“A good piece of food writing is never just about the food,” writes Molly O’Neill in her introduction to LOA’s American Food Writing anthology. “It is, among other things, about place and time, desire and satiety, the longing for home and the lure of the wider world.” Like literature, cuisine represents a potent distillation of culture and history, capable of nourishing us while telling profound stories about who we are and where we come from.
In his debut memoir, Colorful Palate: A Flavorful Journey Through a Mixed American Experience (Fordham University Press, 2023), writer Raj Tawney adopts O’Neill’s expansive perspective, bringing complex questions about race and identity to a simmer alongside mouthwatering descriptions of his Indian, Puerto Rican, and Italian American family’s foodways.
Author Junot Díaz calls the book “a lovingly wrought and deliciously intimate memoir that captures the stupendous mélange that is Tawney’s American life (and ours). A feast for the mind, a banquet for the heart, as generous as hospitality and as unforgettable as your favorite meal.”
Below, Tawney reflects on the influence of cookbook author and actor Madhur Jaffrey, whose 1973 classic An Invitation to Indian Cooking was a delectable fixture and cherished companion in his mother’s Queens, NY, kitchen.
My mom had an old copy of Madhur Jaffrey’s first book, An Invitation to Indian Cooking, that I would flip through as a kid. She told me it was an important book, as it helped her learn to make food for my dad, an immigrant from Mumbai, and his family at a time when it was nearly impossible for an outsider to obtain the skills and information needed to make Indian cuisine. She’d visit local restaurants in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens (commonly referred to as “Little India”) and ask if she could observe the chefs in the kitchen in hopes of picking up their know-how and techniques. But then, she discovered Jaffrey’s book and it completely transformed her ability to practice and create dishes from her husband’s homeland. My mom cherished that old, dirty book like it was a sacred text.
An Invitation to Indian Cooking welcomed everyone to learn the basics of Indian cooking without fear or intimidation. A simple dish like chicken curry became a weekly staple in my household, and I still ask my mom to make it whenever I see her. The dish has evolved into her own style now that she’s been cooking it for over forty years, but the craft was originally learned from Jaffrey’s book.
Before she discovered the recipe, my mom’s first attempt at the dish was an embarrassing failure. Being half Puerto Rican, she poured Coco Lopez in the mixture for the coconut ingredient and it came out terrible. But after finding Jaffrey’s book and trying out the recipe ten to fifteen more times, she managed to perfect it and even add her own flair. I think that’s key for testing recipes from a book—keep making it over and over again until it evolves into your own.
Jaffrey doesn’t talk down to the reader and flaunt her expertise, because she herself learned to cook in her adulthood. Her writing has both a genuine curiosity and excitement, as if she’s just learned a recipe and wants to share it with you. I think, for my mom, that warmth helped her feel confident to try and try again.
Jaffrey opened up an entire world that was deemed “foreign” and “exotic” while helping curious, ambitious home cooks experience the joy of attempting seemingly scary recipes in a non-intimidating atmosphere. I think that’s the most you can ask for in any book hoping to open minds and palates. I hope my book does the same with my family’s home recipes—which span three vastly different cultures—and communicates how each meal is part of the individual journeys and plights for the important figures in my life.
When Jaffrey’s BBC TV cooking show appeared on PBS in the 1980s and ’90s, my mom was thrilled. It was like her writing was coming to life. Mom was already a fan of Jaffrey’s acting in classic Merchant Ivory films, including Shakespeare Wallah and Heat and Dust. So, to see her on TV possessing the chops of both Julia Childs and Elizabeth Taylor made Jaffrey the ultimate star to my mom.
I think Jaffrey served as a reference point to a culture my mom loved so much, but one in which she often felt like an outsider. The other Indian wives on Long Island, where we grew up, were not always kind to my mom and would scoff at her attempts to dress in saris and cook Indian dishes that were sometimes better than theirs. At home, however, Jaffrey was like a friend my mom could depend on to not let her down.
In order for one single dish to exist, centuries of human existence needed to happen the way they did.
For my family, food is not something to be consumed quickly and forgotten about. As I assisted my mom and grandma, and now my wife, in the kitchen, I learned that food was both an olive branch and a survival tool. But those simple moments of chopping onions or molding meat were also opportunities to learn about who I am and where I come from. Some of the ingredients of my own being brought me pain and confusion, but as I reflect now, I love the cultures of which I’m composed. And I hope other people who are multiracial will also take pride in their special mixture.
Cooking, both hands-on and observational, is like art being created in front of our eyes. If you pay close attention, you’ll find a history behind every meal and ingredient. In order for one single dish to exist, centuries of human existence needed to happen the way they did. There is beauty in food, not just in its appearance but in taste, smell, and components. Food excites us, it jogs memories, it nourishes us, it’s essential to being alive.
Food is freedom and it is power. Both creating and consuming food are responsibilities not to be taken lightly. I’m grateful to share my family’s story with others. Like Jaffrey’s work, I hope it will further compassion and tolerance.
Raj Tawney writes about race, identity, family, and food from his Indian, Puerto Rican, and Italian American perspective. He has contributed essays to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and other publications around the world. His debut memoir, Colorful Palate: A Flavorful Journey Through a Mixed American Experience, will be available October 3, 2023.