By Chesley Turner
Photography: Leslie Hassler
Location: Distilled NYC
Straightforward. Striking. Resonant. Beautiful.
In Love, Loss, and What We Ate, Padma Lakshmi has written her very identity into the pages.
“I think we have to remember as human beings, as women, that we owe it to ourselves, and also the next generation of women, to share our stories with each other so that they can benefit someone else. “
In this searingly truthful memoir, Padma pulls no punches. She has a lot of ground to cover – most often offering perspectives and experiences her fan base would never have guessed – and she leaves nothing out.
“All of the difficult things I’ve had to go through in my life were as important as the triumphs or successes, because they made me who I am. They made me stronger, and in some cases those failures or shortcomings were even more valuable for that reason.”
Top Chef hostess? Yes. Award-winning cookbook writer? That, too. Head of a cookware line and the Padma’s Easy Exotic frozen rice lines? Sure. But also, so much more.
“It was supposed to be a completely different book. It was supposed to be frank and honest, but it was supposed to deal with nutrition and healthy eating and body image. It was not initially meant to deal with all this other stuff. …In the process of writing it, that path sort of revealed itself…”
What seems particularly clear is that the book stands alone, in that there has never been such a diverse and uniquely successful woman in quite the same position. “I feel very committed to mentorship. I would have loved to have a woman that was brown, or in the food space, or in fashion, or in advocacy, to look up to or to take me under her wing to help me hone what my interests were and see where my strengths lie and how to apply those in the world. But I didn’t have that luxury, so I’d like to provide that to the next generation of women, whether they’re my daughter or not.”
The memoir, of course, addresses Padma’s racial identity, particularly from her perspective as mother to a bright-eyed six-year-old, Krishna. “I am very conscious of the life and the world that Krishna will have when she grows up. And I think it is my opportunity and privilege to help her navigate that. Part of that is speaking openly about my own experience, that she knows her own history so she can learn, and so she knows her mother is the one saying it. Not anyone else.”
As an Indian and a Manhattanite, Padma is highly attuned to the significance of being a brown-skinned woman in a white society. Even as a successful model, praised for her beauty, she struggled with this dichotomy. “For many hears as an actress and as a model, I tried to maybe diminish that aspect of me; to be someone who was more marketable or commercial…. Now I’m really conscious of it.”
Krishna is forming her own identity, and Padma is ready to foster her self-discovery. “She is a New York, kid, completely. She’s been to India four times, and she’ll go again [soon]. So I am very conscious of it.”
Padma is careful to present both Krishna’s paternal and maternal heritage; their importance and their cultural implications. “You know, she comes from a long line of strong women, she comes from a religion that worships goddesses, and she comes from a food culture that is very ancient, and a very learned society…. I want Krishna to know very, very specifically and deeply where she comes from and who she is, so that her journey about where she decides she wants to go in her life is much more clear and much more directed by her own will and understanding.”
The honesty of this truth-laid-bare writing style can be striking at times. Padma addresses some serious cultural and personal issues, including recounting the pain and struggle she experienced for much of her life as a woman with endometriosis. For decades, Padma was misdiagnosed, and told that the pain she experienced was just something women have to deal with. At 36, when she finally received proper diagnosis and treatment, she saw what normal life was like. “It made me angry. It galvanized something deep within me to say, ‘There is no reason why I went through this pain.'” While there is no cure for endometriosis, there are treatment options available. “I felt very conscious of the girls I saw walking to school on the street. i didn’t want them to feel isolated; I didn’t want them to feel alone. I didn’t want their body image to be mangled and skewed by a disease that developed part and parcel with their womanhood. I didn’t want anyone to go through what I went through, if it wasn’t necessary. And it doesn’t have to be necessary.”
Padma and others started the Endometriosis Foundation for America in April of 2009, and has been working ever since to heighten awareness, support treatment options, and educate young women battling the pain and quiet stigma of this condition. “I hope I can rase $10 million for the EFA [in my lifetime]. And I hope I can initiate research on a massive level and make this an issue of national importance to our science community and our government. It is the number one women’s health issue that is plaguing young girls and women, and no one wants to talk about it. It’s what breast cancer was in the 1970s.”
The memoir addresses familiar realities for all women with periods, as well. “I’m used to the ups and downs of my weight and know all the reasons why it happens, so that makes it a little easier because I have a good amount of experience under my belt, as it were. But it’s still frustrating when you go to your closet in the morning and your jeans don’t button, or they don’t even go past your thighs or hips.” In the food business, weight fluctuation is par for the course, but as a woman, the struggle is compounded. “I’m not impervious to the same frustrations and worries that all women have whether they’re superficial or not.”
Despite her willingness to address such hard-hitting topics, Padma isn’t all tough subjects. She also talks about food! The book includes delicious recipes, and elaborates on the enduring significance of this quotidian ritual that is deeply connected to her cultural and familial roots.
“I grew up eating rice from a very early age. It is the first thing they put in my mouth after my mother’s nipple.”
Appreciation for the simple, enduring, delicious staple food resulted in one of her many endeavors: Padma’s Easy Exotic. “I discovered cooking rice and having leftovers and freezing it. i hate wasting. i guess it’s because of my roots…. And I’m not a big fan of packaged foods and that they’re made very unhealthily. But steam is the natural medium of rice, so rice heats up beautifully.”
And that was the impetus for the frozen rice line. Now available in select Whole Foods stores and constantly expanding, Padma says, “I want to help other full-time working women and men be able to put a healthy and delicious meal on their table.” The rices are organic, gluten-free, all vegetarian and vegan, and freezer-friendly. “There are plain ones you can add to stews or eat with roast chicken or vegetables. There are also seasoned ones you can heat up, you know, add lentils – a quick and easy-to-digest protein.
It’s important to support people looking to improve the world, whether that be simply putting together a good meal for their families, or standing up for a more politically-fraught issue. The freedoms afforded to this country’s citizens – and indeed, what makes a citizen, and to what a citizen is entitled – are spotlight topics these days, with the 2016 election approaching.
“I think it’s a bad joke. Actually, that’s not the right word. I think it’s much more serious than a joke. I think it’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing internationally; it’s embarrassing culturally, and it’s abominable socially.”
Padma makes herself abundantly clear: she’s not a fan of the bigotry that is so prevalent in this race. “I have lived outside the U.S. for many years of my life. But to run away from the place I all home would be to give my power away.” Sure, she says, we joke about it. “‘Let’s go to Canada.’ But frankly, regardless of who gets elected into office, I am staying put, and I am opening my mouth, loud and proud about what it makes this country great, which is immigration and equal opportunity and diversity and open-mindedness. I am not going to let the White House be stolen, nor am I going to allow that, even if the White House becomes occupied by such an inane and dangerous presence.”
This is a woman who is proud to be herself, to stand up for herself, and to stand up for others. And while that may be a bit exotic in today’s world, there’s nothing easy about it.