TastemakersPosted: March 1, 2022
Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America
W. W. Norton & Company (November 16, 2021), 283 pages
Kindle edition $9.32, Amazon hardcover $18.99
In a food culture that in the past has tended to focus on men and on American women, Mayukh Sen highlights the culinary work of seven immigrant women.
Sen’s subjects are diverse. Chao Yang Buwei introduced many Americans to Chinese cooking. Although she never mastered English her husband helped her to produce cookbooks that were popular in the fifties. Elena Zelayeta overcame blindness as an adult to teach Americans about Mexican cooking. Madeleine Kamman taught French cooking and was jealous of Julia Child’s success. She became so irksome that Child automatically forwarded any correspondence from her to her attorneys. Marcella Hazan published Italian cookbooks in the sixties, again with the English-language assistance of her husband. Julie Sahni started out as a dancer, but soon turned to food. She published Classic Indian Cooking in 1980. Najmieh Batmanglij typed out Iranian recipes on an Apple IIe (I once owned one of those) and eventually self-published Food for Life as American publishers in the eighties didn’t want to be associated with an Iranian. Norma Shirley prepared Jamaican food for wealthy Americans in New York, but eventually returned to Jamacia where she opened restaurants for the locals.
Sen has one chapter on a famous American-born chef: Julia Child. He believed that her influence in cooking in the United States was so great that she deserved her own interlude (as Sen calls it) chapter. Indeed, Sahni studied Child’s work and Kamman considered her a usurper: an American who dared teach Americans about French cooking.
The women Sen profiles were not the first to publish cookbooks on their respective cuisines. Most of them had predecessors. Madhur Jaffrey, for example, was known for her Indian cookbooks before Sahni. Sen also does not hesitate to criticize the “food establishment” who in his mind made success for these women more difficult than it might otherwise have been. He gives credit where credit is due however, particularly to Craig Claiborne, who was consistently open to new voices, and who was happy to pay attention to newcomers in the cooking world, even those who were not male and not American.
If you consider yourself a foodie (as I do myself) Taste Makers may introduce you to some chefs whom you may not have previously encountered. It did that for me.