The Read: Padma Lakshmi, Love, Loss and What We Ate
Friday's Child Is Loving and Giving
Why did I get this book?
I watch Top Chef loyally, and I’m fond of memoirs by people involved with making (and eating) food.
Is it what I thought it was?
Somewhat, but there’s a lot more going on here than I expected, in very interesting ways. This is as much a memoir of successful cosmopolitanism and transnationalism, of the life of someone in a global culture of urban life that now stands in so many nations in tension with reactionary, ethnonationalist, and quasi-irredentist communities in rural areas and deindustrialized small cities. It’s also a very powerful exploration of gendered and bodily experience.
What continuing uses might I have for it?
If I taught a course on food culture or on histories and cultures of the body, I might consider using it in that context. It would also be a strong choice in a course focused on memoir as a literary form—Lakshmi makes some interesting structural choices.
Also, there’s recipes! That was a surprise.
“At first, I thought it strange that someone as important and, I assumed, busy as he must be had time to talk as often as we did. Little did I know that writers are incredibly gifted at finding ways not to write.”
“In the soul-sucking intellectual desert that L.A. was for me at the time, I was starving for that kind of connection, and my future husband’s phone calls were a nine-course meal airlifted in with iced champagne to boot. His attention, almost more than his charm, seduced me.”
“Nor did it help that my husband argued with the same lethal eloquence he had used to woo me. Of course, just because a point is well made, doesn’t mean it’s right. I was articulate enough but couldn’t compete rhetorically. After a while, I was simply defiant.”
“It’s funny to me that most of the cooking in the world is done by women, and yet when you look at modern Western cuisine, it’s largely based on what a few dead Frenchmen has opined to be the correct way of doing things. It’s funny how these old European men used a label like ‘mother sauce’ when there were no women to be found anywhere near those old professional kitchens.”
“I ate my excitement. I was a puppy dog, wide-eyed and eager, so thrilled to be at the table that I overdid it. Here were these talented professional cooks vying to outdo one another, wielding racks of lamb and pork belly and cream—ingredients designed to make food as lush and rich and irresistible as possible. This was food I would never dream of making at home. I was, and still am, an enthusiastic home cook. Nothing special, just someone who hopes my guests will like my lentil recipes. These chefs cooked with liquid nitrogen, duck fat, and sous-vide.”
“So as soon as the food came out, I ate like I had something to prove. I ate to the point of discomfort. Sure, I hadn’t broken down a side of beef or cooked on the line. But I’d eaten and learned about good food all over the world.”
“We never went long after a reprimand before returning to the kitchen, especially in the quiet of midafternoon, when the napping gatekeepers left it unguarded. Like janitors in a lab, we waited out the scientists until we were alone with the chemicals and could tinker. We made many versions of chili cheese toast, a classic Indian snack that today is on every hotel menu in India.”
“Food and femininity were intertwined for me from very early on. Cooking was the domain not of girls, but of women. You weren’t actually allowed to cook until you mastered the basics of preparing the vegetables and dry-roasting and grinding the spices. You only assisted by preparing these mise en places for the older women until you graduated and were finally allowed to stand at the stove for more than boiling tea.”
“On a Quickfire day, I try to eat a healthy breakfast, but after hair, makeup, and wardrobe, after getting to the set and going over the script, after the inevitable delays, six hours have passed and I’m ravenous. So when the contestants’ food shows up, most of it made in true restaurant style, with more butter than a kilo of croissants, I eat more than I should. I probably eat every two hours when I’m on the set. Tom will sometimes ask, sipping a gin and tonic, ‘How can you possibly be hungry?’ I tell him I can eat as much as he can drink.”
“Western ideals of beauty do not stop at ocean shores. They pervade the world and mingle with those of your own country to create mutant, unachievable standards.”
“No high-minded snobbery about being too smart for modeling could negate the fact that I couldn’t even grasp simple directions.”
“After three days of essentially lounging around, I left with a really cool pair of jeans from the shoot and $3,600—cash. I had never seen so much at once. I folded up the bills and crammed the wad into my front pocket. One girl looked at the bulge with an eyebrow raised. ‘Why don’t you put it into your purse?’ she asked. ‘Because I want it close to me,’ I said. I liked the feel of it against my thigh.”
“I might be sitting beside Tom or Wolfgang Puck when my must-prove-I-belong-here reflex kicks in and I take a stab at culinary erudition. Suddenly, there’s Nan to tell me, as only she could, ‘Padma, save it for PBS,’ or ‘That was great, but three million people just changed the channel.’”
Commentary, asides, loose thoughts, unfair complaints
I was quite surprised that the book basically begins with her relationship to Salman Rushdie. But that turns out to be both an artifact of its overall narrative structure, which is often to open a chapter or section in the relative “present” of her life, after she became a public figure and then to suddenly jump back to a rolling account of her childhood and young adulthood and a very clear strategy for dumping Salman out of the rest of the story—basically divorcing him from the memory of the rest of her life. It’s the problem that memoirs often have: they are written for different publics who know the author from different places. Padma Lakshmi for me is the host on Top Chef; I don’t think I knew she’d been married to Salman Rushdie until some years later. But for another set of readers—in the literary and cultural worlds that both of them have been part of—she was just Salman’s latest wife and then ex-wife. She wants all the readers she’s entitled to, so she kind of needs to get him out of the way at the beginning. It’s a pretty gentle treatment, all things considered.
