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.
Terry and I wanted to do something memorable for Christmas dinner, since Terry’s sister Julie and Julie’s adopted mother-in-law, Laura, would be joining us. Terry ordered prime rib from a specialty meat shop in a town about half an hour to the southwest. It was pricey. At about six pounds, it cost over a hundred dollars, but we thought it would be worth it.
I seasoned it with Jeff Mauro’s marvelous Dino Rib Rub and we put it in the oven using the roast setting. We said grace, sat down to eat, and… It was tough. Tough! I said nothing until Terry and I were cleaning up and I whispered my thoughts. Terry agreed. Julie and Laura were polite and gracious, not saying anything. Julie even took some of the prime rib home with her. We still had plenty left over, which Terry sealed up with our FoodSaver and put in the freezer.
We’ll use the leftovers for beef stew, tacos, and such. But prime rib for stew and tacos? Prime rib for which we paid three figures? Really?
There’s something very wrong here.
I have written here many times about our FoodSaver, which we use to vacuum seal leftovers to store in the freezer. The earliest blog entry that I can find dates to September 2011, and that was just a mention in passing. I have had it longer than that. The user guide has a copyright date of 2008, so if I bought it in 2009, which is entirely possible, that is twelve years. That’s a long life for an electronic appliance, and the FoodSaver has a lot of electronics.
I have kept it going by buying replacement parts such as the bag detection tray and the gaskets. I sourced wherever I could, including Jarden, the company that makes the FoodSaver, Amazon, and eBay. But this year the replacement parts simply weren’t there. And in recent weeks my FoodSaver became more recalcitrant and unwilling to seal up bags. At the height of its efficiency you had to hold your mouth just right as you slipped the open end of the bag into the narrow slot, coaxing the FoodSaver to seal the bag. However, it then reached the point of being downright obstinate, and Terry would hear cursing and swearing coming from the kitchen.
Time for a new FoodSaver.
I did some research on Amazon and settled on the FoodSaver model FM2100-000. So far I’m happy. It is a more compact design, and when you seal the bottom of the bag (when making a bag from a roll of plastic) it wastes less space beneath the seal than did my previous FoodSaver. It has a lid that opens so there’s no more coaxing the top of the bag into that thin slit. It’s easy to put the top of the bag in the proper spot and close the lid.
The first couple of times we tried to seal something our new FoodSaver did not cooperate. It didn’t create a vacuum and it didn’t seal. So we went back and read the instructions more carefully. Reading the instructions is always a good idea. It turns out that you need to put the open end of the bag inside the drip tray. This was a new concept for me, as on my old model the only function of the drip tray was to catch overflow liquids that the FoodSaver vacuumed out before sealing the bag. Once we made that correction it worked beautifully.
Sealing up leftovers in the FoodSaver is an essential part of our cooking routine, and we would be lost without it. I’m delighted to have a new one that is much easier to use, and I hope it lasts another twelve years. However long it lasts there will be a lot less cursing and swearing coming out of the kitchen.
Terry and I celebrate our twenty-seventh anniversary today, and we’re still as crazy about each other as ever.
Celebrating our anniversary the last couple of years has been interesting. Two years ago, for our twenty-fifth, I had just gotten out of the hospital after a setback following my surgery, and was very limited in what I was allowed to eat. Last year we were in the early days of the pandemic, but as I recall what got in our way was the weather. We had planned on going to Dattilo’s, the first-class Italian restaurant on the other side of town. We had ben hit with some heavy rain, however, and didn’t want to drive across town with flooded streets and intersections. So we had dinner at the bistro in the lodge here at Four Seasons. It was a Thursday, which just happens to be their Italian night, so that worked out.
This year, still in the midst of the pandemic, we are limited to outdoor dining if we want dinner in a restaurant, and it’s too wet and cold for that. Our plan is to have dinner from Dattilo’s at home courtesy of Grubhub. Terry found a marvelous decadent dessert at the grocery store. That will work well.
The Jewish Passover Seder contains the words, “Next year in Jerusalem!” My thought for our anniversary: “Next year in Cambria!” (With dinner at the Sea Chest, of course.)
