Table manors: Meet seven immigrant women who helped change how America eats
One of the easiest ways to say “This is us” is through food. Alongside race and dress, it is among the clearest markers of identity and “otherness”. It is also why food that is dramatically different is so often viewed with suspicion.
In his first book, James Beard Award-winning food writer Mayukh Sen, 30, revisits the tales of seven women from different cultures who made the US their home from the 1910s on, fought to have the food of their cultures acknowledged, understood and embraced. And in doing so, contributed to a sweeping change in how Americans eat.
“People of colour, immigrants, immigrant women of colour, queer people, are often not honoured sufficiently in cultural memory. They are not remembered as someone like, say, Julia Child is remembered,” says Sen, a Brooklyn-based child of Bengali immigrants.
And so the women featured in Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America (WW Norton & Company; 2022) include the Indian executive chef Julie Sahni, 76, whose cookbook Classic Indian Cooking (1980) was a proud showcase of India’s many cuisines, and became a handbook for Indian women struggling to recreate the flavours of home in North America at the time.
Also featured is the visually challenged Mexican chef Elena Zelayeta (1898 - 1974); the Jamaican-born restaurateur Norma Shirley (1938 – 2010); and the Iranian-American Najmieh Batmanglij, 75, who had to self-publish her cookbooks in the 1970s, a time of great anti-Iranian sentiment in America, and continues to do so.
“People ask how America became this melting pot. I want to show how there was great struggle involved,” Sen says. Excerpts from an interview.
A lot of your food writing focuses on people from marginalised communities…
When I started writing this book, a lot of talk about immigrants in the food media was along the lines of, “Immigrants get the job done” and “Immigrants feed America”. This inadvertently reinforces this idea that the worth and value of immigrant lives in America must be measured by what they can provide to a certain kind of privileged consumer.
I wanted to reorient my reader’s gaze and honour the creative aspirations of immigrants themselves. Through this book I wanted to restore to public memory the lives of these figures who changed the way we cook and eat in America and around the world.
Why did you pick these seven women?
Part of the reason is that, when they started their food careers, they barely knew how to boil water; that mirrors my own trajectory. I never planned on being a food writer. Growing up in suburban New Jersey in a Bengali immigrant household I always perceived food-writing to be the domain of rich, straight, white men. I felt I just didn’t have that refined a palate. The idea that you can come to a place that seems scary or intimidating, and realise that you have a place there, and have found a voice in some way, is so inspiring.
You’ve described Sahni’s journey as fascinating…
What fascinates me about Julie is that she’s worn so many hats throughout her life. Before she got into food, she was a dancer, an architect and a city planner. Within the food world, she was a restaurant chef, a cookbook author, a cooking teacher. That is great material in narrative terms. And I knew I wanted to include a figure from South Asia because South Asian flavours, whether Indian, Bangladeshi or Pakistani, have left such a deep impression on the way Americans cook and eat today.
What were your meetings with Sahni like?
I spent several hours interviewing her in her Brooklyn apartment, which was also the site of her cooking classes until the pandemic. She herself is an archive. It was nice to see all the photos she had of herself with big power players in the culinary world. One memory that lingers is seeing a photo of her with another Indian-born chef, the late Raji Jallepalli, who worked in the American South and blended Indian flavours with French technique. That’s another fascinating story.
What struck you most, as you uncovered the stories of these women’s struggles?
I don’t know where to start! I’d say that all seven of these women were working in a system that wasn’t always willing to hear them. When it comes to the Mexican-born Elena Zelayeta, who lost her sight in adulthood, I was struck, for instance, by how often headlines about her framed her in terms of her disability, calling her “the blind cook.” It was as if her creative vision didn’t matter as much as her blindness.
In Julie’s case, I was drawn to what she told me about America’s understanding of India back in the late 1960s, when she first arrived in New York. There was a romanticised fascination with superficial aspects of Indian culture thanks to George Harrison and The Beatles. But that curiosity didn’t extend to the food. There was a degree of prejudice surrounding Indian cuisine.
What stood out to me in my conversations with the Iranian Najmieh Batmanglij was the fact that there have — according to her — been no enticing offers from publishing houses, over a nearly four-decade career. And she is looked down upon by other writers for self-publishing.
You’ve said that it’s wrong to use food writing as an “escape”. Why?
I began writing about food professionally just after the 2016 (Donald Trump) election in America. I noticed that so many people seemed to treat food as apolitical by design. Readers were coming to certain food publications to escape and to not think about the horrors and realities of American life. But food can be a clarifying window into a lot of the world’s inequities rather than a distraction from them.
Many readers want to know how America became this melting pot of cultures. I wanted to show my readers that there was great struggle involved in making that reality possible, and you see just a portion of that struggle in the stories of these seven women.