Lakshmi’s engagement with her body—both in connection to food and otherwise—is really compelling. I continue to be driven in my own thinking and writing by a discomfort with sociological and social-historical accounts of structures, systems, etc. not because they are incorrect but because I don’t think you really understand something systematic until you also have a powerfully individual account of it, with all its particularity and idiosyncrasy, to help you understand how that common experience feels for a human being. In this case, I intellectually know that male medical professionals often don’t listen to women as patients or give them information they need, but reading Lakshmi describe how a lifetime of difficult and painful menstruation turned out to be the long-developing consequence of endometriosis where it became clear that doctors earlier in her life had recognized the symptoms but never told her, explained what they were seeing, or recommended further treatment is just devastating. The degree to which the entire medical system doesn’t take women’s pain seriously is profoundly documented, but for me at least it makes a visceral difference to also hear one woman’s experience of it. (Her account of how this affected her sexually as well reminded me of Lili Loofbourow’s essay “The Female Price of Male Pleasure”.)
I was really taken with her account of comparing New York and Orange County California (two of a number of places she lived as a child) because it so echoed my own experience of growing up in several places in Southern California and then visiting New York to stay with my uncle for about a week as a teenager. That cemented my desire to “go east” for college, because while I knew that Los Angeles was full of diversity of all kinds, the material sprawl of it meant you didn’t have a personal sense of it, even after you could drive and get around some. I think that’s changed somewhat over the years but not all that much. Whereas New York was the essence of what city ought to feel like, everybody in the mix with one another always. That’s also changed as the price of New York real estate has slowly pushed people away from Manhattan and much of Brooklyn (and as global multi-millionaires buy ghost luxury apartments in mostly empty skyscrapers).
I keep a kind of running list of what memoirs say about college. Hers fits one pattern, where the aspiration to go-to-college figures as an answer to the trials of being a teenager but then the actual experience of college is skipped over as being fundamentally uninteresting except for a few fragments. For example, she learned as a theater major how to use pancake makeup to cover the well-known scar she has on her arm from an automobile accident she was in when she was 14; while studying abroad in Spain, she made her first money as a model and she remarks that it at least felt like she had something she could make a living at, which so far her major in theater and her minor in American literature had done nothing to help her imagine. (Though she also does come around to acknowledging that the diversity of the student body at her university had made her want to be in that kind of mix of people from that point onward.)
However, I was also so so pleased that there’s a story of a former professor who socialized with his former student in a completely supportive way—when she was struggling to make a living as a model while in Paris, her former theater professor and her husband, a French literature professor, became surrogate parents of a sort. I found myself tensing up briefly as the literature professor stepped in to help her out and let her come stay with them and it was such a relief that it was the kind of story that I really think is the typical and normal one, where teaching stretches naturally into a more extended kind of support and advice for former students.
As I noted above, I’d put this in a curated list of testimonies about what it means to be a cosmopolitan, mobile, worldly, educated and successful person in a globalized age, both good and bad. It also seems to me that she interestingly straddles two eras of cultural production, bearing witness both to the last gasp of an older world of culture-making that was protected by a set of brokers and gatekeepers (the Tina Brown-hosted party where she meets Salman Rushdie early in the book feels like the last moment almost of that world of celebrity and status in New York) and a new world of culture-making that is more structured by the “gig economy”, by a sort of protean transmedia working of reputation and attention. I think because of her own poise and sense of self and also because of the relative classiness of Top Chef, she’s an encouraging story of the maintenance of celebrity and accomplishment into that second era, compared to many figures who seem famous simply because they’re famous.
I have to admit that by the time I got to the last quarter of the book, I was thinking, “Please say more about Top Chef.” And she does, and it’s very interesting. I particularly was intrigued at how much the producers do to guard against any possible collusion between the judges and the contestants. But there’s not very much overall and I get it. (I have to admit I was really hoping she’d at least talk about the fan perception that she was rattled by Top Chef contestant Kristen Kish…)
It’s not a good look on me—reading a memoir by an accomplished, interesting woman who is laying out her whole life—but there was something in me that recoiled instantly when the wealthy financier Teddy Forstmann shows up as a 69-year old who is ostensibly listening to a pitch from her about a film project but who has basically turned it into a date and then she starts a relationship with him. She lays out what she was thinking and feeling—and how in the middle of that she had a child with Adam Dell—but it sort of ends up feeling as a reader like you have a new friend and you know they’re not looking for advice and it’s not your place but oh man that really doesn’t seem like a good idea—if for no other reason than the first time they met he turned what was supposed to be a business meeting into a romantic one without asking her for permission. But in the end, she settles it herself: “I was rudderless and should have made myself be alone”. This is the hard thing about writing a memoir: you know you probably have to say something, but it’s also plain she’d rather not on this particular part of her life. She very much wants to talk about her pregnancy and her daughter and motherhood—it’s not only important to her life but to the themes of the memoir—but she can’t do that without talking about Forstmann and more importantly Dell, who sued her for custody of her daughter.