February 18, 2021
Food is more than just a means of survival. Meals bring people together – to celebrate milestones, nurture relationships, and create memories.
We all likely have that one favorite family recipe or food that “mom used to make.” We think of that dish – its smell, texture, and taste – and are instantly transformed back to that time and place where we enjoyed not only the food, but the company that served it to us.
For United Way of Central Indiana’s ELEVATE Judge, Tanorria Askew, that time and place were the summers spent at her grandmother’s house in Chattanooga, Tennessee, eating her grandmother’s blueberry pancakes.
“To this day, I can still taste them,” Tanorria said. “But this one time she made them, I had a fit. You would’ve thought I was dying. I was super dramatic.”
Tanorria was used to her mom cutting her pancakes and then pouring the syrup on them, but her grandmother did it in the opposite order. Forced to sit at the table for over an hour, Tanorria finally ate the pancakes.
“And they were the best freaking pancakes I’ve ever had,” Tanorria said with a laugh.
The passionate home–cook–turned–chef proudly credits her culinary credentials from childhood moments like these. Born in Tennessee and raised in Indianapolis, Tanorria’s parents and grandparents showed her how food can be fun, and filled with love and unity.
Before following her culinary dreams, Tanorria spent 15 years at Teachers Credit Union and lead the charge in TCU’s Diversity and Inclusion Initiative. During this time, Tanorria was able to blend her passion for cooking and her passion for diversity, equity and inclusion and ended up creating Unity Tables, a safe space for women to share their hearts and create a sense of unity.
“It was women of all walks of life, different races and cultures,” Tanorria said. “We sat at a table, ate and talked about race, racial reconciliation and how it relates in society. Those were great and wonderful, but I basically became the token black person. It became exhausting.”
To recharge herself personally, Tanorria took a step back – publicly – from all things related to race and equity. She focused on internal work – reading, understanding, and taking care of herself. But when she started public speaking, the topic of racial and gender equity in food came up.
Tanorria soon realized that the more she talked about these issues, the more people in the audience wanted to listen.
“When you see a black person, specifically a black woman, the automatic assumption is that she’s a southern cook. And it’s like hold on – wait a minute. There’s so much talent beyond southern cuisine,” Tanorria said. “There is also a huge misconception that men dominate the food industry and that they are the talent. But those men got all their talent from their grandmothers. That’s just the gosh darndest truth.”
As the Diversity and Inclusion Chairperson of the board for Slow Food Indy, Tanorria has fought for food equity and food insecurity. In this role, she’s spoken about her career, anti-racism, social justices, and the courage it takes to chase one’s dreams.
“If I were to say something to a little black girl who wants to be a chef, I would say no one can tell you that you can’t do it.” Tanorria said. “Be bold and be fearless in the kitchen.”
As the proud owner and founder of Tanorria’s Table, where she works as a personal chef and TV personality, Tanorria’s goal is to offer a seat to anyone, no matter one’s circumstances or background.
“There’s two sides of Tanorria’s Table,” Tanorria said. “I always say I will nourish your body with food and your soul with justice. I will feed you and I will love on you, but also I’m going to invite you to the table or at least walk you through how to build your own table.”
From the little girl growing up in Tennessee, watching and learning from those she loves – her hope for those watching and learning from her will continue to “love deeply, laugh often, and eat well”, and to eat those blueberry pancakes.
(Featured image credit: Leah Rife Photography)