Food History

In 'Taste Makers,' Meet the Immigrant Women Who Changed American Food

A conversation with author Mayukh Sen and writer Reem Kassis.

November 16, 2021
Photo by W.W. Norton

When I first met Mayukh Sen on a windy day in New York City a couple years ago, our conversation flowed like we’d known each other for years. I didn’t understand why at the time. But having blitzed through his new book, Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America, at record speed (it’s as riveting as any novel, as page-turning as a thriller, and as moving as an inspirational book), I finally realize why. Sen has a knack for understanding the stories of those across from him in a way often overlooked by others.

In his new book, this James Beard Award–winning writer delves into the stories of seven immigrant women who shaped and changed the way people in America interact with foreign cuisines, but to whom history, and memory, have not always been as kind. Rather than tell their stories from his view, however, Sen has allowed each woman’s voice to tell her own story. In so doing, he brings readers not only a better understanding of the struggles many face in this industry, but also lifts up a mirror, forcing us to question what role we play in perpetuating these issues. As heartbreaking as it is inspiring, this is a book for anyone who cares about food and the people who create it.

We spent some time over the phone recently discussing this new book. Below is an excerpt from our conversation.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

REEM KASSIS: Can you tell me about your first inspiration for this book?

MAYUKH SEN: I was a staff writer at Food52 back in the summer of 2017 when the idea first came to me. A friend of mine was looking at the budding body of work I had started to build, stories that focused on figures from marginalized communities in the food world—women, queer people, people of color, some who fell under all those umbrellas—who were not sufficiently honored in their lifetimes or by the food establishment. So he looked at these and thought, “Huh, I wonder if there is a bigger story to tell here about the development of immigrant food in America.” I put this in my back pocket—I was 25 years old and not sure I was ready to write a book.

A year later, I felt more ready to work on a book project. I started to think about what I had witnessed in food media. I had seen so many dominant food publications endorse talking points along the lines of “immigrants feed America”or “immigrants get the job done.” As a child of immigrants, I found these talking points troubling. They centered a consumer the media had privileged for a long time, and decentered the immigrants doing the actual labor. These talking points were reducing immigrant lives to the value they had for said consumer. So I thought writing biographical essays about immigrants who really shaped and changed the way Americans think about food today, in ways that were not honored by history, could start to address this issue.

RK: How is the book that you eventually wrote different from that first germ of an idea?

MS: There are many differences. When I wrote and sold the proposal in 2018, I had no idea how these seven stories would talk to each other, and that was a question many publishers asked: “How does this series of biographical essays amount to a book?” And I usually answered, “Oh, I’ll figure it out” [laughs]. But I still wasn’t sure what the through line would be. So figuring out the overarching theme that would connect them and make them feel cohesive was a big change. In the end, what I found unifying was that each of these women struggled to be heard in an industry not made to accommodate them, because they were part of a marginalized community that does not get access to capital easily.

RK: Each of the seven women you chose is fascinating in her own way. But by implication, choosing them meant forgoing many others who, just like them, have influenced flavor and cooking in this country, but who have gone unrecognized. How did you choose these women, and how did you balance that against who you were inevitably forced to leave out?

MS: Even 50 women would not be enough to capture the fullness of the contributions of immigrant female labor to American cooking. So narrowing it down to seven was particularly tough. When I sold the proposal back in 2018, some of the seven I chose were not the seven I ended up writing about, and much of it ended up being a function of what material was available. I gravitated toward women who left documents behind which spoke through their own voice, especially for the five who were deceased. I tried to find women who had written memoirs or cookbooks with memoiristic passages, or had given interviews that presented them speaking in their own voices. Because what I really wanted was to understand how they wanted to be presented to the world.

It was painful to part ways with women who I felt belonged in a book like this, but who did not have sufficient materials to allow me to tell their stories in a complete enough way. For example, one of the women in my proposal was Desta Bairu, an Eritrean chef of what is believed to be Washington, D.C.’s first Ethiopian restaurant in the 1970s. She had no memoir, few interviews, and died many years ago, so I had virtually no access to her direct voice. But she certainly revolutionized how Americans view Ethiopian food today, and yet, I could not tell her story with as much texture because I did not have the kind of materials I had for the other women. So it was tough to let the sun set on those kinds of stories, but I felt having a short chapter on subjects like Bairu, when I was able to write much longer chapters about other figures, didn’t do justice to their contributions.

