Long Reads

My Circuitous Path to Food Writing as a Non-Food Person

September 15, 2016

I don’t have terribly fond memories of my second grade teacher, whom I’ll grant anonymity and simply call Mrs. Meyers. One memory of her abject awfulness sticks out. In advance of Thanksgiving, she led us in an exercise: We, a class of twelve people, had to pretend to run a restaurant. She gave us each a separate task—one of us would bus the tables, another would sauté fake onions. My task? “Dish out the food.”

Sweet! The one task I plainly didn’t understand. Indeed, I didn’t know what “dish,” as a verb, meant. I’d literally never heard the word used in a sentence that way. When my turn came around, I became clammy. I just stood there, silent, mouth agape. Perhaps I mustered a guttural “guh?” I can’t even remember; I’ve had selective, voluntary amnesia around this trauma.

My teacher, of course, was pissed. She was a baker in her spare time, so maybe my failure registered as a personal affront to her culinary gifts. How did I not know what that word meant? Didn’t I grow up in this country, she asked me? She cancelled the activity in a fury, claiming I’d ruined it.

Here's my dumb head!

I swear I wasn’t a stupid child. I attributed the oversight to the fact that I’d been raised in a suburban New Jersey household where I spoke two first languages simultaneously, Bengali and English. This bilingualism led to clear lapses in my vocabulary, “to dish” among its chief casualties. I left school that day feeling like shit, wrestling with a frustration I couldn’t quite articulate.

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I wish I could say my ignorance about the vocabulary people use to talk about food subsided, but then I remember the fact that I didn’t know what orange zest was until a few months ago. (I know, I know. Who the hell is this kid?) Only now, at the rapidly fossilizing age of twenty four, have I begun to reckon with how little I know about food. And this basic self-doubt is a fact I’ll have to work through as Staff Writer over here at Food52.

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Top Comment:
“And like another commentator, I rarely read through food articles, mostly skimming. I think it's a great idea. There are tons of people like this writer - - and by that I mean non-white. And also, tons of folks who are sophisticated about food but like (or need) to eat. Bravo!”
— jevyn

When I first saw this job posting, I balked. I never imagined a career in food writing for myself. I didn’t think I possessed the stringent, food-savvy critical apparatus to even enter food media. From my vantage point, the food world seemed saturated with discerning critics like the judges on Top Chef, or chefs like Anthony Bourdain, who approached every dish with a dose of earned skepticism. Beyond restaurant critics, the perceived figureheads of food media I’d come to know were mostly white women—kind, charming, universally agreeable, from Rachael Ray to Giada de Laurentiis. More often than not, they were unlike me.

Got an aneurysm thinking about making this!

I thought back to my own childhood: My family rarely ate out. If we did, it wasn’t at fine dining establishments. Rather, we'd venture places completely non-threatening: Cheesecake Factory, Rainforest Cafe, Chili’s, Roy Rogers.

I certainly didn’t have a sophisticated vocabulary for talking about what I ate, either. For one, I had alarmingly few words in my food writing arsenal. What words would I use? Rich? Decadent? Tasty? Please kill me. These words should be categorically excised from anyone's vocabulary, especially that of a food writer. (The rest of Food52's Editorial team agrees, thankfully, and has enforced this ban.) Yet they were all I really had.

If I were to be granted access to a seat at this table at all, I feared I’d feel like the odd one out, trying my best to keep up and convince everyone else I belong in food writing. This all has a name—imposter syndrome. In my case, it’s founded in my own belief that “food media” is has little place for a person like me: a brown man.

If I were to be granted access to a seat at this table at all, I feared I’d feel like the odd one out, trying my best to keep up and convince everyone else I belong in food writing.

Food media, like a lot of media, skews white. This shouldn’t be breaking news, but if it is, I’d encourage you to read the words of people who’ve inhabited this universe much longer than I have.

I'm now beginning to see my sparse knowledge about food as an asset rather than a liability. The very utopian, rose-tinted promise of writing on the internet is that the open web has democratized access, diversifying the scope of readership along social, racial, and economic strata. As access increases, so does the need to create writing that speaks to this plurality. Whose stories get told for whom, and who’s telling them? And is it in a language everyone understands?

As I talked more with the Food52 Editorial team, I realized we saw eye-to-eye on this front. I began to realize my very perspective—as someone who's scared shitless by fine dining and has a remarkably unrefined palate—has value in an industry that doesn't always speak to plebes like me. There are still moments when I feel the need to posture myself as a "food writer" in the traditional sense of the phrase, yet I find myself veering far from the central question that eased me into this gig. Would I, a normal person without a food background, want to read this?

When I couch it in those terms, my fear of my stepping into this foreign role lightens. Food permeates every aspect of our lives, and that's a fact I'd like to reflect in my coverage here. You'll see me covering topics you may not have seen a ton of on Food52 thus far. I'll be writing about food in pop culture and art—film, television, music. I'll be writing about how it brushes against topics of identity.

Want me to make this for you? Too bad! Can't do it! Sorry!

