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Taste Makers by Mayukh Sen
Narrative nonfiction

Taste Makers


We love supporting debut authors. Congrats, Mayukh Sen, on your first book!

by Mayukh Sen

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Quick take

Sometimes a melting pot is not a metaphor. This book profiles immigrant women who left an indelible mark on how we eat.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_SocialIssues

    Social issues

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Literary


  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Immigration


  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Foodie



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.

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Free sample

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Taste Makers


One day in the 1880s, Elizabeth Black Kander spotted a boy selling matchboxes. The sight disturbed her.

The boy, a recent arrival from Russia, must have been 12 years old. His face was caked in dirt. Everyone in that store in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that day could hear him practically shouting as he offered to sell the owner matches for cheap.

Kander confronted the boy outside. Why wasn’t he in school, she wondered aloud. He responded sincerely, telling her he needed to work to support his family.

The boy’s admission saddened Kander, but she also felt a flush of shame—for the kid, for herself. Kander’s parents, Jewish immigrants from Germany, had come to the United States in the 1840s. They had done a remarkable job of blending in by the time Kander was born in 1858, mastering American English, American ways of dressing, the American art of making money. But in the 1880s, a new wave of Jewish immigrants from Russia like this boy made Kander worry. She found them so uncouth. Kander feared their behavior would reflect poorly on previous Jewish immigrants like her parents who had gone to great lengths to acclimate to America. Maybe these immigrants would inspire a new rush of anti-Semitism.

Kander’s concern kindled a lifelong crusade as a social worker who pushed for immigrants to assimilate to America. “It is a selfish motive that spurs us on,” she would say of her mission, “it is to protect ourselves, our own reputation in the community that we must work with tact, with heart and soul to better the home conditions of our people.” As part of her project, she began working at the Settlement House, a social service agency in Milwaukee. She spent her evenings teaching immigrant Jewish women, many of them fresh from Poland and Russia, how to cook American dishes.

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Why I love it

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.

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Member ratings (1,209)

  • silva s.


    If you love food, you will definitely enjoy reading this book. You will learn so much about the women who changed how we eat and will have you viewing the food you eat differently. A wonderful read!

  • Lisa P.

    North Providence, RI

    Quick and entertaining read, but left me thinking! Parts have been coming back to me while I'm cooking or choosing where to eat. Love choices the author made, it felt like I got to know the women too

  • Sarah F.

    Savage, MN

    I tend to be more of a fiction reader and the essays were a bit more academic, but the book included aspects of culture, history, feminism, immigration, and food in an interesting and enjoyable way.

  • Amy C.

    Cedar Rapids, IA

    Fascinating look at change makers many of us have so wrongly never heard of. We need more books like this to elevate those who came before us, charting paths in countless ways, that benefit us all.

  • Chelsey N.

    Vineland, NJ

    Being a woman in the food industry is hard. Being and immigrant woman of color is infinitely harder. This book really made me think about their experiences and also made me want to cook good food.

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