Also, I looked for commonalities among these stories, for elements that would be narratively appealing to people who would not necessarily be regular consumers of food media. So much of present-day food writing appeals to a very small audience, and it’s very easy when you spend a long time in this industry to get steeped in the vernacular of food media and narrow your audience. What I wanted was to make sure this book had as broad appeal as possible.

RK: You talk in the book’s introduction about your “liabilities” (queerness, color) making you marketable—how did that influence your approach to the book?

MS: One of my chief aims with this book was to make sure I was not making myself present in these chapters beyond the choices I made on a pure prose level—I did not want my opinion to factor in through the first person. I wanted the subjects to speak for themselves. I did not want to interject. But my own background (I am queer, brown, a child of immigrants, and I grew up speaking two languages) shaped the way I crafted these stories. In my time in this field, I have experienced so much discrimination, from the reader level to people at the very top of this industry. I tried to keep a lot of that pain in mind as I approached these stories. I wanted to be empathetic to these women’s struggles, to make sure that the wounds I carried in this industry informed how I shared their stories.

Madeleine [Kamman]’s chapter reminded me of this—she was very accomplished, but was always seen as a rival to Julia Child. I found it so unfair that in spite of her meticulous work, which spoke for itself, she found herself characterized in such a way, by people telling these stories about her. So when I was spending time with her memoir, I could see part of her story in mine, and I wanted to capture her pain with as much sensitivity as possible, not replicate damage that writers had done before me in putting her story on the page. That’s just one example of how my experience impacted how I approached the project.

What really inspired me about all these women’s stories is that they let the work speak for itself and found fulfillment in the work they were doing. That is a lesson I try to impart on myself, because even as I gain a small degree of prominence in this industry, I still find that many people who have more power and money than I will ever have in my life treat me like some queer brown mascot, but don’t engage with substance of my work. I don’t want to be in a situation where I feel so small, and that I am not being read by people who could open doors for me. Visiting these women’s stories helped me make peace with those realities of the industry and with appreciating my work for its own value.

RK: It’s hard to overlook in your book how instrumental the gatekeepers of food media (or what you call the “food establishment”) are in determining whose careers flourish, who becomes a household name, and who sinks into oblivion. I think Craig Claiborne is mentioned in almost every single one of your chapters. Do you think that has changed at all today? How do you think we make these gatekeepers more embracing of people who don’t fit the stereotypes that they (or current trends) deem worthy of highlighting?

MS: I believe that this cycle functions in a similar way to how it did in the past. I write about this in my afterword a bit. For example, the Eritrean chef I mentioned, Desta Bairu: I wish journalists had given her the space to have her story told, or had allowed her to tell her own story, because that would make the work of journalists like myself years later, trying to understand those people, much easier.

You are exactly right that Craig Claiborne is this figure who hovers over all these chapters because in his post at the New York Times starting in 1957, he had tremendous influence over who became a star in that world and who did not. A short write-up from him could open up so much access to capital and opportunity that otherwise would not be available.

I think publications like the Times food section still wield this much power, as do ones even in the digital sphere. In my own time at Food52, I interacted with subjects who thanked me because a short Q&A allowed them to get interest from publishers, when otherwise there would not have been. So the locus of influence has shifted beyond just the Times because of the diffuse nature of food media today. That said, I think power fundamentally still looks the same in food media. Moving forward, I would love to see a wider embrace of independent food media and independent creators who are really working against the history of discrimination that is embedded in the food establishment.

Two examples are Whetstone Magazine and my good friend Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter. Both are doing work that pushes against a lot of the tropes we see peddled by major corporate food publications. I hope consumers will route whatever capital they have toward independent creators, so that the concentration of influence shifts over time…but I’m not holding my breath.

RK: In academic circles, I have come across the notion multiple times that for some, appreciation of otherness, especially through food, is a sign of “class,” and it’s seen as “cool” or “worldly” to appreciate foreign cuisines. But when these women were cooking and writing, it was long before this was the case—do you think the reception would have been different today?

MS: It’s true that a lot of these women were working in times when the flavors they were championing were seen by white gatekeepers as too foreign to become part of the American palate. So many of these women fought battles and paved the way for people like me, but I think the struggle still exists in some form.

