New love, a dinner invitation and the fish salad that brought my family back together on Christmas

“’Tis the season. They’ll have to speak to each other sometime”

Published December 19, 2023 3:00PM (EST)

Assortment of Seafood (Getty Images/Comstock Images)
Assortment of Seafood (Getty Images/Comstock Images)

This is an excerpt from "Colorful Palate: A Flavorful Journey through a Mixed American Experience" by Raj Tawney. Copyright © 2023. Published by Fordham University Press.

The first December that Michelle and I were going out, her mom invited my family over for a traditional Italian feast for Christmas Eve dinner. I was apprehensive at first. Though I’d been bringing Michelle around my family for months, her encounters with my parents were always isolated. Individually, they adored her, but not each other.

“I don’t think they’ll come.”

“Why not?” Susan begged. “’Tis the season. They’ll have to speak to each other sometime.”

Dad hadn’t spent Christmas with us in years. Although he isn’t Christian, in the early years he’d always partake in the festivities, for the sake of his wife and kids. He enjoyed the conviviality, however foreign it was to him. But as the wedge between my parents expanded, he stopped participating. During Christmas mornings, he’d either go to a friend’s house while we unwrapped presents or sit upstairs in his office (also his bedroom by that point), where Ravi and I would visit him to swap gifts. Though the strain in my parents’ marriage really weighed on me, I’d gotten used to sweeping my feelings under the rug. I could talk endlessly to Michelle about aspects of my life, but some conversations were too painful.

Still, Susan continued her endearing argument until I eventually caved and extended her invitation. 

And so, both Mom and Dad, along with Nani and Ravi, showed up at Michelle’s home on December 24th. To my great surprise. I guess each of them made the trek to show their goodwill; maybe they did it for the free meal…or maybe they did it for me. Whatever their reason, I was grateful to have them all sitting around the same table again. My parents barely said a word to each other, but at least they were cordial in public.

Michelle, a marvel in the kitchen, made a gustatory heirloom she’d learned from her grandparents that featured on their table each year: Insalata di Mare (seafood salad consisting of fresh octopus, shrimp, scallops and calamari marinated in citrus juices), while Jim spun homemade pizzas (a self- taught skill he’d become legendary for within our clan). My grandma was impressed with the spread, which included her contribution of lasagna—a dish that usually took her an entire day to assemble and bake.

To my astonishment, however, the Tawneys kept coming back each year and were soon spending other occasions with Michelle’s family, too: New Year’s Eve, Easter, Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, Fourth of July. We’d also celebrate Diwali, India’s festival of lights, out of respect for Dad, featuring some curries Michelle taught herself to cook (with a little guidance from Mom). 

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Sometimes, we would invite Michelle and her parents over to our house, too. Eventually, every significant holiday was spent at one of our homes, over a table full of home cooking featuring dishes spanning all of our ethnic backgrounds. I’d look down at the display and see generations

of meals before me, forging a great unification among our two units. Over time, Mom and Dad even became friendlier with each other as a result of their being forced to sit together. After nearly a decade of zero communication, I was dumbfounded to witness them actually share a laugh or two, even reminisce about early days back in Queens. If only for the sake of their son’s happiness, they tried to show a semblance of peace.

Five years after our first date, on the night before Christmas, I proposed marriage to Michelle — something neither of us had ever wanted; over time, however, our feelings had changed. Members of both sides were once again in Jim and Susan’s living room that evening, including Dad, exchanging presents, when Michelle opened a cardboard packaging box. She reached inside and pulled out a small sack of store- bought long grain rice. Our mothers thought I was surprising her with a vacation to China or India or somewhere where rice was a key ingredient. While she was inspecting my gift, I got down on one knee and held out a ring. Completely stunned, Michelle placed the box over her head and stood there like a buffoon.

“Will you marry me?”

“Uh, okay,” she responded bashfully. We all laughed at her embarrassment. She never did say “Yes” outright — typical.

We celebrated that evening, as one big family.

If only my nani had lived to see it.

Michelle’s Insalata di Mare


  1. Make sure you have raw shrimp, scallops, calamari, mussels, and one whole octopus (you can buy a frozen octopus from a fish market if you’re squeamish).

  2.  Dice a bunch of carrots, few stalks of celery, 1 large bulb of fennel (make sure to use the entire piece), 1to 2 medium red bell peppers and 1 large red onion

  3.  Dice a generous amount of parsley, a little bit of fresh oregano and a little bit of fresh basil

  4.  Finely chop a few cloves of garlic.

  5.  Throw everything into a large glass bowl. Squeeze about six fresh lemons into the mixture. Pour in a generous amount of fine, dry sherry. Give yourself a sip, too.

  6.  Add a cup of extra virgin olive oil.

  7. Add a pinch of kosher and freshly ground pepper salt to taste.

  8. Add 2 to 4 bay leaves. Add a little bit of Old Bay Seasoning. (Don’t add too much. Same goes for the sherry.)

  9. Put the bowl aside.

  10. To poach the seafood, you’ll need a large saucepan fitted with a colander insert. Place the saucepan on the stove and fill it halfway with water. Combine chopped chunks of some celery, carrots, a small onion, a bay leaf, some lemon juice, and a pinch of kosher salt and drop it into the water.

  11. Heat the pan and bring everything to a boil.

  12. Clean your calamari and slice it into rings, add it to the colander, and place it in the boiling water. This should take about 2 minutes. Do not overcook.

  13. Immediately pull out the colander and dump the calamari into a bowl of ice.

  14. Place scallops in the colander and repeat the process. This should take about 3 to 4 minutes until the scallops are opaque.

  15. Peel the shrimp, place them in the colander, and repeat the process. This should take only a few minutes.

  16. Add mussels to the colander and repeat the process. This should take a few minutes, until the shells open.

  17.  Clean your octopus, tenderize it, cure it with kosher salt, and chop it into chunks, then add it to the colander and repeat the process. This will take much longer, around 40 minutes. After all of the seafood is cold, remove everything from the ice and transfer it to the glass bowl.

  18. Mix everything up, then chill it in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours, but preferably overnight.

  19.  Taste it before you chill it. You might need more lemon juice, sherry, or olive oil.

  20. Scoop into small individual bowls and serve to each guest.


If you enjoyed this essay and recipe, consider ordering and reading the rest of Raj Tawney's  "Colorful Palate: A Flavorful Journey through a Mixed American Experience." 


By Raj Tawney

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