Monday, February 1, 2021

Book Review: Love, Loss, and What We Ate: A Memoir by Padma Lakshmi

I am not fond of memoirs. With novels, when characters behave in a way that makes me bananas, there's at least some reason for it: some artistic flourish, or some plotty setup, or even philosophical what-is-art-and-who-am-I musings. With memoirs, there's no guarantee of payoff at the end, and the inexplicable things people do isn't tempered by, say, my genuine love for them (in the event of best friends who do things I wouldn't do) or the dictates of society that prevent me from demanding "What were you thinking?" when eavesdropping on strangers.

Love, Loss, and What We Ate: A Memoir by Padma Lakshmi
HarperAudio, 2016

Digital audiobook via my public library
Read Harder 2021: Read a food memoir by an author of color

I read this for this year's Read Harder challenge -- a food memoir by an author of color -- and I was torn between this and Tembi Locke's From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home. (I'm still going to read Locke's book since I've lived in Sicily but Lakshmi's book was available as an audiobook at the moment I needed something to listen to while I was knitting.)

I am a fan of Lakshmi from Top Chef and briefly noted some of the gossip following her divorce from Salman Rushdie. However, I wasn't otherwise familiar with her career nor her deep connection with food, and her memoir is a delightful mix of life event, beautifully drawn reflection, and musings on food, memory, and identity. In fact, very little of the book covers Top Chef, and certainly there's no behind-the-scenes gossip or tattling. I thought I would be disappointed, but what Lakshmi serves instead is far more delicious.

In a non-linear manner, Lakshmi explores her identity as an Indian-American woman, a model who loves food, a devoted reader yearning to exercise her mind more. She opens with her meeting and marriage to Salman Rushdie, then dips back into her childhood. Asides bloom into episodes of luminous musings before returning to the more mundane '...and then this happened...' narrative.

Lakshmi reads her book, which makes the experience feel all the more intimate. It's also what made the interpersonal stuff she shares seem more intense. Listening was like being with a friend, updating you on their life, and I couldn't help but have some knee jerk feelings about the decisions she was making and the company she was keeping! (Seriously -- the Teddy Forstmann anecdotes she shared were not charming at all! Despite claiming he was great with boundaries, she literally talks about how he'd call and demand she'd leave meetings to talk to him; and when she didn't, he'd call her friends and pull them from meetings so she'd call him. And don't get me started about Adam Dell! I guess I'm glad she's reconciled with the man who is the father of her daughter, but damn, he pulled some seriously awful shit! See -- this is why I can't do memoir!)

Still, Lakshmi managed to beautifully knit together a life still happening into a narrative that felt compelling and interesting. Her thoughtful introspection and almost awe-struck pleasure in food was palpable and has considering how food and identity intersect in my life.

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