Op-Ed: How my family came to feast on meatballs, plátanos and curry for Christmas dinner
Growing up in an Indian, Italian and Puerto Rican American household, I was invariably spoiled on Christmas Day, but not by the gifts left for me under the tree. Every Dec. 25 was a journey through my family’s history, constructed through a cornucopia of dishes mainly made by my mother, Loretta, and grandmother Elsie.
When my Puerto Rican American grandmother married Anthony, my Italian American grandfather, in 1957, both sides of the family disapproved. At the time, marrying outside one’s ethnic group was not something you were supposed to do. But they’d been childhood friends and high school sweethearts — cultural barriers weren’t going to stand in their way.
The first of eight children, my grandmother virtually raised her siblings during the Great Depression while managing to hold down a job. She was always an excellent cook, making plátanos maduros (fried sweet bananas) and arroz con gandules (rice and beans) for her family on a weekly basis — the ingredients were cheap and plentiful, and money was scarce.
My grandfather’s family wasn’t convinced my grandmother could make Italian American food to their standards, but she proved them wrong. Over the years, Elsie’s original handmade meatballs became a legendary staple among friends and family members, accompanied by pasta and a gallon of “gravy” (known to the outside world as tomato sauce). “It’s all about the feel,” she’d often say. “Don’t pack them tight, keep them loose.”
In turn, my mother learned to make these simple yet flavorful recipes from her mother, and they became the weekly meals she cooked for her own family. My friends, escaping the relatively bland fare at their homes, frequently crashed our dinners.
My mother, following in her parents’ footsteps, would put her own twist on the ethnic food equation after meeting Roop, an Indian college student, in the late 1970s. He would soon become an American citizen and her husband, and she would learn to cook the food of his childhood.
Yet history repeated itself. My dad’s family wasn’t pleased their son was marrying across ethnic lines, but they softened as my mother eagerly learned to cook hand-rolled parathas (flat bread stuffed with spiced potatoes), pakoras (fried vegetables), chutneys and more. They weren’t yet completely aware of Christmas traditions, like decorating a tree and exchanging presents, but they did expect Indian food to be part of the festivities.
In the early 1980s, Indian cookbooks were almost nonexistent in the U.S., except for those by Madhur Jaffrey, who is credited with popularizing Indian cooking in the Western hemisphere. My mother praises her recipes to this day, especially the tandoori chicken she learned to make from Jaffrey’s groundbreaking “An Invitation to Indian Cooking.” Otherwise, my Indian grandmother, Gopi, taught my mother basic recipes, including rolling chapatis (a flat bread served with meals), soaking lentils to make a pot of dal and concocting chicken curry from scratch — which became a standard in my mom’s repertoire.
My mother gradually mastered the challenging cuisine and became known within the Indian American community as a good Indian cook. Even my grandmother, who could be a harsh critic, became a fan.
In our household, we’d have chicken curry for dinner on Mondays, arroz con gandules on Wednesdays, grandma’s meatballs on Sundays. And on Christmas, my mother and her mother held nothing back. Contrasting aromas of turmeric and tomato sauce wafted in from the kitchen all day. By dinner time, our table was filled from end to end with a diverse variety of dishes that could rival any bourgeois fusion restaurant today.
The plate resting in my hands piled with food from around the world represented the history of my family and our distinct traditions. I loved merging flavors together and packing them in one spoonful. A sliver of lasagna, a spoonful of dal and some plátanos meant the holidays to us. This combination of holiday food was original, something that would never be re-created by our neighbors or found in a single restaurant.
Today, I’m grateful for my wife, Michelle — an Italian, French and German American and an excellent cook who has learned to incorporate Indian and Puerto Rican food into her repertoire as she continues our family’s tradition. She had two expert teachers in my mother and grandmother, but also taught herself to cook the dishes that represent my complex family’s roots. Her family history has become part of the mix since she added insalata di mare (seafood salad) and pulpo gallego (spicy octopus). Her father, Jim, spins homemade pizza pies during cocktail hour as we sip his signature gin martinis.
My grandmother died in 2018, but her meatballs will grace our Christmas table today, thanks to my mother. My wife will spend hours on the lasagna while my brother Ravi will make his first attempt at cooking chicken curry. I’ll be the one in the corner, chopping mounds of garlic and onions like a faithful sous chef. After all, some have the “feel” and some don’t. Once dinner is served, we’ll do what we always do — savor another year together.
Raj Tawney is a writer in New York who often writes about the multiracial experience.
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