Resisting the Food Establishment: On Mayukh Sen’s “Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America”
By Sharmila MukherjeeFebruary 14, 2022
Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America by Mayukh Sen
The virulent xenophobia that shaped Kander’s culinary endeavor may now seem a thing of the past, but Sen dispels the illusion of progress. Taste Makers anatomizes the insidious ways xenophobia persists in the American food world, depriving immigrant culinary experts, especially women, of recognition and respect. Sen weaves two strands together. The first is a chronicle of the lives of seven immigrant culinary connoisseurs in America: Chao Yang Buwei from China, Elena Zelayeta from Mexico, Madeleine Kamman from France, Marcella Hazan from Italy, Julie Sahni from India, Najmieh Batmanglij from Iran, and Norma Shirley from Jamaica. These women are superheroes of a sort: combating cultural prejudices, they introduced Americans to a wide array of ethnic food, cooking styles, and food traditions. They wrote influential cookbooks, taught innovative cooking classes, ran food businesses, hosted television shows, operated restaurants, and worked as executive chefs. Their collective endeavor has changed the way America cooks and eats today. But people do not always hear about them or read their cookbooks. Sen’s book blazes with rage at this injustice as it commemorates these creators’ merit and mettle.
Taste Makers is a work of recovery. Sen draws on cookbooks, memoirs, media coverage, and interviews to create a lively group portrait of these talented women omitted from the American culinary canon. He tracks the seismic effects of immigration laws and political events, such as the Mexican Revolution, the 1943 repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, World War II, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, and the Iranian Revolution, on the lives of his subjects. He follows them in their remarkable odyssey across a world mired in political conflict. And through all this, he keeps his lens focused on the domestic. Cast off from their countries of origin by political turmoil or personal circumstance, these women turned to food as an expression of their identity. Each biography is an inspirational lesson in resilience and creativity in the face of adversity.
The book’s second strand looks closely at the women’s culinary activities in the context of America’s insular food world. The famous chefs and cookbook authors James Beard, Craig Claiborne, and Julia Child pop up frequently throughout the book. These three iconic personalities were key figures of what Sen calls the food establishment in the postwar era: America’s culinary cognoscenti that acted as arbiters of taste and dispensed benedictions in the form of positive reviews, awards, recommendations, book deals, and other benefits. Their endorsement or lack thereof could make or break culinary careers. The question is: Which contribution did they celebrate?
Child’s blockbuster success in the food world makes her the perfect foil to Sen’s subjects, many of whom were labeled by the food media with the belittling moniker “the Julia Child of ethnic food.” Provocatively, Sen has inserted a short biography of Child in the book’s chronological sequence of portraits, and the juxtaposition reveals surprising insights about the nature of success in the American food world. Taste Makers reads as a rejoinder to Justin Spring’s recent book The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy (2017), which depicted Beard as an unscrupulous impresario and Child as an upper-class snob whose privileged birth was key to her success. In Sen’s view, a more fundamental factor that helped Child’s rise was that she was American.
Sen shows again and again the pressure on immigrant food writers and chefs to genuflect to the market-led food establishment, to America’s dominant palate, to the affluent white consumers around whom the food world is ultimately organized. The American food world, in Sen’s analysis, caters to the taste, lifestyle, and fantasies of white Americans, and its toxic effect is the destruction of ethnic cuisine. But the book’s worst news, really, is American xenophobia — the tendency of white Americans to view outsiders as fearful strangers.
The story of these seven immigrant women, however, charts a path of resistance to the steamroller effect of America’s food culture. We meet a grand collection of strong-willed culinary geniuses. There’s Chao Yang Buwei, a doctor by training, whose landmark cookbook How to Cook and Eat in Chinese (1945) was the first systematic account of the art and philosophy of Chinese cuisine written for an American readership. Buwei coined words like pot stickers, stir-fry, and tim-sam (more often stylized in English as dim sum), and she explained 21 Chinese cooking methods. Writing at a time of virulent racial discrimination against the Chinese, she dissociated Chinese cooking from the concept of impurity. Unfortunately, her voice proves particularly resistant to recovery since she wrote in Chinese that was translated, and sometimes written over, by her daughter and husband to produce the book.
Perhaps the book’s most inspiring portrait is that of Elena Zelayeta. She became blind at the age of 36 but nonetheless taught herself to cook. Sen gives a moving account of her struggle with depression after the loss of her eyesight, exacerbated by her unhappy marriage. But Zelayeta was determined to be self-sufficient. She hired assistants to write her first cookbook, Elena’s Famous Mexican and Spanish Recipes (1944), and made enough money from it to buy a guide dog. Unusually enterprising, Zelayeta hosted a cooking show on television in the Bay Area, wrote several more cookbooks on Mexican food that dispelled many stereotypes, and operated a frozen food business. Later she became a consultant in a high-end pan-Latin restaurant in New York City. Her work received fleeting recognition from Claiborne.
