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Reflections on “Love, Loss, and What We Ate”

I’m not usually interested in reading about celebrities, but I was curious about Padma Lakshmi’s memoir, Love, Loss, and What We Ate, because of the reference to food. I’m also familiar with her as a judge on Top Chef, and I was curious to see what she’d say about that.

I found the book fascinating, but perhaps the most surprising part was how relatable some of it was.

For those not familiar with her, Padma Lakshmi has been a model, a judge on the TV food competition show Top Chef, author, co-founder of The Endometriosis Foundation of America, and more. She was born in India, came to America at a young age, and has traveled extensively.

In short, her life is radically different than my own. And yet, I completely understood many of her comments about food and body image.

Relationship to food

Like many people, Padma described having a very emotional connection to food, including turning to certain foods when she was feeling down or sad.

“I can say with great conviction that food has played a central role not only in my professional but also in my emotional life, in all of my dealings with loved ones and most of all in my relationship to myself and my body. I am what feeds me. And how I feed myself at any given moment says a lot about what I’m going through or what I need.” (p. 273)

I could certainly relate to that. Food and emotion are so connected for many of us, including me. Even now, after all this time spent thinking about my relationship to food and my eating choices, when I’m stressed I still sometimes feel the old urge to reach for food. If I’m bored or at loose ends, I think about eating a snack or having my next meal early. I don’t often act on those impulses, but I still feel them on occasion.

I was also moved by Padma’s description of using food to give her comfort. This was when her marriage to Salman Rushdie was ending, and she had moved into a hotel room – one with a kitchen. She had also recently undergone major surgery for endometriosis and was feeling hollowed out, both literally and figuratively.

What helped her was using some kumquats sent from her mother’s garden to make a chutney.

“I could use that sauce to bring some sunshine back into my life. I could lift myself, at least gastronomically, from the gray…. And indeed, the kumquat chutney I ended up making is what woke me up in a sense. I’m certain that in large part, it had to do with the fact that my grandmother used to make a similar tangerine peel chutney I loved when growing up.” (p. 64)

I’ve experienced something similar in my own dark periods, when even the act of making something that tastes good adds some needed brightness to my life – and even better if that food has a family connection.

For me, many of those things are sweets, like chocolate chip cookies, whoopie pies, or sugar cookies. But those moments of feeling lifted and connected also come when cutting vegetables for a salad, the same way I used to cut vegetables in the kitchen of my childhood home.

I think this is something many of us share – perhaps you’ve had similar experiences.

Body image and weight

The other aspect that I found very relatable was Padma’s candid description of challenges with body image, for two reasons: her scar, and her weight.

As a child, she was in a bad car accident and needed surgery on her arm, a surgery that left a long, very visible scar. For a long time, she hated that scar, trying to hide it or even remove it. She also thought that it would ruin any chance she had at modeling.

Until one person, Helmut Newton, wanted to get photos because of her scar. He recognized how unique it was. And that’s when everything changed.

“Almost overnight, [my scar] had transformed from a stain into a sort of talisman. Today, I love my scar…. People have told me that my scar makes me seem more approachable, more vulnerable…. By facing the shame of my body’s disfigurement, I was able to liberate myself from that shame, and instead draw confidence from my scar.” (p. 167)

Although I’ve never had a scar like that, I think most of us can relate to having some part of our body that we’d rather hide. It might be a scar, or acne, or a birthmark, or simply evidence of being in a larger body. The best approach, if you can do it, is to stop letting the shame ferment and instead embrace your imperfections.

Interestingly, Padma took this same approach to her weight gain. She’d kept slim most of her life, but when she was pregnant, she gained forty-five pounds, going from a size 4 to size 14. And although she had hoped the weight would magically disappear not long after her daughter was born, things didn’t work out that way.

That’s when she realized that what needed to change wasn’t her weight or body. It was her mindset.

“I just decided that I wasn’t going to be upset if I didn’t lose the weight.” (p. 273)

“I admit it was very hard not to feel depressed, insecure, and inferior. Stripped of my old figure, I had to get used to the new me…. [The] only way I knew to not be distracted or disheartened by my weight gain was by making myself feel okay, even good, about my new size…. It worked. I actually began to love my body and wore clothes to show my extra pounds and roundness…. I began to genuinely revel in my form.” (p. 275-276)

That really rang a bell with me. Like Padma, the only way I was able to make a real change was when I stopped being ashamed of myself and my weight and embraced who I was.

This doesn’t mean you’ll automatically lose weight if you change your mindset (though Padma did), but by removing the weight focus, you free yourself of so much stress and angst that you’re almost guaranteed to feel better even if you never lose a pound.

More alike than different

Padma’s memoir talked about a lot more parts of her life, of course, but these sections about food and body image reminded me that when it comes to those things, we’re all more alike than different.

Whether celebrity or homebody, we may all struggle with body image, and we all have certain foods that help brighten our days. And with so much divisiveness going on in the world, I found it helpful to be reminded of those things that we all share.


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