Books

Mayukh Sen Celebrates Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized American Food Culture

Published by
Nadra Nittle

In Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America, award-winning journalist and author Mayukh Sen writes that while he wants to warm readers’ hearts, he also wants to make them squirm.

Although readers will likely delight in the stories of the seven women he profiles in the book—including Mexican-born Elena Zelayeta, Italian-born Marcella Hazan, and Jamaican-born Norma Shirley—Sen suggests they should also be appalled at the way American society values the experiences of some immigrants and devalues those of others.

Marcella Hazan. (Photo via Wikipedia)

Women immigrants, especially those of color, have been particularly marginalized, and as a result, Taste Makers is as much a recovery project as it is a group biography. Within its pages, which span from World War II to the present, Sen unearths the history of immigrant women who have left a lasting mark on American food culture, whether or not credited for their contributions in their lifetimes.

He details their entrepreneurship, ethnic pride, and dedication to the culinary craft as well as the xenophobia, racism, and misogyny that often limited the recognition they received. Some of these women did achieve stardom in their day but not posthumously, while others, such as Hazan, are revered today.

Although Taste Makers levels criticism at the American food establishment, the book also highlights how Sen’s subjects persevered in the face of oppressive social constructs. Iranian-born Najmieh Batmanglij is a case in point: She moved to the U.S. in the wake of the Iranian Revolution and faced fierce discrimination as a result; finding the food establishment unwilling to embrace her, she published her culinary writing on her own terms.

A self-described “queer, brown child of immigrants” from India, Sen himself can relate to the challenges endured by the women he chronicles in Taste Makers. “That is crucial to why I have chosen to write this book and tell these stories,” he told Civil Eats. “I have occasionally faced questions, like, ‘Why are you—as a man—writing these stories? What attracts you to these stories?’ The answer is partially due to the fact that I have a very complicated relationship with gender, and I also belong to many marginalized communities.”

The immense empathy Sen has for his subjects pushes readers to reflect on the women, recognized and unrecognized, responsible for shaping the American palette. Civil Eats spoke with Sen about his motivation for writing Taste Makers, his hopes for its influence on the food establishment, and how much progress marginalized people have made in the American culinary world.

In Taste Makers, you profile seven immigrant women. How did you narrow it down?

There are so many brilliant immigrant women throughout American history who have shaped food in various ways—teachers, cookbook authors, chefs, et cetera. What really helped clarify things for me was to ask myself, “What kind of statement do I want to make with this book, especially with regards to assimilation, and whether that is the only pathway for success in America and under American capitalism?”

I tailored my seven subjects with that guiding credo. I wanted to include a mix of more familiar names—Marcella Hazan, for example, is a widely revered figure—alongside lesser-known names, ones who have not been sufficiently honored by the dominant white culture, for lack of a better term. I also wanted to make sure that readers with just a passing interest in food have a reason to pick up the book, and in doing so, they might be able to get to know some figures they think they know, like Marcella, in a deeper, more complex way while also being introduced to a wide variety of other figures whose names they may not have heard before.

And what can you say about the genesis of this book?

Back in 2017, I was a staff writer at Food52. I had been writing a lot of stories about people of color, women of color, immigrants of color, queer people of color—people who have not necessarily been given the appreciation that they deserve.

I had a friend named Shuja Haider, and he floated this idea to me. He said, “I wonder if these essays can amount to some sort of book about the immigrant story.” So, I put that in my back pocket.

“I think the most quietly radical way to push back against that sort of trope in food media is to tell the stories of various immigrant figures throughout American history who shaped food in the most granular way possible.”

Fast forward a year later, and I start to see some troubling narratives in food media pop up, a lot of stories and social media campaigns that basically say, “Immigrants get the job done.” I was really disturbed by these talking points being so prevalent in food media because I knew that they came from publications and folks who probably self-identified as liberal. Yet, these talking points felt so consumer-focused to me in a way that was dehumanizing immigrants but centering this white middle- to upper-middle class consumer.

When you say immigrants get the job done, it’s like, “What’s the job, and who doesn’t want it? Who’s being centered there?” So, my frustration led me to formulate the idea for this book. I told myself, “Well, I think the most quietly radical way to push back against that sort of trope in food media is to tell the stories of various immigrant figures throughout American history who shaped food in the most granular way possible. Make sure that their stories are being centered rather than the perspectives of those middle- to upper-middle class consumers.” That’s where it began.

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In the introduction, you discuss Elizabeth Black Kander, born in 1858 to German Jewish immigrant parents in Wisconsin, and her Settlement Cook Book, which included Eastern European and American recipes. You argue that it set the foundation for how immigrant women in the U.S. would write about and engage with food. Can you elaborate on that?

Kander was responsible for putting together the Settlement Cook Book, which was published in the early 20th century and would go on to have many reissues, additions, and expansions over the decades. She herself was the child of German Jewish immigrants who came to America in the 1800s, and they really tried their best to fit in. They adopted the American way of dressing. They got stable jobs. They really absorbed themselves into American capitalism.