I first became aware of Padma Lakshmi in a rather odd way. In an effort to save a little money I was borrowing audiobooks from the public library rather than buying them from Audible. This meant that the most recent and most popular titles were checked out and unavailable. Scrolling through the available titles I encountered her autobiography Love, Loss, and What We Ate. I had not been previously familiar with her, but I thoroughly enjoyed her book (which she read herself) in which she describes being born in India and then, as a child, following her mother to the United States after she completed her education and found work as a nurse.
You may be familiar with Padma as host of the television program Top Chef on Bravo, but if you have been reading this blog you know how I feel about cooking competition television shows. There is a lot more to Padma than Top Chef, however, and after listening to her audiobook I started following her on Instagram. I was pleased to learn that she was developing a television program on which she sampled immigrant food around the country.
The series, entitled Taste the Nation, dropped on Hulu this past spring and is still available if you are a subscriber. It is a real delight. She samples Mexican food in El Paso, German food in Milwaukee, and Gullah food in South Carolina. She cooks Indian food with her mother and samples the food of the one group that does not have immigrant roots: Native Americans. (As one woman makes clear, Indian fry bread is not truly native American. It is what they made do with they were gathered up by the white man, put in camps, and given flour to cook with. True Native American food derives from what can be hunted and harvested in the desert of the American Southwest.)
If this sounds very similar to Marcus Samuelsson’s PBS program No Passport Required, it is. But each show brings its own perspective. Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, and immigrated to the United States. Padma brings her Indian American perspective. Both programs remind us of what we owe immigrants for the variety of food and culture we experience throughout the country.
Taste the Nation was produced pre-COVID-19, so Padma freely interacts with people, eating in their restaurants and homes. It is a delightful series to watch. I’m happy that a second season has been commissioned.
I have long avoided shopping at Walmart. I didn’t like the way they treated their employees regarding health coverage in the pre-Obamacare days, and I didn’t like their profit-above-all-else approach to business.
Here in Hemet I was happy to do my discount staples grocery shopping at WinCo, an employee-owned chain in the West and Southwest. They have low prices and a wide selection. You must bag your own groceries, but I have no problem with that. I was, after all, a box boy at two different grocery stores when I was in high school.
But in this time of COVID-19 I was unhappy that after Riverside County lifted its requirement for face masks in public most of the staff there stopped wearing them. That was not the case with other grocery stores in town. I submitted a comment on the WinCo web site and received the following response:
Currently, our employee-owned stores are complying with all local mandates in each area we call home. If a local jurisdiction mandates that each individual should wear a face covering, our employee owners follow those requirements. In areas where it is not mandatory by your local governing bodies, every employee has been provided guidance and is allowed to wear a face covering at their discretion – from home or provided by the company.
As Captain Picard once shouted at Guinan, “Not good enough, dammit! Not good enough!”
Walmart, on the others hand, has a national policy requiring employees to wear face masks and is limiting occupancy in its stores while enforcing social distancing. I also have to say that I appreciate Walmart’s commitment to energy efficiency and the use of solar power, despite some of its other faults.
So, instead of doing my usual WinCo run, I paid a visit to my local Walmart Neighborhood Market. I have long found Walmart stores to be cold and impersonal, and nothing changed on this visit. When I go to WinCo I generally find everything I’m looking for (of course there are those COVID-19 exceptions), whereas Walmart did not have several items on my list.
I’m going to have to rethink my grocery shopping patterns. Perhaps it will be a combination of buying more staples at a slightly higher price at Stater Bros. (my mainstream supermarket where I buy fresh meat and produce) and making more frequent trips to Aldi, with their particularly low prices but limited selection. And of course at Aldi you never know what interesting food item you might come across.
Really, though, I wish WinCo would change its policy on employees wearing masks. That would be the simplest solution for me.
I have written quite a bit recently about plant-based meat substitutes. For six months after my surgery in February I was not allowed red meat, and those products helped satisfy my cravings. I am once again allowed to eat red meat, but those products are still a part of my diet and cooking habits.
