do her job and “still look good by Western standards of beauty.” She describes how the two conflicting idea of beauty mingled “to create mutant, unachievable standards.” And this was the second time she had to confront such a contradiction; during her modeling career the source of her insecurity was the jagged scar on her right arm, the result of a surgery that saved the limb after a serious car accident.
Self-doubt was her emotional burden, but physically she was also carrying another cross. Anyone who has coped with chronic pain should be able to relate to Lakshmi’s very painful account of her diagnosis with endometriosis. Because her mother and grandmother had both suffered deeply with their periods, she was raised believing this was simply part of womanhood, and that she had to live with it. Although she had check-ups regularly, a diagnosis did not come until after one of the growths choked off an intestine, leading to hospitalization and surgery. Her account highlights just how difficult it can be for even a well-off person to get proper care for women’s issues that are considered distasteful. By that time, she had also lost part of an ovary, and a fallopian tube, imperiling her fertility.
Much of the book takes place in India, as Lakshmi travels back and forth for various occasions and family visits, though she last lived there when she was four. As a result, she “didn’t identify with the collective experience of children in either place” when she was growing up, and instead had “one foot in each culture, but no firm footing in either of them.” Yet India is obviously deeply important to her, influencing her cooking and her traditions. Though she no longer keeps vegetarian, and repeatedly describes herself as largely secular, as the book goes on it is clear that she is still holding on to Indian religious traditions emotionally if not always practically. On her way to India for a ceremony where her daughter would eat solid food for the first time, the baby accidentally drank some beef broth. Not only was her first non-milk food not vegetarian, it was from the flesh of a sacred animal no less. Lakshmi describes this as “karmic retribution for all the bodies of animals I had consumed in my life and career in food.” Underneath her pragmatism and ambition there is a deeply superstitious person. This is evident once again in her account of the birth of her daughter, after which Lakshmi decided to consume her placenta.
Lakshmi has published two recipe books since embarking on her culinary career, but Love, Loss, and What We Ate isn’t really one. She includes the occasional recipe, but this book is far more about our relationship to food than the food itself. Lakshmi admits that the few recipes that are included, “especially for an Indian market, they are kind of basic.” But they are obviously her comfort foods, that ones that have deep emotional connections to significant moments in her life. They include the applesauce she made for a sick loved one as he underwent chemotherapy, and the kumquat chutney that was the first thing that she cooked, alone in her new apartment, after her divorce.
Structurally speaking, Love, Loss, and What We Ate follows the common hook of starting at a critical moment and then circling back in time, but the progression from that point is not plodding or strictly chronological. Lakshmi freely connects related ideas and memories across time. When she takes her first flight in a private jet, this leads her to reminisce about the crossing she made from New Delhi to New York when she was four years old, to join her mother in America. Lakshmi not only recounts events, she gives a deep impression of their emotional significance, and their broader place in a culture that values thin, light-skinned, female bodies, and pretends they never bleed.
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