For example, the subject of my last chapter, Norma Shirley, she cooked in the Berkshires in Massachusetts in the 1970s and found success, then she tried New York. When she arrived she found she was just a dime a dozen, just “another nobody who could cook,” and she could not secure enough investors or capital, and so had to go back to Jamaica to realize that vision in full. Only in the mid-1980s did she become a star and get recognition from the American food establishment, who liked to call her the “Julia Child of the Caribbean.” Yet I am not certain that 40 years later it would be much easier to realize her vision, or get the money she needs in New York to have her restaurant run on her terms. I think this industry is still quite discriminatory.

RK: I found the first chapter, Chao Yang Buwei’s story, fascinating, but also scary—the idea that someone can contribute so much and still be completely overlooked. You outline that during her time, it was for a host of reasons, racism and sexism not least among them. Do we face a similar situation today for different reasons? It seems that everyone has a blog or an Instagram account, even a cookbook. How do you weed the real contributions from the fads and ensure those who truly contribute are not overlooked by time?

MS: I think the onus falls on members of the media like myself, as I write in my book’s afterword. Consumers, like the readers of this site, might have minimal power to determine who gets to make a living off of working in food, such as through supporting independent creators going against the grain. But that doesn’t guarantee that said creator will burrow their way into cultural memory. As I wrote this book, I became acutely aware of how important the work of journalists is in spotlighting the boundary-pushing work of chefs, food writers, and cooks. Writing those stories is proof of their labor. Those documents existing at all makes it easier for folks like me, working generations later, to understand the extent of someone’s contributions to American food culture. Buwei didn’t even get a New York Times obituary, in spite of the fact that her path-breaking 1945 cookbook coined the term “stir-fry.” Something as simple as that elision made my work that much harder.

RK: When I read Elena Zelayeta’s chapter, she reminded me of a present-day Nigella Lawson in her appeal and popularity. Yet time has not been kind to her memory, and few even remember her.

MS: I think short attention span has something to do with why she’s not a household name the way she was in her time. Food media is always looking for rising stars, and yet they tire of you easily and then move on. I believe Elena fell victim to that after her death. There is a woman that many Food52 readers are likely familiar with—Diana Kennedy—who drew similar praise from gatekeepers, like Craig Claiborne, when she first entered the culinary world. She is a thorough researcher with no ancestral ties to Mexico, and she wrote about the country’s foodways in great depth, and became the authority on Mexican cooking for many American readers. I think the way the American mind functions, there is always only room for one person in a certain sphere or topic. I also think when it comes to Elena’s cooking, her food was very much of its time. She came to prominence after World War II, and she had a story that contributed to her popularity and spoke to her resilience—she taught herself how to cook after losing her sight as an adult. Readers in her day found it aspirational. Her cooking reflected the era as well, because it responded to trends in what was then called “California cuisine.” I suspect it’s possible her cooking has aged in a way that has prevented it from having the longevity it deserves.

RK: You mention in Kamman’s chapter how she wasn’t fighting to get Americans to respect French cooking, but to respect the cooking of French women. She was averse to Julia Child, who she felt rode on French women’s backs and got the recognition for it. (We see this again in Julie Sahni’s chapter, how Floyd Cardoz’s 2020 obituary painted him as the first at many things Julie pioneered.) We clearly still see some chefs, most of whom are privileged, white, and often men, get the platform to talk about other ethnicities’ food, while those from the cultures might get sidelined.

MS: I guess you could call some of these folks interlopers—people writing from outside communities they belong to. I think the sensitivity of the approach really matters.

I think the question about who materially benefits from telling whose story is very important. It is also a question people may have of my own book, because I’m aware I present as a man, and yet I am telling the story of women. But I hope people understand that as a queer person, my relationship to gender is more complicated than my appearance might suggest, and I hope readers approach my book with that spirit of generosity. I relate to the stories of these women more easily because they reflect how I see myself.

People who come from marginalized communities are still fighting for respect in the food world. I felt some small smidge of hope after summer of 2020 exposed the racism in the industry, but many feel that the industry has self-corrected to where it was before last summer, so I don’t feel confident that these tropes I write about in my book have changed substantially. I think that in so much storytelling, food, the object, is still sometimes being more treasured than the people who make it, which is why it’s so easy for people from the dominant culture to gain prominence for interloping. Their barriers to access might not be as steep. But this reminds me of what brought me to this field to begin with: to me writing comes before food. I’m less interested in food as an object than I am in the story of the people who create the food.

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Who changed the way you thought about American cooking? Let us know in the comments.
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