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From chana masala to lasagna, my family's Thanksgiving table tells our American story

The images that we often see during the holiday season of families enjoying a 'traditional' meal don’t reflect the millions of households that identify with more than one ethnicity.
Raj, standing behind his dad on the right, with his family during Thanksgiving dinner in the late 1990s.
Raj, standing behind his dad on the right, with his family during Thanksgiving dinner in the late 1990s.Courtesy Raj Tawney

Ever since the inception of Thanksgiving, we’ve seen images of racially and ethnically singular families sitting around a table, eating what has come to be understood as a “traditional” meal. That’s never been the case in my own household or for the millions of other families across America that identify with more than one race. Within those walls, inside of the many heated pots and pans, sit simmering stories of pride and plights.

Year by year, our table started to expand into a buffet line.

As a multiracial American — of Indian, Puerto Rican and Italian descent — food was the strongest bond connecting my richly diverse family, as well as guests. Raised in a suburb outside  New York City with my dad, Roop, mom, Loretta, and brother, Ravi, our taste buds were indulged   even if we never had much money. Each Thanksgiving, our table shined brightly as a range of dishes accompanied traditional fare. The smells of turmeric, cardamom, tomato sauce, Sazón and dozens of various spices cross-pollinated the air and clung onto our kitchen’s peeling wallpaper. The memory of those aromas still live inside my nose — and heart.

Growing up, my idea of a standard Thanksgiving dinner was reflective of dinners I saw being consumed on TV. I longed for our house to look and function like a “normal” American operation. Their tables were usually complete with a glistening, browned-to-perfection turkey at the center and accompanied by creamy mashed potatoes, golden corn, translucent cranberry sauce from a ribbed can, and a crumbly mound of stuffing. I’d seen these same elements time and time again in shows and movies, and I often assumed my family’s Thanksgiving dinner was abnormal for having more than what was displayed on our screens. 

We had most, if not all, of those dishes that other families displayed atop their tables, but there were so many more plates involved in my family’s repertoire. The first time my mom and grandma invited me to come cook alongside them, I was honored to be involved in the process, even if I was only entrusted with peeling dozens of onions and garlic cloves. Still, helping out brought my curiosity to life as I asked countless questions of how these “different” Thanksgiving dishes came to be. The two most important women in my life were happy to oblige.

Raj's Thanksgiving dinner table, featuring a multicultural spread made by his family.
Raj's Thanksgiving dinner table, featuring a multicultural spread made by his family.Courtesy Raj Tawney

As I assisted the master chefs, I learned more about my own identity — like how my mom, a Puerto Rican and Italian American, learned to make chicken curry and chana masala from recipes she learned from my Indian immigrant father’s mother, Gopi, back in Mumbai and by studying early books published by pioneer Indian cook and author Madhur Jaffrey. These were two dishes that earned her acceptance into the local Indian community in Queens when she was just a young outsider marrying an immigrant. 

And my Puerto Rican grandma Elsie’s arroz con gandules y puerco (rice and pigeon peas with pork) that she’d made ever since she married my Italian American grandfather, Anthony, nearly 50 years ago. Though his family was hesitant of him marrying a Hispanic girl, she subsequently earned their respect through their stomachs, particularly after she taught herself to make the best lasagna and meatballs in her Bronx neighborhood.

Food was the strongest bond connecting my richly diverse family.

Through their personal journeys, I realized that food was a tool; an olive branch; a form of currency to convey compassion and strength.

Over many Thanksgivings, each time an aunt, uncle, cousin, friend or neighbor was a guest at our table, my mom went out of her way to make them feel  welcome, even if some dishes may have appeared intimidating to them at first sight.

Once, when I was around 10, I invited a friend from around the corner to eat with us. “What’s that brown blob covering the chicken?” he commented as platters were being placed in the center. 

“That’s curry, honey.” my mom said.

 He looked perplexed. “It looks weird.”

 “You’ve had chicken marsala before, haven’t you?”

Raj's mom preparing dinner in their kitchen in the early 1990s.
Raj's mom preparing dinner in their kitchen in the early 1990s.Courtesy Raj Tawney

His head nodded. He wasn’t even Italian American but chicken marsala had become so common, it was being offered during school lunches and you could buy it in the supermarket freezer section.

“Well, then don’t be scared. The colors and flavors are a little different but it’s just as good. Take a scoop and place it on top of a bed of this basmati rice. You won’t know till you try.”

My mom had a magical touch of introducing new worlds to others without making them feel foolish — a trait that stuck with me as I’ve attempted to do the same as an adult.

Almost a decade ago, when I started dating my now-wife Michelle — an Italian, French and German American — her adventurous appetite impressed me. The open-mindedness of her parents, Susan and Jim, toward food surprised me, too. Once I got to know them, I wasn’t surprised why she was so tolerant — it was taught in her house from an early age to explore various cultures and their cuisines. 

As our relationship bloomed, so did that of our families as we began spending holidays together. Dishes from all our heritages united, like her father’s homemade pizzas, which he kneaded, spun and decorated by hand. Michelle, eager to learn my mom’s and grandma’s recipes, began practicing months in advance to offer our family’s favorites. It wasn’t an easy task absorbing two new and vastly different cuisines into her skillset, but both her chicken curry and meatballs impressed the two most important women in my life. Year by year, our table started to expand into a buffet line.

Though my grandma died in 2018, flavors live on every November through my mom’s and Michelle’s efforts. Ravi and his wife, Sara, contribute their own spins on curries and pastas, and my brother-in-law, Doug, and his wife, Dennisse, create desserts inspired by her own Puerto Rican family’s roots. Michelle’s mom and my dad mix cocktails for everyone. I assist wherever I’m needed.

As we continue to expand and evolve in family members and cultural identities, so do our palettes. Perhaps that’s our own unique tradition — the willingness to try and desire to grow. Or maybe that’s the American way, whether we realize it or not.

CORRECTION (Mar. 1, 2022, 10:41 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated what “gandules” means in English. They’re pigeon peas, not beans.