Sometimes a melting pot is not a metaphor. This book profiles immigrant women who left an indelible mark on how we eat.
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Writer & Cook, author of The Alicia Kennedy Newsletter
With his debut book, Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America, the award-winning writer Mayukh Sen proves that he does much more than write about food. In fact, to focus on the food alone in considering this book would do the reader a grand disservice. What Sen does is bring these seven women to life in cinematic fashion, rendering their life stories with a propulsiveness that evolves as the text goes on to reveal not just their experiences but the whole of American culinary history.
Sen begins with Chao Yang Buwei, born in 1889 in Nanjing, China, and brings us up to the 21st century with varied stories about the Mexican chef Elena Zelayeta, who lost her sight; Madeleine Kamman, who wanted to show that women were the stewards of French cuisine; Marcella Hazan, who had great success in re-defining Italian food for the U.S.; Julie Sahni, who was the first chef at an Indian fine-dining restaurant in New York City; Najmieh Batmanglij, who has chronicled Iranian food; and finally to Norma Shirley, a Black woman who had to return to her home of Jamaica to find success denied her in the U.S.
Taste Makers is a work of biography and cultural criticism that should have the food media establishment on edge in its turn away from the paternalistic perspective on the meaning of immigrant labor. Through these stories, Sen reveals the work and the strife behind a culinary culture that doesn’t acknowledge women’s work as its driving force. In Taste Makers, though, these seven women become canonical.
Who’s really behind America’s appetite for foods from around the globe? This group biography from an electric new voice in food writing honors seven extraordinary women, all immigrants, who left an indelible mark on the way Americans eat today. Taste Makers stretches from World War II to the present, with absorbing and deeply researched portraits of figures including Mexican-born Elena Zelayeta, a blind chef; Marcella Hazan, the deity of Italian cuisine; and Norma Shirley, a champion of Jamaican dishes.
In imaginative, lively prose, Mayukh Sen—a queer, brown child of immigrants—reconstructs the lives of these women in vivid and empathetic detail, daring to ask why some were famous in their own time, but not in ours, and why others shine brightly even today. Weaving together histories of food, immigration, and gender, Taste Makers will challenge the way readers look at what’s on their plate—and the women whose labor, overlooked for so long, makes those meals possible.