Food writer Mayukh Sen: ‘Immigrants have labored to shape the way America cooks and eats’ | Food

Over the last five years, Mayukh Sen has been writing about figures on the margins of the American food world. His profiles act as counternarratives to a food canon long unconcerned with the accomplishment of non-white chefs. His new book, Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America continues this theme by resurfacing the stories of outsider food figures, some of whom were disappeared by a ruthless restaurant economy and an indifferent media.

Through the seven chefs, cookbook writers and restaurateurs Sen profiles – Buwei Yang Chao, Elena Zelayeta, Madeleine Kamman, Marcella Hazan, Julie Sahni, Najmieh Batmanglij and Norma Shirley – we see a shadow history of labor and food in America. Some of the women published foundational cookbooks such as Chao’s ambitious How to Cook and Eat in Chinese in 1945 and Batmanglij’s Food of Life, the definitive text on Iranian cooking, which she self-published in 1986. Others, such as Hazan and Kamman, had prolific and influential writing and cooking careers.

Marcella Hazan poses with her books on 4 April 1983 in New York.
Marcella Hazan poses with her books on 4 April 1983 in New York. Photograph: Santi Visalli/Getty Images

Despite coming from different backgrounds, the common threads in each woman’s story are the private and public battles they fought in order to sustain their livelihoods and pursue their passions in the United States.

In 2019 Sen, who teaches food journalism at NYU, was awarded the James Beard Award for his profile of Princess Pamela, a restaurateur and soul food cookbook author who vanished from the public eye in the late 90s. I spoke to him on the brink of the book’s release.

What made you want to write a book about immigrant women in food?

Mayukh Sen.
Mayukh Sen. Photograph: Christopher Gregory-Rivera

I noticed the pervasiveness of certain talking points within the American food media that were along the lines of, “Immigrants feed America” and, “Immigrants get the job done.”

They were coming from white institutions, major food magazines, and I found them troubling because whether they intended to or not, they were re-centering a certain kind of consumer whom the American food media has privileged for so long. It’s a middle to upper-middle class, white consumer, who measures the value of immigrant labor based on whatever product they can provide. I wanted to combat that. I felt the best way to do that was to write granular stories about immigrants who had truly labored to shape the way that America cooks and eats.

What patterns did you see as you were researching and writing about these seven women?

All of them faced challenges to express themselves in creative and culinary terms and survive under American capitalism. Some of them were able to find their way. Others had to look outside the system. The two subjects I’m thinking most about here are Najmieh Batmanglij and Norma Shirley from Jamaica. Batmanglij came to America from France, where she had been living as a refugee around the time of the Iranian revolution. Back in France, she had written a French language Iranian cookbook, but then she moved to America because she realized that France is not necessarily the most hospitable place for her to raise her two brown children.

Upon coming to America in the early 80s, she settled in DC. The Iranian revolution along with the Iran hostage crisis loomed quite large within the American imagination. When she sent out a proposal for this Iranian cookbook in the English language, she got either rejection or silence – the idea of publishing an Iranian cookbook in America in the early 80s was seen as anathema to major publishers. So she and her husband Mohamed began their own publishing house, which is not a simple undertaking by any means. They published her first English language cookbook, Food of Life, in the mid 1980s that today is seen as one of, if not the most significant English language cookbook on the food of Iran.

Najmieh Batmanglij cooks at her home on 25 October 2018 in Washington DC.
Najmieh Batmanglij cooks at her home on 25 October 2018 in Washington DC. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

By a similar token, Norma Shirley, who was from Jamaica, she made a living in the 1970s as a chef and owner of a restaurant in the Berkshires in Massachusetts. There she was, cooking what she termed French food with Jamaican flair. Then after a few years, she wanted to go to New York and open her own restaurant. Yet upon arriving there in the early 1980s, she had very little access to capital or investorsor the food establishment that would’ve allowed her to really make a living. So she went back home to Jamaica and she started cooking according to her vision. And that is when the American food establishment really started to honor her talents in a way that they were unable to when she was actually in America.

How were these women viewed at the time by the food media?

I did a lot of digging to see how the press rendered each woman or whether they rendered them at all. And sometimes the contrast was really stark and unsettling. I think the most prominent example of this, for me, is the story of Madeleine Kamman from France. She won a truckload of awards, including James Beard awards, throughout her career. She authored many cookbooks. She was a restaurant chef. She was a cooking teacher. She had her own public television show in America, beginning in the 1980s. Yet the press always framed her in terms of her perceived annoyance with the food establishment, and particularly Julia Child. Early in her career, Madeleine Kamman developed a reputation for being critical of Julia Child, who was seen as the authority on French cooking in America, despite the fact that she was not from France.

[Child] would sometimes make comments that were dismissive of the talents of French women in the kitchen. These were matters that Madeleine Kamman took great offense to. Yet within the press, especially in the 70s and 80s, she often found herself characterized as the sort of agitator. It made me very angry to see this happen, because from today’s remove, it just seems so nakedly misogynistic, to position her as the instigator in some sort of “cat fight”. I wanted to make sure that with this book, I was restoring some dignity to her story, because so many books have been written about Julia Child and a good number of them characterized [Kamman] very impolitely.

Madeleine Kamman teaches in Boston on 27 February 1985.
Madeleine Kamman teaches in Boston on 27 February 1985. Photograph: Boston Globe/Getty Images

Most of the women you write about came to the US between the 1960s and the 1980s. Do you think that period has had an outsized influence in the way we cook and eat?

I would say so. I think that a lot of it has to do with the loosening of immigration laws in the 60s. In Judith Jones’s memoir The Tenth Muse, she writes that in the 1960s, a new wave of immigrant cooks and chefs and food writers in America no longer felt constrained by the need to cook for American audiences in a way that would hide their heritage or the “true” cuisines of their countries of origin. This new wave of immigrants who come from many parts of the world and make a living from cooking, whether it’s through owning restaurants or becoming a food writer, or teaching.

The women you feature in the book overcame many struggles in the US food industry. How do you think things have changed?

I think speaking in terms of the food media, many of the struggles remain the same. This is still an incredibly inhospitable industry for people who belong to marginalized communities. I think it is still an industry that can be quite hostile to queer people like myself and I say this as someone who grew up pretty comfortably middle class, and has a degree from an elite school, and was able to gain easy access. I am a bit of a cynic in general about the ability of this broken machine to really repair itself in a meaningful or substantial way. I’m inspired by what Steven Satterfield has at Whetstone, and the ways in which he is attempting to expand that company. I’m investing my hope in independent creators and publications who exist outside of this very concentrated system where certain institutions wield so much power and then dictate who gets access to capital and opportunity.