Cindy: My husband rarely gets credit for his support of Bookends Blog or his suggestions for my to-read list. He saw an interview with the host of Top Chef and Taste the Nation, Padma Lakshmi, on this Today Show segment about her new picture book, Tomatoes for Neela (Viking, 2021) and told me he wanted to read it and that I should consider it for the blog. Now, I’m not a fan of “celebrity author” childrens books, but this one, illustrated by Caldecott Honor Winner Juana Martinez-Neal is an exception. I am a fan of any food books that encourage healthy eating and that promote families spending time cooking together. Lynn found the book at the public library and read it and then handed it off to me the day I had spent the morning canning tomatoes and tomato sauce! Perfect timing.
Young Neela loves to cook with her amma (mother) and copies their recipes in her own notebook just like her amma and her paati (grandmother) have always done. To Neela, these books seem magical, like a wizard’s spell book. A trip to the green market that day is highlighted by a stunning display of tomatoes in all sizes, shapes, and colors. I could hang that spread on my tomato red kitchen wall and never tire of looking at it. The acrylic and colored pencil illustrations beautifully showcase the the fruit and the love between Neela and her amma and their joy in purchasing such treasures in season.
In addition to the lessons on making the sauce and dishes using the sauce (recipes included), the story is infused with family tradition, Indian culture, and information about tomatoes and the farmworkers who bring those fruits to market. The backmatter includes more information including a list of books for children about Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
I wish I’d read this gorgeous book before canning this year, as I didn’t fry my garlic before adding it to the sauce, nor did I know to cut x’s in the bottom of my tomatoes before boiling them to loosen the skins, but I will try both next year. I learned to can tomatoes from my mother but it became a tradition my father and I did together every August while my mother was selling antiques on the weekends.
It is one I continue with my husband as I spend the day thinking of my father and enjoying the satisfaction of putting away a bit of summer to enjoy in the cold days of winter.