Mayukh Sen celebrates immigrant women who revolutionized American food culture


While readers will likely enjoy the stories of the seven women he describes in the book, including Mexico-born Elena Zelayeta, Italy-born Marcella Hazan, and Jamaica-born Norma Shirley, Sen suggests they should also be dismayed at how American society values ​​the experiences of some immigrants and devalues ​​those of others.

Marcella Hazan. (Photo via Wikipedia)

Immigrant women, especially those of color, have been particularly marginalized and, as a result, Creators of taste is as much a cover project as a group biography. In her pages, which span from World War II to the present day, Sen unveils the story of immigrant women who have left a lasting mark on American food culture, whether or not they are credited for their contributions over the years. their life.

It details their entrepreneurial spirit, ethnic pride and dedication to culinary craftsmanship as well as the xenophobia, racism and misogyny that often limited the recognition they received. Some of these women achieved fame in their day, but not posthumously, while others, like Hazan, are revered today.

Even if Creators of taste attracting criticism from the American food establishment, the book also highlights how Sen’s subjects persevered in the face of oppressive social constructs. Najmieh Batmanglij, of Iranian descent, is a good example: she moved to the United States following the Iranian revolution and suffered fierce discrimination as a result; finding the food establishment unwilling to embrace her, she published her culinary writings on her own terms.

Describing himself as a ‘brown child of immigrants’ from India, Sen himself can understand the challenges endured by the women he chronicles in Creators of taste. “This is crucial why I chose to write this book and tell these stories,” he told Civil Eats. “I have sometimes been faced with questions like, ‘Why, as a man, are you writing these stories? What attracts you to these stories? Part of the answer is because I have a very complicated relationship with gender and also belong to many marginalized communities.

Sen’s immense empathy for his subjects prompts readers to reflect on the women, recognized and unrecognized, responsible for shaping the American palette. Civil Eats spoke with Sen about his motivation to write Creators of taste, his hopes for his influence on the food establishment and the progress made by marginalized people in the American culinary world.

In Creators of taste, you paint a portrait of seven immigrant women. How did you reduce it?

There are so many brilliant immigrant women throughout American history who have shaped food in various ways – teachers, cookbook authors, chefs, and more. What really helped me clear it up was asking myself, “What kind of a statement do I want to make with this book, especially in regards to assimilation, and if it is? the only path to success in America and under American capitalism? “

I have adapted my seven subjects with this 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 that haven’t been honored enough by the mainstream white culture, for lack of a better term. . I also wanted to make sure that readers who only have a passing interest in food had a reason to read the book, and in doing so, they could maybe get to know some characters they think they know, like Marcella, more thoroughly. , in a more complex way while also being introduced to a wide variety of other characters whose names they may not have heard before.

And what about the genesis of this book?

In 2017, I was a writer at Food52. I had written a lot of stories about people of color, women of color, immigrants of color, queer people of color – people who didn’t necessarily get the appreciation they deserve.

I had a friend named Shuja Haider, and he came up with this idea to me. He said, “I wonder if these essays can be some kind of immigrant history book. So I put it in my back pocket.

“I think the most drastic way to push back this kind of trope in the food media is to tell the stories of various immigrant figures throughout American history who have shaped food in the most granular way possible.”

Fast forward a year later, and I’m starting to see some disturbing food media stories, lots of stories and social media campaigns who basically say, “Immigrants do the job.” I was really troubled that these talking points were so prevalent in the food media because I knew they came from publications and people who probably identified themselves as liberals. Yet these talking points seemed so consumer-centric to me in a way that dehumanized immigrants but centered this white consumer from middle class to upper class.

When you say immigrants do the job, it’s like, “What’s the job, and who doesn’t want it?” Who is centered there? So my frustration led me to formulate the idea for this book. I was like, “Well, I think the most drastic way to push back that kind of trope in the food media is to tell the stories of various immigrant figures throughout American history who have shaped food in the way. as granular as possible. Make sure their stories are focused rather than the perspectives of those middle to upper class consumers. This is where it started.

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