Raj Tawney returned home from his first day of kindergarten in his native Long Island upset. He'd been removed from class by two adults who wrongly assumed Tawney — whose father is Indian and his mother is Puerto Rican and Italian — couldn't speak English. To help ground him after a terrible day, he found solace in cooking tandoori chicken with his mother.
Tawney recounts this and other personal stories that explore what it's like as someone with a mixed ethnic background to move through the world as the very American question of "Where are you from?" hangs overhead. In his memoir-cookbook Colorful Palate: A Flavorful Journey Through a Mixed American Experience, Tawney faces challenges but always returns to the comfort of food with a recipe closing out each chapter. He'll discuss the book with fellow author Vanessa Garcia at Books and Books on Tuesday, October 24.
Half an hour from New York City, you might think that diversity was the norm in the community Tawney grew up in. "That's the irony of it all," Tawney says. "New York is considered the melting pot of the world. We always assume that it's the most open-minded, accepting place — but in Long Island, there are these invisible lines of segregation."
He recently moved with his wife to Miami and has had a different experience in the tropics. "I really feel welcomed," he says. "I'm loving it down here."
After publishing in the New York Times and the Washington Post, readers with other mixed identities started to email him to say, "I identify with that feeling like an outsider and not feeling complete." And that, he says, empowered him to keep writing. "It's made me feel like more of a complete human being as a result," Tawney shares.
He wanted his writing to discuss his multicultural identity without focusing on trauma around race in America, two things often paired in the publishing world. Much of the prejudice that people experience isn't dramatic; it's really small moments that add up, he says. He didn't want to explain prejudice to readers but rather to allow them to make up their minds about what prejudice is.
Another goal was to reach new audiences with these stories. "I hope that through my writing, I can open more positive conversations rather than make people feel more divided. I want people to feel welcome," Tawney explains. "I wrote this book as a love letter to my family. Also, to prove to myself that these types of stories have a place in the world."
Food is not only a way for him to tap into his cultural roots, but he sees it as a gateway for people to explore other cultures comfortably. "If you're not brushed up on someone else's culture, food is a great entry point," he adds. He delves into this topic in his New York Times essay "Will Indian Buffets Survive the Pandemic?" "I've used food as a tool to help start a deeper conversation," he says of his writing.
For his mother and grandmother, learning to make dishes from their husbands' cultures — meatballs for his Puerto Rican grandmother and Indian dishes for his mother — was also about survival in a new family. It gained them respect and helped them feel more of a part of their new families. He calls it a "constant struggle of acceptance and respect."
Much like TV cook and Italian immigrant Lidia Bastianich, who wrote a thoughtful blurb for his book calling it "delightful" — a review that made him and his mother cry — his recipes don't get hung up on details and exact measurements. These are recipes shared from generation to generation; it's about connection and listening, not teaspoons and cups. "These are recipes that have been done hundreds of thousands of times. They aren't written down. It's just in their heads," he says.
He says the greatest reward is if people make the recipes from his book and share how it went with him.
Writing Colorful Palate has helped him better understand people's fears and hesitations, too. "We're all just trying to understand each other," Tawney says. "What I was once ashamed of, which was my background, I now feel is my superpower. I can see things from so many perspectives, and it gives me more compassion."
Colorful Palate: A Flavorful Journey Through a Mixed American Experience. By Raj Tawney. Fordham University Press. 2023. 160 pages. Hardcover, $24.95.
Raj Tawney. In conversation with Vanessa Garcia. 7 p.m. Tuesday, October 24, at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables; 305-442-4408; booksandbooks.com. Admission is free with RSVP via eventbrite.com.