clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Women Who Shaped America’s Palate

Author Mayukh Sen talks about the women who revolutionized America’s foodways, and why the hurdles they faced still exist

If you buy something from an Eater link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics policy.

On the left, author Mayukh Sen, in a black shirt, standing in front of a city skyline. On the right, the cover of the book “Tastemakers: Seven immigrant women who revolutionized food in America.”
Mayukh Sen
Christopher Gregory-Rivera

Julie Sahni’s recipes are how I learned to cook Indian food. Her first cookbook, Classic Indian Cooking, was passed to me from my mother, who learned to cook from it when she was married to my Indian father, and now my copy is as worn and stained as anyone else’s grandma’s copy of Joy of Cooking. She was spoken of as a household name. So I was shocked to learn, at some point in my adulthood, that most of my peers had never heard of her, and still every time a colleague speaks her name I feel like we are in on the same secret.

That is, of course, unfair to Sahni, whose success is no secret. She has published multiple cookbooks, helmed a Manhattan restaurant, has an incredibly successful cooking school, and her Classic Indian Cooking is in its 42nd printing. But that is the tension Mayukh Sen attempts to deconstruct in his new book, Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America. Here are a group of immigrant women who are at once revered and overlooked for their contributions to American food culture. You know them and you don’t, and you’ve probably taken their influence for granted: Elena Zelayeta became an early “celebrity chef” teaching Americans about Mexican cuisine. Norma Shirley showed Americans that Jamaican food was worthy of respect. It’s impossible to read a modern food blog without being instructed to make Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce. And Sahni was one of the first chefs to run a fine dining Indian restaurant, although she is rarely mentioned for it.

Through his essays, Sen attempts “to trouble the canon of culinary brilliance, so often homogeneously male,” he writes, and to explore why some of these women are more remembered than others. Sen spoke to Eater about America’s palate, the binary of assimilation versus authenticity, and how these women continue to show us how to break free.

Eater: You mention a lot of contemporaries of these women who are often really influential. You were talking about Julie Sahni, and then you mention Madhur Jaffrey, and I feel like we could totally make the argument that as many Americans learn to cook from Madhur as Julie. What was your criteria for determining influence?

Mayukh Sen: The reason why I wanted to write a group biography at all was to honor the collective labor that is behind the creation of cooking culture in America, because it is so easy, at least from my vantage point in food media, for storytellers to position one figure as the sole person who is responsible for revolutionizing American understandings of a certain cuisine. I believe that a lot of readers might arrive to this book thinking that Madhur Jaffrey is the most influential figure when it comes to Indian home cooking in America. I wanted readers to understand that actually, around the same time she was working, there were other figures like Julie Sahni who were also advancing the cause of Indian cooking in America, yet perhaps there are people who belong to my generation or younger generations who are not quite aware of their impact. I really wanted to make sure that I was not positioning any of these women as the sole figure who was responsible for championing the cuisines of their home countries for Americans. But rather, they were working in concert.

In terms of my criteria for determining influence, there’s so many women in these chapters who I mention offhand who would have been wonderful subjects for this book. Yet as I was figuring out which seven women exactly belonged in this book, I questioned, has there been enough writing as of late about their legacies, and the full arc of their careers as there should be? The other thing that I was asking myself is, what is it about this person’s story that is compelling in narrative terms, especially to someone who is not a regular consumer of food media? I have noticed that it’s quite easy and tempting for those of us in food media to narrow audiences and write stories that feel inside baseball, and not necessarily have that broader appeal and resonance for readers who don’t consider themselves consumers of food writing generally. I wanted to make sure I always had my pulse on that kind of reader when I was choosing which stories to tell.

One thing that really struck me is that, even in the earliest chapters, there was an appetite in America for what these women were doing. They were popular. Americans didn’t just want to eat Chinese or Mexican or Indian food, they wanted to buy cookbooks and cook it. When looking at the history of food in America, do you think contemporary food media tends to underestimate that appetite, or treat it as a more modern thing?

I believe that this appetite existed for a long time. From my understanding through my research, I observed that it really began to flourish just after World War II. And I believe that the loosening of certain immigration laws in the 1960s made more cookbook authors and chefs and cooking teachers feel even freer to express themselves in culinary terms without filter, or without necessarily diluting the taste of their home countries to suit this white, middle- to upper-middle-class palate.

I do want to be critical of where this appetite comes from. Even today, I notice that there is sometimes a patronizing attitude surrounding the embrace of cuisines from marginalized communities from the dominant culture. There’s almost this sense of smugness that surrounds consumption of these cuisines on the part of the consumer. So I do think that that is a constant as well and I hope that it’s scrubbed out as time goes on.