In my head, I’ve since made peace with Mrs. Meyers. And yet her accusations of my un-Americanness, founded in my illiteracy all things culinary, still clings to me. She struck at my fear that everyone around me is speaking a language I just don’t understand and never quite will. But here I am. I’ve knowingly entered this universe as someone who’s decidedly not a “food person.” I just eat food, and I'm hoping that’s enough.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Helen Anderson
    Helen Anderson
  • Yolanda Thompson
    Yolanda Thompson
  • jevyn
  • kathryn
  • sue malick
    sue malick
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


Helen A. September 24, 2016
Mayukh! I was so surprised and delighted to stumble upon your byline here. Really, really excited to read your stuff -- food + pop culture, art, identity, etc. are some of the topics I find myself writing about quite a bit too. Would love to catch up with you sometime via phone or email and hear how things are going. Your fan, Helen
Yolanda T. September 21, 2016
Welcome, it's nice to see another brown face. Love the article. Here's to more diversity!
jevyn September 19, 2016
Really happy about this article. And like another commentator, I rarely read through food articles, mostly skimming. I think it's a great idea. There are tons of people like this writer - - and by that I mean non-white. And also, tons of folks who are sophisticated about food but like (or need) to eat. Bravo!
kathryn September 17, 2016
Love this! First article I have read completely threw on this website. Not that I don't love food 52 it just drew me in and I'm glad it did. Have a great time in this new page. With love from Canada
sue M. September 17, 2016
Welcome to the table. You've obviously got the writing chops. The only thing anyone needs to be informed about food is a curious interest. We all need to fuel ourselves. Why not make it a fun satisfying, cultural, historical, and social romp? I look forward to seeing this new world you discover and your perspective. Write on!
kristin T. September 17, 2016
You come at it with a fresh new perspective and that is good. Food 52 cannot just appeal to seasoned types. BTW, I hate the word "tasty" (and the words "yummy" and "moist"). Consider yourself a foreign correspondent venturing into new territory (once you get used to it, you will get to love us natives!)
Isabel September 17, 2016
Hi Mayukh, you really got my attention man! I couldn't stop reading and can't wait to read more! Food52 must be a good bunch of people for hiring you! There's nothing wrong with white, but when brown and all the rest get a voice we're all more exciting for it. Looking forward to more !
Briana R. September 16, 2016
Sooo much love here! Happy to have met you! I will be looking out for all your work on the site!
Tanya September 16, 2016
rachellynnec September 16, 2016
My guttural, ineloquent first response? YASSSS. So looking forward to reading your words here.
rohinij September 16, 2016
What an extraordinary breath of fresh air! Best of luck, and I look forward to hearing more from you, Mayukh.
Umara A. September 16, 2016
Good luck M! You represent where so many of us were years ago or even stand today! I love food52 and I love them more for giving your curious, brown-self a seat at thier table. We come from a rich food background but to is it was just mom's cooking that wasn't cool. We just couldn't appreciate it at an age when adolescents are simply trying to fit in. So glad you don't fit entirely and are bringing a curiousity and humor that I will look forward to more!
Ige R. September 16, 2016
I can relate. Good luck!
Sam September 15, 2016
Good luck, Mayukh! I think you'll make a great addition to this team. I can't wait to see more of your fresh perspective. Like the previous commenter said, you are totally living my dream! Go forth and live it well for the rest of us.
Carrie September 15, 2016
You are living my dream! I can't wait to see your future stories. I have always wanted to be a food writer, but fancy dining scares me too. I just want simple good food, nice atmosphere, easy and relaxing. So much is geared towards fine dining and fancy atmospheres, that the food gets lost in the chaos. It's a powerful industry.
Good luck!
Dirk S. September 15, 2016
What an exciting perspective to bring to a food blog. You will open doors and windows to the perception of the food world most of us "regulars" never knew existed. I am sure of it and can't wait to see more from you.
Azza H. September 15, 2016
Mayukh, thank you for pushing me to finally google "orange zest". It was a very winding search that took me through a variety of tools that provide optimum grating, how one "zests" (similar to "dish", that word) and, of course, when I can finally get my hands around a microplane and an orange. Summer is ending here in Cairo, Egypt, so oranges (about a dozen of them only) are tucked away in a corner of an inverted wooden pallet at that part of the market where you can smell the freshness seeping out of the produce. It's a zone that is to be avoided at all costs. Anyway. Summer also means that one particular citrus will be rolling into the souk in crates and crates: lemons. Or, to be honest, masquerading lemons that are actually over-ripe limes bursting with juice- proving them very hard to zest for fear of popping them and rendering them useless. Microplanes (even cheap ones that are obvious counterfeits of the trademarked ones) are very sharp. In hindsight, I should have seen that coming.
Looking forward to reading your articles about food and identity.

A fellow imposter (or is it impostor? Back to Google for me, I guess).
Pamela_in_Tokyo September 15, 2016
Yeah, cool. I like to look at those fancy-pantsy dishes. LOOK being the MAIN WORD. 8 inch, 3-layered cakes with marzipan are cool to look at, but make one, ---NO WAY. I'll take a 9x13 inch pan any time. What do you EAT? What do you WANT TO EAT?

I have a friend who gags at the thought of having to eat a beet. A beet! I can not get my head around that. I came here to Japan almost 50 years ago. And that 18 year-old-girl-who-had-never-eaten-fish-much-less-raw-fish was offered raw fish, RAW FISH!!, right off the bat. I felt an sea change. Without a quibble, I opened my mouth and ate. ...and ate. So enjoy your journey. Open your eyes, open your mouth and eat. Tell us about it. I'll be looking forward to it. ;-)
Tammy N. September 15, 2016
Okay Mayukh, I see you. Very nice indeed. I actually read the entire article, so yeah, that's a good thing. Congrats, welcome and keep being you, boo ;)
Jill September 15, 2016
Everybody eats. Everybody who eats has opinions about what they're eating -- expert opinions, Grandma/folk/tried-and-true opinions, rookie opinions. Every opinion is just as valid as the next, as long as you're not trying to teach pressure canning or advanced knife skills. There is no cultural/tribal/ethnic litmus test for energy and enthusiasm (well, there SHOULDN'T be). You keep that crisp, curious style at the forefront of your writing and you'll do great. I look forward to reading more.