There has, however, been something of a backlash against the Beyond Meat, Impossible, and LightLife products. I see items pop up on social media and in suggested stories on my Google iOS app. My good friend Farrell has railed against them on Facebook. In one CNBC article, John Mackey, co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods, said that these products are highly processed and not terribly healthy. The Impossible product has been criticized for being made with highly processed soy.
But let’s back up a minute. Beyond Meats says its burger product contains a blend of pea, mung bean, and rice proteins. The LightLife product is somewhat similar. Processed, yes, but healthy vegetable products. And these products are far healthier for the environment, as Mackey admits. The CNBC article states, “According to a study commissioned by Beyond Meat with the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan, a plant-based burger generates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, requires 45% less energy, has 99% less impact on water scarcity, and 93% less impact on land use than a ¼ pound of traditional U.S. beef.”
It was back in 1971 that Frances Moore Lappé, in her groundbreaking Diet for a Small Planet, pointed out that animal products are a highly inefficient way of getting protein. And within that realm, beef is far and away the most inefficient. Folks, one reason (among many) that the Amazon is burning is our insatiable desire for beef. Getting our protein from plant-based sources is far easier on the planet. These products will continue to evolve and improve. If people can shed their lust for beef by eating these products then we ought to give them a fair shake.
Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.
You are, perhaps, getting tired of my reviews of plant-based meat substitutes. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t offer just one more.
Earlier this summer I received an email from the good folks at Beyond Meat saying that they were coming out with an improved burger with marbling and a meatier taste. Around that time the burger disappeared from the store shelves. Within the last week, however, the new, improved burger (as per the packaging) has been in stock both at WinCo and Stater Bros. I picked up a package on Friday and made burgers using my homemade sourdough bread for buns that evening.
It really is better. You can see the marbling in the burger, and the cooked burger has a meatier, fuller, more flavorful taste with an even more meat-like texture. And it is, in both Terry’s and my opinion, more filling.
The team at Beyond Meat is doing some excellent work.
It has been an interesting journey in that the rise of plant-based meat substitutes corresponded with the time after my surgery in which I was not allowed red meat. I am coming up on the six month mark and so should be able to return to red meat. I’ll check with my surgeon at the beginning of next week. (I really want a Double Double from In-n-Out!)
In the interim, however, I have tried a number of plant-based products: the Beyond Meat burger, two varieties of Beyond Meat sausage, the LightLife ground, the LightLife burger, and, of course, the Carl’s Jr. Beyond Famous Star. I have been pleased with the taste and texture of all of those.
Then there’s the one I’ve been waiting for: the Impossible Whopper. It rolled out nationwide on Thursday and I tried one yesterday. Now I have long been a Whopper fan. It’s not In-n-Out, not by a long shot, but one cannot live by In-n-Out alone, and the Whopper is a pretty darn good burger as fast food burgers go. The only problem is that it doesn’t come with cheese. You have to specifically request it, which I think is silly.
So the Impossible Whopper? Marvelous. I could not tell the difference from the beef Whopper. I just need to remember to ask for cheese.
Beyond Meat. LightLife. Impossible. It’s a whole new world and I love it.
I had planned veggie burgers for dinner a week ago. On Tuesday I went shopping at our nearby Stater Bros. supermarket and discovered they were out of the Beyond Meat burger in the fresh meat department. I had noticed that they had been missing at WinCo recently as well. The sausages were there, but not the burger. It seems that Beyond Meat has a supply problem, which, I suppose, is a Good Thing because it means that there is demand for their product. But that didn’t help me with Wednesday dinner.
I went up the street to Sprouts, which had both the Beyond Meat burger and the LightLife burger in the meat department’s freezer case. I had recently made chili with the LightLife Ground, and it was quite good so I decided to try the burger as well. It was fine that the burgers were frozen since they would have more than twenty-four hours to thaw out in the fridge.
On Wednesday I cooked the burgers using the grill pan on our stovetop and served them with my homemade sourdough bread for the buns, which I also lightly grilled. Excellent! Both Terry and I agreed that the LightLife was really indistinguishable from they Beyond Burger. Trying the two in a blindfolded taste test would be strictly a coin flip.
That was a great discovery. And I understand that the Impossible Whopper is rolling out nationwide tomorrow, August 8. I’ll be trying it soon.