You talked about dilution and assimilation and catering to a white palate in the Elena Zelayeta chapter, writing that she cooked “for both white Americans and immigrants who, like her, may have aspired toward assimilation.” But she also seemed excited to cook not just Mexican food. What do you feel like is the difference between a cuisine of assimilation and compromise and a cuisine or a cooking style that allows the creator to play with a variety of influences and ingredients?

That’s a huge question. I think the line is honestly porous. When I was writing the Elena chapter there were some aspects of her writing that struck me as catering to this aforementioned upper-middle-class, white American palate, that I tried to understand as rooted in a bid for survival and financial viability for her, because that was just the way things were done back then. I noticed that as time went on, in the way that she talked about her own cooking, she started to really own this compromise, you could call it, and define it as part of her philosophy. In her final cookbook she embraced what many may call California cuisine, and her cookbooks were not just filled with Mexican and Spanish recipes; she borrowed techniques and ingredients from Italy and Japan and other immigrant populations who were present in her adoptive state of California. She was quite content to have her cooking reflect her sense of place and how it developed over time. She was born in Mexico, yet eventually she was able to make America and specifically California her home. If you look at her career, you can see the difference between the two: a dilution that is rooted in a need to satisfy certain kinds of consumers versus a sense of pride in owning a culinary philosophy that borrows influences from different homes.

That ties in so much to your point, too, about the way that white consumption of immigrant cuisines or non-European cuisines, or even sometimes European cuisines, can be a little patronizing. Because there is a white expectation of what is “authentic” or what they want out of that cuisine. It turns into not letting people experiment — it’s a different sort of pigeonholing.

Exactly. And I was thinking about this a lot when I was writing a chapter on Marcella Hazan, because in that chapter I chronicled the reportedly tense relationship that she had with her Knopf editor, Judith Jones. There was a juncture in the writing and editing of Marcella’s second cookbook, in which they, per Marcella’s account, really butted heads about cauliflower gratin in bechamel sauce. Judith Jones reportedly did not understand what made that recipe Italian, yet Marcella insisted that it of course belonged in a book like hers. And that to me just reminded me of, even around something like Italian cuisine, which today might strike many readers as part of the dominant culture — certain stereotypes surrounded what constituted quote-unquote “authentic Italian cuisine” back then that may have made creators like Marcella Hazan feel really stifled in their journeys to express themselves in the fullest terms possible.

I want to talk a little bit about the structure of the book. You have a lot of notes explaining different choices that you made when you were writing, and you say that one of your goals was to decenter yourself and let these women’s stories be told in their own words. But the way you went about that is instead of using direct quotes and a more journalistic style, you often weave quotes either from these women or from their family and contemporaries and interviews into prose. I would love to hear a little more about the decision to do that, and what you did to ensure that you didn’t wind up taking these women’s stories and creating your own narrative with them.

One reason why I chose to write the book in that way is, as someone who’s still relatively young and early in his writing career, I thought writing a book was just an opportunity. As a journalist writing for certain publications there’s a very strict stylistic guide that I often have to follow. So I wanted to offer a different experience for myself as a writer, and also a different experience for the reader because the very, very few readers who do come to this book knowing my work might be expecting a certain kind of reading experience, and I want to surprise them and I also want to surprise myself.

But more generally, in building out these chapters, the first step was to find these women relaying their own stories in their own voices. I looked to memoirs and cookbooks with memoir passages, or any interviews they gave during their lifetimes that could help me assess how they wanted the world to see them and hear their own voice. This obviously was not a great challenge in the case of the two living subjects of mine, Julie Sahni from India, and Najmieh Batmanglij from Iran. Yet in the case of five subjects of mine who are deceased, I really had to seek a lot of those materials out. In spending a lot of time with those memoirs and those other texts that I just mentioned, I tried my best to get a sense of each woman’s voice and how they wanted the public to see them, and that was essential for building the foundation of each chapter. I spoke to people who were in these women's professional orbits or were friends or family members. I also looked at a lot of archival materials, did a lot of digging on and like a total nerd, just to make sure I was including each woman’s story in as vibrant context as possible.

It was definitely a concern as I was constructing each story to make sure that I was not imposing my own beliefs, or too contemporary an understanding of each woman’s story, in a way that would do a disservice to what they cared about during their lifetimes. I think that my way of working around that was to make sure that I was not casting judgment on any of them. My politics are very far left and I take a pretty hard stance against this notion of assimilation through food. Yet some of these women did not see their careers in the same way, because they had a different set of challenges than I have faced during my time in this industry. So I think that was certainly a challenge when I was framing each story, to make sure that my own values were not seeping in in a way that would compromise the truth of their own stories.

