Mayukh Sen’s ‘Taste Makers’ Shows How Immigrant Women Changed American Food

Elena Zelayeta, the subject of my second chapter, was born in Mexico but has spent most of her life, both professionally and personally, in San Francisco. In addition to the hardships many immigrants to a new town in America might have faced in the early 20th century, she also lost her sight as an adult, and she had to essentially relearn how to navigate the world and cook again. Yet, she has truly managed to make a name for herself as a very successful and prolific cookbook author in America. Starting in the 1940s, she was everything we might recognize today as a celebrity chef, with her own television show airing in California in the 1950s.

The fact that a Mexican-born chef who is also blind could have her own cooking show in the 1950s seems so radical to me — and yet she did.

Given how proud San Francisco residents are of the city’s Mexican culinary traditions, it’s in some ways surprising that we haven’t yet heard of someone who was as famous as Zelayeta in his heyday today. even here in the Bay Area. Why do you think she’s not better known?

Elena’s later books truly reflected how California had impacted her way of cooking. She was no longer content to cook Mexican recipes. Instead, she essentially honored the fact that California is home to so many immigrant populations. So her latest cookbook, Elena’s Favorite Foods, California Style, had recipes for burritos and enchiladas, but there were also recipes for things like teriyaki lamb chops and arancini. She is no longer content to marry the cuisine of her country of origin, Mexico. She was willing to accept and absorb so many influences from her adopted country and adopted home. And that may have made it harder for people to look back at his legacy and his career and say, Oh, she’s the go-to resource on Mexican food. And so, in some ways, Elena’s style of cooking and writing about food may have fallen into disuse.

Mayukh Sen is an award-winning food journalist. (Christopher Gregory-Rivera)

One of the things I’ve always admired about your work is how, even before Taste creatorsyou have often written about these incredible female chefs of marginalized communities who somehow got lost in history. Perhaps the most inspiring thing about Taste creators is that the book even exists at all, given the relative obscurity of many of its subjects. Magazines and publishers aren’t really known for tackling these kinds of topics, so I’m curious how you’ve risen to this challenge in your career.

This is something that I have constantly thought about at every step of this book. I got a few responses from editors along the lines of, well, too many of these numbers are too obscure to really register with readers. And because I was anticipating this answer, I was quite intentional, even at the proposal stage, to put a “popular” name like [Italian cookbook author] Marcella Hazan, which many American cooks may be familiar with. It’s just an unfortunate reality of how the mind of the American consumer works, so I had to swallow this truth.

In my five years in food media, to convince editors that certain stories of personalities from marginalized communities are worth telling, I often get the same productive yet semi-cynical question from editors: Why is this story important now? And no matter how hard I try to make a persuasive point, sometimes I get crickets or a passing editor.

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