Julia Child’s portrait is a study in contrast. Sen argues that her stardom was entwined with the phenomenal success of her television show, The French Chef (1963–’73). The irony, of course, was that she wasn’t French. But this, Sen contends, was an advantage rather than a hindrance, since Americans would only accept a fellow citizen as the mediator of their encounter with French cuisine. Sen illustrates this point by highlighting the fate of Child’s French collaborator, Simone (Simca) Beck. Although the two initially appeared together on the show, Child quickly surpassed Beck in popularity. Viewers were transfixed by Child because she turned cooking into theater; Beck, by contrast, wilted under the camera’s gaze. Child herself appears to have understood her homegrown advantage. Commenting on Beck’s failure, she wrote sanctimoniously: “I felt that she was such a colorful personality, and so knowledgeable about cooking, that had she been American rather than French she would be immensely well known.” Child emerges from these pages as rather opportunistic and insensitive.
And yet it is Madeleine Kamman’s story that spells out Sen’s indictment of American xenophobia most powerfully. Kamman was highly knowledgeable about French cuisine, and her deep understanding of technique should have made her the authority on French cooking in the United States. But the food establishment perceived her as a threat. The media cast her as an angry and abrasive woman. Her fault? She had openly criticized Julia Child.
Sen makes a strong case justifying Kamman’s outrage. She struggled under Child’s shadow, with the media relentlessly comparing the two to her discredit. It was alleged, unfairly, that she borrowed her techniques from Child. The truth was that she had learned them in France from her aunt and, later, from Simone Beck. She wanted Americans to respect the cooking skills of French women, but Child sometimes uncouthly disparaged their culinary expertise. Sen suggests that Child felt threatened by Kamman, as one can see from her statement to Simone Beck: “She is, obviously, very ambitious, and someone said that she intended to push us off the map!” Kamman’s culinary career suffered as a result of Child’s envy and public disparagement.
Sen’s next protagonist, Marcella Hazan, was an endearingly pliant woman. He writes movingly of her loving relationship with her husband, who collaborated with her in writing cookbooks on Italian regional cuisines. Sen also highlights Hazan’s productive relationship with the formidable book editor Judith Jones at Knopf, to whom Child, sensing no threat from Hazan, introduced her. Hazan would ultimately spar with Jones, but unlike Kamman, she escaped retribution for such “unruly” behavior. Indeed, she secured a whopping $650,000 advance from HarperCollins for her 1997 cookbook, Marcella Cucina.
Sen’s portrait of Julie Sahni conjures a passionate searcher who gave up her career as an urban planner to become the first Indian woman to hold the post of executive chef in a New York restaurant. Sen describes with loving care her struggle as an overworked single parent. Despite these hardships, Sahni wanted to write cookbooks with integrity. Her first effort, Classic Indian Cooking (1980), was encyclopedic in scope, showing Americans the beauty and diversity of Indian cuisine. The media, however, brushed off Sahni’s substantial Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking (1985) in favor of glossier alternatives. But Sahni did not care for media accolades or the limelight. Her goal was the pursuit of excellence and personal satisfaction.
Like her, Najmieh Batmanglij also bravely renounced the mandates of stardom. Batmanglij hoped to preserve the soul of her war-torn Iran by writing cookbooks. Unfazed by disinterest from publishers, she and her husband self-published Food of Life: A Book of Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies in 1986. With seven subsequent cookbooks, all self-published, she has become an authority on Iranian cooking, read by both Americans and Iranians.
Norma Shirley, the last of Sen’s protagonists, introduced Americans to the haute cuisine potential of Jamaican food. A restaurateur, Shirley’s cooking style is hard to classify: neither “Nouvelle Jamaican” nor “Creole” adequately captures the exuberance of her creations. Beginning as a food stylist, Shirley became a chef and manager in a restaurant in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where she served New England food with a Jamaican flair. Later she opened a restaurant called Devon House Ltd on the Upper East Side. Her ambition was to convince the food establishment that Jamaican cuisine was as fine as any other, but widespread recognition has been slow. Eventually, Shirley returned to Jamaica to open several highly acclaimed restaurants.
Sen has brought to light a stellar cast of culinary experts that readers may not know about but should. There is outrage in his tone as he chronicles the discrimination his subjects encountered, but he makes his case without too heavy a hand. He is actually generous to all, even Julia Child, who, we learn, struggled with misogyny in the food world. Sen fuses deep research with a debater’s ardor and moves seamlessly between biography, history, and cultural analysis. The overall impression is one of disciplined persuasion.
The various biographies cohere to make a compelling argument about the meaning of success in the modern food world. It turns out that the secret sauce is not culinary expertise but one’s ability — and willingness — to become a marketable product. Sen argues that Child accomplished this feat with unusual flair. She rode high on the aspirations of American viewers, making them believe that their fantasies could be fulfilled. Her towering popularity demonstrates that it is viewers’ psychological projection, rather than cooking skills per se, that determines success in the American food world. Conversely, antagonistic feelings toward immigrants thwart their chances of success.
Taste Makers ends with a hopeful afterword that calls for a more inclusive and equitable distribution of resources by the food establishment. It also urges the media to hold the food establishment accountable for its biases.
Sen has written an urgent and timely book. Passionate, well written, and accessible, its story of the vigor, struggle, and fleeting success of seven immigrant women offers a counternarrative to conventional understandings of success and failure in the food world. One hopes that the book will stimulate further awareness of the deeply entrenched xenophobic prejudices that disadvantage immigrants in America.
Sharmila Mukherjee is a freelance writer based in Seattle. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in The Seattle Times, NPR, and The Washington Post.
LARB Staff Recommendations
An engaging new biography of the pioneer of American cuisine....
A new cookbook of Romanian recipes from a celebrated food writer....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.