It’s so hard. My dad came to the U.S. in the early ’60s, and growing up I always had such frustration about — why doesn’t my dad speak Hindi or Bengali? And then I realized, where were they going to do that, and with who, and how were they going to be able to live their lives? There is a totally different set of considerations when it comes to assimilation. So much of their goal was like, we’re leaving this place and we are coming to America because we want to live a different kind of life.

That empathy is so essential for any responsible food journalist. Another way to access that empathy was to look at my own story, or at least my condensed story within this industry, because I am a queer person of color. I’m also a child of Bengali immigrants, you know? I came to this industry as very much an outsider five years ago, in the sense that I never grew up wanting to write about food because I never thought it was an option. I always saw it as the domain of a straight white man. Early on in 2016, when I got into this industry, I felt my differences very acutely. So as a result, to mitigate that sense of outsiderness, I hacked a lot of my early work with something to prove. I wanted to reduce any sense of fraudulence on my end, and the way to do that was to chase validation from certain institutions — awards bodies, anthologies, publications, what have you — that would convince people that I actually did belong in this industry. I was so fortunate to get that early in my career, and that opened up a lot of access to capital and opportunity.

But I realized as I was writing this book that collecting those sorts of accolades had not actually made me happy, and the institutions that validated me didn’t actually care about who I was or what I stood for or. So I was looking at my own journey and understanding why I was chasing that assimilationist path, and applying that to each woman’s story.

You mentioned in your introduction to Taste Makers that these women had to be “persuasive enough to get powerful people to listen.” And it made me think of this recent piece by Soleil Ho, in which she talks about, “the pattern of continually looking toward predominantly white institutions ... for validation of predominantly non-white experiences, as if proper representation would solve all of our problems.” I feel like this is what you’re talking about: chasing these accolades and powerful people, which often means the white readers, white media establishment, et cetera. And Ho was like, “I’m done with that.” Now that you’ve been parsing your own feelings about this, what are your thoughts on the goal of getting powerful people to listen?

I think that one truth that this book made me understand is that we might need to redefine what power even looks like in media, and the way I see it, we might need to move away from a model in which so much capital is concentrated in these institutions that have had their mask-off moments, let’s say, and really showed their major inadequacies in respecting the stories of marginalized communities with adequate sensitivity. Personally I am investing a lot of my hope and whatever small amount of money I have into independent creators and magazines who might be working outside of the confines of the food establishment. One example is Whetstone Magazine by Stephen Satterfield, who many readers may know as the host of High on the Hog on Netflix. But I think that that is where a lot of the more boundary-pushing, decolonized food writing lives right now. The magazine sometimes covers topics that I believe a lot of the more mainstream American food media has shied away from. And I would love to see more publications like Whetstone really rise to prominence in the years to come.

I have a day job as a professor at NYU and I teach food writing there, and I come across so many students who were exactly like me a few years ago, in the sense that they want to get their bylines in newspapers that are widely read and that is, to them, a sign that they have made it. I would love to see the goal moving forward for a new generation of food writers to have their bylines in independent magazines as a sign that they have succeeded. Because I have lost faith in these dodgy institutions to really reform themselves in a meaningful way that will accommodate those of us who are on the margins or have politics that are not just barely left of center.

You have this collection of stories about these women who in their times were both revered and underestimated, and you explore so much about how even the most respected ones, their full stories weren’t out there, or they had to make these compromises. Do you think that is still the landscape that exists today, or do you have hope that things have changed or can change?

Do I have hope in change? I think it’s too soon to tell. Last summer saw what seemed like to a lot of people, many broad shifts in the food media landscape. And with it came a call from some powerful folks to amplify the stories of folks on the margins, those who have otherwise been excluded from these institutions. Yet from my observations just a year and a half later, I see a lot going back to as it was before that flash point of last summer. So I’m not quite sure that I have a ton of hope that the landscape is going to change in any meaningful way that will allow these stories to really exist within the American food media. But I think that just reminds me that the onus is on people like myself, for however long I’m practicing in this field, to really make sure that I am doing my best to tell these stories with as much care as possible, and really gaining the trust of these sources who might belong to communities that have not been covered by the media traditionally, and might even have reason to distrust members of the media. It really just reminds me of what my duty is.

Taste Makers is out November 16 and available for pre-order now.

Sign up for the Sign up for the Eater newsletter

The freshest news from the food world every day