Troubling the canon of culinary brilliance
An interview with Taste Makers author Mayukh Sen
This year I’m looking outside my cookbook collection for this newsletter. With so much time spent with my nose buried in just about any food writing I could get my hands on, I’ve become fascinated by the food industry’s gatekeepers—who decides what food and which chefs and writers get the spotlight, and how do they come to those conclusions? How does whiteness dominate the food world as we know it, and how do we forge new paths? Conveniently enough, last Christmas my partner bought me just the right book to help grapple with these questions: Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America by Mayukh Sen.
Though Sen started out as a freelance film/TV/music critic, he made an unexpected pivot to the food world when he joined the staff of the website Food52 in 2016, hired to write about culture through the lens of food. Barely two years later, he wrote a profile that won him a James Beard Award for journalism—like winning an Oscar as a rookie filmmaker. Since then, he’s become known for his nuanced profiles which shine a light on underappreciated figures in the food world. Drawing on his own experiences as a queer man of color in a predominantly white and heteronormative industry, Sen reveals how his profile subjects blazed a trail for others to expand what American cuisine can be, and who gets to be seen as a part of that story.
In Taste Makers, Sen dives deeper into this work, making “an attempt to trouble the canon of culinary brilliance,” as he puts it in the book’s introduction, by bringing the contributions of immigrant women to the forefront. He decided that “one of the chief missions of this book would be to present women in their own voices,” which meant drawing heavily on cookbooks, memoirs, and interviews from his subjects as well as speaking to their friends, family, and colleagues and conducting archival research. Along the way, he found that this aim to foreground his subjects’ voices forced him to exclude women whose stories he deeply wanted to tell but who did not leave behind enough material of their own for him to draw on.
This dilemma struck a chord with me after getting a firsthand view of the challenges the curators of the culinary libraries at the Harvard Schlesinger Institute and Boston University have had in shaping inclusive collections, so I reached out to Sen for an interview. Over Zoom, we discussed the trajectory of his career, what he’s learned from the immigrant women he researched for his book, and what progress food media has made in highlighting diverse voices since he joined the industry (spoiler alert: not that much).
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I’ve read a few of your profiles that you’ve written over the years and I wanted to ask, how do you select your subjects?
It certainly varies. Early in my career I would find story subjects who tended to play a minor role in someone else’s story…I often just would stumble on names that I was unfamiliar with and then Google those people to see, did they have a Wikipedia page? Was there a story about them in recent memory? If not, should one exist? So that was how I found a lot of my story subjects in the beginning of my career.
But in terms of Taste Makers, it sort of evolved that process. I searched two terms in particular. The first was “the Julia Child of blah blah blah” and the second was “Craig Claiborne called her.” As I write in my book, so many women throughout American culinary history, and culinary history globally, have been designated by English-speaking food media as “the Julia Child of” their respective countries or regions of origin. I felt as though searching that term would be a great way to find the stories of women who deserve to have their stories told on their own terms.
On the flip side of that was searching the term “Craig Claiborne called her.” Craig Claiborne was the food editor of the New York Times from 1957 to the 1980s, I believe. He used his position to champion a lot of voices from what we would say are marginalized communities, especially those of immigrant women. And some of those women pop up in my book. They’re figures like Madeleine Kamman from France and Elena Zelayeta from Mexico. And from getting profiles in the Times written by Craig Claiborne, they were catapulted to fame. It opened up access to capital and opportunity that otherwise might not have been available to them because of their public anonymity.
The seven women who were in the proposal stage of my book are not the same seven women who ended up in my book, because so much of my work is archival by nature. I’m drawn to deceased figures because I feel as though the act of preserving their memory becomes more urgent and fragile once they are no longer with us. As a result, what I had to do was find materials that presented these women speaking in their own voices and telling their story in their own terms.
The archives are classist by design. They’re also racist usually, but they’re certainly classist because all the women in this book that I wrote about, they had the financial abilities and access to publishing channels that allowed them to record their stories at all through materials like cookbooks or memoirs or access to media. I was quite open about these limitations in this book. I at least hope to be. I wanted to tell my reader, these are the constraints I as a “historian” am working against. And I do hope that in the future, that won’t be so tough for someone writing a book like this, let’s say 10 years from now.
Is there a figure you’ve researched whose story you think is instructive in the present day?
Yes, absolutely. In terms of this specific moment, the woman that comes to mind in particular is Najmieh Batmanglij, who is the subject of my penultimate chapter in Taste Makers. She is an Iranian-born chef and cookbook author. She fled Iran around the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. She lived in France and then she realized that country was maybe not the most hospitable place based on the discrimination she saw her son facing. So she and her family moved to Washington D.C. in the early 1980s.
