Like most of America, I first came to know Padma Lakshmi through a little TV show on Bravo called Top Chef. She is the beautiful, willowy, modelesque host who speaks very deliberately, doesn’t look like she eats food all day long, and escorts some of the country’s best chefs all around the world to compete with one another for prizes. I somehow peripherally knew some bits about her personal life, in the way that we all tend to know too much about celebrities these days – that she was in a relationship with and married to Salman Rushdie for quite some time, and that at some point she had a child with super rich dude Adam Dell – but otherwise I just knew her as the seemingly haughty host of a cooking competition.
When Padma’s book came out earlier this year, I honestly didn’t have any desire to read it. I like her fine, but have never been super interested in knowing her life’s details. But then she visited the studio of my favorite podcast, Buzzfeed’s Another Round – a fantastic podcast, by the way – to speak about her childhood, the book, and her struggle with endometriosis. Hearing her talk about these topics, and then hearing that Heben (one of the two whip-smart hosts) read the book, enjoyed it, and was pleased by Padma’s writing ability, I decided to go ahead and check it out from the library.
The book opens with Padma’s thoughts, just after she has moved out of her marital home and into a hotel. She is struggling to pick herself back up after a heartbreaking divorce, finding solace and her appetite in a forgotten box of kumquats that her mother grew and sent to her. Her discovery of these kumquats launches us into a reminiscence about how Padma met her future husband Salman, and from there she leads us through the events of her life a less chronological, more sensory- and remembrance-driven order. One memory leads to another in this narrative.
The absence of true chronological order in these events was hard for me to deal with at first. There is a small linear thread running through the book, but I wasn’t ever sure where in her life I would end up from chapter to chapter. This isn’t a complaint, though. At first it was confusing and seemed like an amateur writer’s foible, since most of the autobiographies I’ve read generally follow a traditional beginning of life to current/end of life structure, but I realize that this was a stylistic choice. As it goes, what annoyed me at first ended up keeping me interested throughout the rest of the book, and actually set this book apart from most other memoirs I’ve read.
Padma chronicles her life shuttling back and forth between India and America, her various modeling and television stints in Europe, her relationships and marriage, the birth of her daughter, binding them all together with her love of food. Her deep fondness for and enjoyment of various cuisines is central to the book; her descriptions of the dishes closest to her heart exemplify how important the combination of love, family, and meals are her life. At times she in fact seems overly eager to explain to us that she actually DOES eat, that food is one of the great loves of her life, though she also quietly mentions the pressures of her life in the public eye, and that she is often vain about her figure and doesn’t typically allow herself to eat food in large quantities. Hmmmm….. A little more off-putting are the times when she tells us that her life hasn’t always been easy, that she is actually a smart person and not just a beautiful one, and that she is truly grateful for all of the luck and opportunities she’s had. Not a surprise, but I find it a teensy bit disingenuous when very thin, successful, attractive people present themselves as “just like us.” I found myself rolling my eyes from time to time while reading, unfortunately.
Funnily enough, though, some of the most compelling and real parts of the book were when Padma was talking about things that actually make her just like us – her 30+-year struggle with endometriosis, the dissolution of her marriage, her custody battle, and the incredibly sad death of the man she loved, billionaire Teddy Forstmann. Yes, of course she would be involved with a string of powerful, wealthy, influential men, right? But I was actually fighting back tears during that last one. The touching way she chronicled her love for him and dealt with her grief during his illness and passing moved me. These were the most poignant, raw,and arguably best parts of the story, by far.
If nothing else, Padma’s life has been glamorous and interesting, and for me her stories served as a nice respite during lunch breaks at my recently-started new job. As a nice little bonus, the personal recipes peppered throughout the book are mouth-watering, and I regret not writing them down before I returned the book.
While I can’t say Love, Loss, and What We Ate was the most engaging read from the get-go, I did actually end up liking this book much more than I anticipated. All in all I wouldn’t categorize the book as particularly deep or inspirational, but it was amusing and varied enough to suit anyone who wants a sentimental little read about the life of a famous TV host.
People who love memoirs that include recipes. Top Chef fans, or anyone with a passing interest in Padma Lakshmi.