“[Assimilation] endures . . . because it is so powerful. It’s such an attractive idea that you can mute your differences and then overcome barriers through food.”

In the 1880s, when there’s this new wave of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia, Kander worried that they would have a tough time in America, that they would not be able to assimilate in the way that her parents did. As a result, she taught them the American way. And one of those ways was cooking. She taught a bunch of young immigrant girls how to cook American dishes and, through that, they would kind of master how to become American. And I found it so fascinating.

This cookbook, which is still incredibly important to so many people, is also a document of assimilation. There’s a reason it endures, and I think it’s because assimilation is so powerful. It’s such an attractive idea to so many people in the food space—this idea that you can kind of mute your differences and then overcome barriers through food.

Elizabeth Black Kander

Kander was working and compiling this cookbook in a time when assimilation was seen as the only path for immigrants to survive in America. In the 1960s, you start to see the various restrictive immigration laws start to loosen quite a bit, and that coincides with more immigrant authors being able to express themselves in culinary terms without filter. They were not necessarily interested in assimilation or pleasing the dominant white American palette. They wanted to shout their differences as much as possible, so putting Kander’s work into this larger context was essential.

How much progress do you think has been made over the past century or so? Are immigrant women given the credit they deserve for their contributions to the culinary sphere?

I’m sorry to sound cynical here, but I’ve just completely lost faith, especially in the American food establishment and the American food media. The reason I ended the book with the stories of Najmieh Batmanglij and Norma Shirley is because those women forged paths for themselves that were completely independent of that establishment.

Najmieh Batmanglij was born in Iran but fled, first to France and then America. When she came here in the early 1980s, it was just around the time of the Iran hostage crisis and of course the Iranian Revolution was still fresh in many people’s minds. As a result, she faced enormous prejudice, and could not sell her cookbook. So, she and her husband, Mohammad, started their own publishing house, and it still stands strong today. It published her first English language cookbook Food of Life in the mid-1980s and that is an incredibly important title in terms of Iranian cooking in America, but she had to forge this path completely independently; all her books are still independently published.

Najmieh Batmanglij with saffron golden crust Persian rice dish (tah dig). (Photo CC-licensed by Mage Publishers)

By a similar token, Norma Shirley, who was born in Jamaica but lived in America for a period in the late ’60, ’70s, and early ’80s. She tried to open her own restaurant in New York that would allow her to express her culinary philosophy, which was Jamaican food filtered through French technique. Yet, she could not find investors, and it was difficult for her in a time when most white Americans, certainly those in the food establishment, did not understand Jamaican food. She had to go back home to Jamaica, and that’s where she opened so many restaurants in her name and became a huge star—but she could only do that after she returned home.

I have become a cynic, though I am actually hopeful that there will be more brilliant folks like Najmieh Batmanglij and Norma Shirley, who are forging their own path, independent of the establishment.

Which of these woman’s stories filled you with the most pride? Which story was the most heartbreaking?

The subject of my third chapter, Madeleine Kamman, is from France, and she made a name for herself as a brilliant cooking teacher, cookbook author, and restaurant owner. Beginning in the ’70s and onwards until her death a few years ago, she also became somewhat unfairly, in my view, notorious for punching up at figures in the food establishment, mainly Julia Child. As a result, what really broke my heart was just how eager the American food media was to overlook the brilliance of her work and her culinary philosophy and instead frame her in terms of this so-called conflict that she had with Child, and the “jealousy” that people perceive her to have had.

To diminish a woman’s brilliance and body of work to some kind of high-school pettiness, is so unfair. As I was researching this book, I came across so many articles about her that could not resist mentioning Child, talking about how “abrasive” Kamman was and a host of other descriptors that many of us now recognize as sexist dog whistles.

Kamman had a lot of frustrations in her career. But what did warm my heart is the fact that about a decade and a half ago, she was reflecting on her career with another author, and to paraphrase her, she said, “I’ve never wanted to become a star, and I resisted that very strongly by saying whatever was on my mind. So what? I didn’t become a star.”

She had no interest in playing the fame game of the American food media. I think that her commitment to making the work as strong as possible and letting that work speak for itself is incredibly inspiring.

What influence do you hope this book has on the American food establishment? What do you hope its legacy will be? 

I hope that this inspires more work of this kind, and even better work of this kind. I don’t want my book to be the only group biography that honors the incredible labor of people from marginalized communities. There are so many other books to be written by the many talented food writers who are working today and will be working for generations to come. I hope that this can just be a contribution to that larger library, not the definitive or end-all, be-all on this subject.

 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Nadra Nittle

Nadra Nittle is a Senior Reporter for Civil Eats. Based in Los Angeles, she was previously a reporter for The Goods by Vox and was also on staff at the former Vox Media website Racked. She has worked for newspapers affiliated with the Digital First Media and Gannett/USA Today networks and freelanced for a variety of media outlets, including The Atlantic, ThinkProgress, KCET, and About.com. Nadra has covered several issues as a reporter, such as health, education, race, pop culture, and religion. She is the author of Toni Morrison's Spiritual Vision: Faith, Folktales, and Feminism in Her Life and Literature.

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