During her time in France, she had published a French-language Iranian cookbook. It was put out by a major publisher, she didn’t have too much trouble securing a cookbook deal. After that project, she felt this creative desire to write a more robust Iranian cookbook, but in the English language. And so on coming to America, she decided she would send out query letters for that very cookbook. That was around the time of the Iran hostage crisis, and in addition to that, the memory of the Iranian Revolution kind of loomed over the American mind. In response to these query letters, she got either polite rejection, or silence. Implicit in that was that publishing an Iranian cookbook was anathema to most major American publishers.
Instead of becoming discouraged, what she decided to do with the aid of her husband Mohammed was figure out their own publishing house that would be independent of those oppressive and exclusionary structures, and they would publish this cookbook. That cookbook became Food of Life, which came out in the 1980s, and it has since cemented itself as a classic, and certainly the go-to book on Iranian cooking for so many home cooks in America.
What I find really inspiring is the fact that she did not rely on these outmoded structures, as I was saying earlier, but she was also creating for her own community. She was writing primarily for the Iranian diaspora. I find that so inspiring because when I look back on my own career, I started out writing for white-led institutions. The assumption always is that my reader would be white, rather than someone who belongs to the same communities that I belong to. There are so many sacrifices one makes when they are writing for a specific kind of audience who does not look like them, and belongs to the dominant culture. It is my desire moving forward to write for people who belong the the same communities that I do. And so when I see Najmieh’s story, I realize that that is possible.
You kind of stumbled into being a food writer. But then you won a James Beard award! So how did that flip the script?
Whoops! That wasn’t supposed to happen. I have to be completely honest and say that that was the most unexpected and wonderful thing to happen to me in my life…And it certainly opened up a lot of access to capital and opportunity.
You know, there are so many very very talented, hardworking food writers, especially from marginalized communities like myself who have not gotten that institutional recognition. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, so to speak. There are a lot of other people who do much better work throughout the entirety of their careers that goes under-recognized by these sorts of institutions. So I accepted that kind of recognition for what it was, in the sense that it would—maybe if I were strategic and pragmatic about it—enable me to tell more of the sorts of food stories that I really wanted to tell. So that is the moment in which I felt as though I had the ability to write a book like Taste Makers.
I would say that through writing this book I began to understand that getting that sort of recognition does not fulfill me creatively. The work always comes first. Finding pleasure in the work is what I should always prioritize rather than making sure that the product of my labor gets the right sort of attention from the right sort of people or gatekeepers. And I didn’t realize that prior to writing this book.
You wrote a piece for the James Beard Foundation blog in 2018 about how to advance equity in food media. What progress or lack thereof have you seen in the past few years? Are there successes that you’ve seen? Are there areas that you’ve really seen no movement on?
In terms of progress, I think that there were some inklings of change around the time of June 2020 just following the murder of George Floyd. That was when the public at large became aware of the structural issues undergirding American food media, and realized how deeply embedded racism, in addition to other forms of discrimination, is in the American food media. You saw the ousting or resignation of certain male editors who had been outed as alleged bad actors. And oftentimes in their place there would be people of color stepping into those positions. Which was certainly different from what food media has looked like from my experience in the years prior to 2020.
That said, after five years in this industry, I have learned not to be naïve about progress in the American food media. I think that it is classist by design—and I’m saying this as someone who grew up comfortably middle class and has a degree from an elite school. Someone like me can afford to enter this industry. But it is classist by design, and speaking for myself and my own experiences, it is an industry that is more often than not inhospitable to people of color. To queer people. Especially those of us who have political viewpoints that are far left, rather than just barely left of center. And so, just because of that basic ill that is baked into the DNA of this industry, I am not super hopeful for matters to change. At least when it comes to these bigger institutions who’ve commanded the American food media for so long.
I will say that since summer 2020 there has been greater awareness of independent food publications, like Alicia Kennedy for example, who are arriving from more progressive viewpoints or decolonized perspectives. I’m thinking of Whetstone Magazine from Stephen Satterfield and his team, or Vittles over in the U.K. by Jonathan Nunn. Those are just two examples of publications that have really put out thoughtful work that I suspect a lot of major food magazines and newspaper sections would likely be too timid to touch. I am really excited to see that readers seem to be flocking to those independent food publications and writers. I hope to see more of that in years to come. I think that is where the change will happen. I would love for there to be a scenario in the coming years where independent food media flourishes to such a great extent that it ultimately renders these troubling, stodgy institutions obsolete.