Greetings from Chennai, formerly Madras, where today’s author was partly raised. My friend and I have been here for a few days and are heading out tomorrow. It’s safe to say that the highlight of my stop in Chennai happened last night. My friends and I had a chance to take a private South Indian cooking class in a lovely Brahmin woman’s home, so we got to learn a little more about Tamil culture on a personal level. It was amazing: great food, great spices, great coffee — OMG for real, the coffee — and great conversation! To be honest, it’s been one of the highlights of my entire stay in India! I didn’t want the night to end.
I came to know Padma Lakshmi the way a lot of people did. Lakshmi started her career as a model, has some acting and cookbook credits under her belt, and was once married to Salman Rushdie, but most people probably recognize her as the host of Top Chef on Bravo. Back then, I sometimes wondered about her connection to food, something that she admits to having second-guessed herself about as well. Any doubts about her “food cred” are put to rest in this memoir.
Lakshmi’s mother comes from a conservative Tamil culture, but after failed relationships, including the one with Padma’s father, she moved to New York to start over. Padma was left in India in the care of her grandparents, and once her mother had a stable income, Padma immigrated to the United States as well. She writes of all the new foods she was exposed to, including some interesting concoctions she and her mother came up with since they were Brahmin vegetarians in an area that was decidedly less vegetarian friendly back then.
She talks about life as an immigrant in New York and, later, California. She also talks about body image; she was self-conscious of her dark skin and lanky body, which led to some creative racist insults from bullies at school. At the age of fourteen, her family was involved in a car accident that crushed her arm and left her with a huge scar that made her even more self-conscious.
In college, during a semester abroad in Spain, a friend dragged her along to a modeling agency. She later ended up being taken on (in the lowest rung of the modeling world as little more than a human clothes hanger), but her scar eventually caught the attention of Helmut Newton. With such a big name in her portfolio, she — and her scar — were suddenly in high demand abroad.
Lakshmi decided to try to come back to the United States and figure out her next career move, and in the meantime, she published a little cookbook. At around this time, she started a relationship Salman Rushdie, who was still married and in hiding because of the fatwa. She writes of being terrified of just being arm candy; she wanted her own career, while it sounds like Rushdie wanted a partner who would stroke his ego and follow him everywhere for his career (and having read Joseph Anton, I’m inclined believe her). Instead, she wanted her own career and signed on to host Top Chef.
Honestly, much as I enjoy his writing, Rushdie sounds like a huge jerk. Lakshmi writes of enduring excruciating menstrual pain throughout her life, which inevitably affected their sex life at times, and only after they got married did she find out she had endometriosis. Left undiagnosed and untreated for so long, the scarring had done a lot of internal damage, including severely limiting her ability to have children. Let’s just say Rushdie’s response was cruel.
As her marriage to Rushdie was ending, she was trying not to start a relationship with Teddy Forstmann, a 68-year-old billionaire (at which point she readily acknowledges her daddy issues). In her desire to just be young and free and not tied down, she occasionally also dated Adam Dell; a paternity scandal ensued in the tabloids, while in private, Forstmann was clearly the love of her life.
I won’t go into alllll the details (trust, I left plenty out). I will say that I ended up really feeling for her. Lakshmi writes about a lot of personal subjects — body image, identity, physical health, sexual health, mental health, grief — in accessible ways. I also listened to her memoir on audiobook, which she narrated herself, and I think that added more nuance. And, of course, there’s all those incredible descriptions of food! I don’t really know what I was expecting, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed her book.
Love, Loss, and What We Ate was published in March 2016 by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins.