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book review

Author Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning writer whose magazine freelance career has detailed research-rich social histories of food cultures and individual chefs for years.

  • Title: Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America
  • Author: Mayukh Sen
  • Genre: Nonfiction
  • Publisher: WW Norton
  • Pages: 304

For every celebrity or historical titan in the culture of food, every Bourdain or Brillat-Savarin, there are a hundred forgotten contributors – many, perhaps most, of whom are women, immigrants or non-white. Mayukh Sen’s resurrectional book Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America aims to refresh our memories.

Sen is a James Beard Award-winning writer whose magazine freelance career has detailed research-rich social histories of food cultures and individual chefs for years. The seven women he writes about in Taste Makers include Chao Yang Buwei, a doctor born in Nanking who would emigrate to America in 1921 and create the most thorough Chinese cookbook yet written. He also writes about Madeleine Kamman, a French chef whose annoyed letter to the New York Times over a recipe in 1968 led to her being profiled by food editor Craig Claiborne. That article launched a career in education and cooking that would draw constant and unwanted comparisons to Julia Child.

The magic of Taste Makers is in the lightness of the prose and the dense research it reveals. In less than twenty pages, Sen shows you crucial moments of history in food culture, and leaves you with an understanding of how quickly and thoroughly the past can be forgotten. The Globe and Mail interviewed Sen about his new book.

The once-famous figures you describe like Elena Zelayeta, along with iconic food culture figures like Craig Claiborne and Julia Child who come up along the way, had me thinking about the power of celebrity, and power more generally, in the food world. Is it possible for power to be wielded benevolently in the current food and food media landscape?

There were some well-publicized upheavals at the top of high-profile American food publications in 2020, and some people might see those incidents as a reason for optimism. But I’m cynical. To me, power hasn’t fundamentally changed in this industry. There might be more awareness, in the highest ranks of the industry, of how deeply embedded racism, classism, and other forms of discrimination are in the food world – that’s why I’d say it’s slightly more possible for those in power to be benevolent now than they have been in the past. But not by much.

During my short time in this industry, I’ve seen many people misuse their power in harmful ways, in spite of their superficial promises that they care about “diverse” perspectives. I’ve also seen institutions return to business as usual after vowing to change. That will continue.

Any idealism I have is for independent food media. I’m skeptical of any older institution to reform itself in a meaningful way or provide access to capital for people from marginalized communities. Instead, they’ll be fighting for scraps these organizations dole out. I hope I’m wrong.

Your descriptions of food are so precise, from “cottony rice” to “brittle dosas,” often narrated through the vision of the chef you’re describing – it made me wonder how much license you allowed yourself to describe the sensual world of food through each chef, whether you tethered yourself to how they wrote in their cookbooks, or allowed yourself a slight bit of freedom here.

For me, when it comes to the very genre of food writing – the writing has always come before the food.

That’s my way of admitting that describing food as an object has often been the toughest part of this job. Whenever I’m tasked with writing about food’s taste or texture or presentation, I still have a tough time dodging clichés. The easiest way for me to work through that anxiety is to just have fun with that aspect of the writing.

So much of the prose in this book might strike readers as plainspoken and direct in a way a lot of my earlier food writing, like the kind that’s gotten me institutional recognition, is not. But I wanted to retain that youthful sense of whimsy when engaging with the food itself, and offer my reader moments of pleasure. That’s what makes food such a rich material for a writer: the capacity for beauty.

That said, I tried my best not to take creative liberties in writing about the food, meaning that I couldn’t stray too far from the words each woman used to talk about a certain dish in her cookbooks, memoirs, or interviews – doing so would have sacrificed narrative truth in a way I’m not comfortable with.

The magic of Taste Makers is in the lightness of the prose and the dense research it reveals.Handout

Early in the book you establish that it was important to you to avoid prioritizing the “individualistic notion of creative genius” over the collective labour that you argue truly shaped food in America. But I did see each chapter reflecting the individual genius of a singular chef. Is this a contradiction?

What’s so attractive to me about the group biography format is that it really does force you to honour the collective. There’s less of a need to examine one person’s life to make a grand, potentially overreaching statement about their impact. But I understand that some readers might still see me as fixating on the individual on the chapter level, positioning each of these seven women as the authority on the cuisine of her origin country. Even if cultural memory hasn’t done a great job of celebrating most of this particular seven.

To mitigate the sense that these two elements of my book are oppositional, I tried my best to honour the collective within each chapter, too. To at least mention, for example, that there were a number of Indian-born writers, like Santha Rama Rau and Madhur Jaffrey, who’d written about Indian cooking for Americans before Julie Sahni – the focus of my fifth chapter – got her start.

In this book, I hope readers will see that there’s a way to recognize an individual’s genius, like the kind each of these seven women possessed, while acknowledging that they aren’t the sole figures who merit appreciation.

There’s room in the popular mind for all of these women.

Naben Ruthnum is the author of Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race. His novel A Hero of Our Time is forthcoming from McClelland & Stewart in January 2021.

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