Science

The Immigrant Women Who Forever Changed the Way Americans Eat

Norma Shirley never wrote a cookbook and never had her own television show. Yet the Jamaican chef and prolific restaurateur—despite working in an era when The New York Times dismissed her home region as “an area that was visited for its climate and beaches but not for its cuisine”—forever altered American food culture. Even as Shirley garnered recognition from the likes of Vogue and the James Beard Foundation, the media seemed unsure how to cover her, often resorting to calling her “the Julia Child of Jamaica,” a reductive comparison she politely brushed aside.

Shirley is just one of the culinary powerhouses and cultural mavericks profiled by Mayukh Sen in his new book Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America. Her story sits alongside that of Chao Yang Buwei, a doctor who set up a birth control clinic in her native China, then went on to author a groundbreaking English-language Chinese cookbook in the United States. Then there’s Najmieh Batmanglij, an Iranian exile who, when rejected by American publishing gatekeepers, self-published her own cookbooks. All of them introduced a broader American audience to cuisines and ideas that were fundamentally unfamiliar to many at the time.

Author Mayukh Sen.
Author Mayukh Sen. Photo courtesy of Christopher Gregory-Rivera

None of these women were strangers to the limelight. Some, like Marcella Hazan, enjoyed considerable fame. Yet the weight or nature of their contributions to the American culinary canon has often been misunderstood and underestimated by an establishment so long dominated by white men and native-born chefs. Each of these women fought against a system that often tried to pigeonhole, minimize, demean, or exoticize them. Xenophobic tides and legislation, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to a wave of anti-Iranian sentiment, often looms heavily in the background.

Sen’s book is both a series of compelling portraits and a deeply researched challenge to entrenched American historical narratives. Gastro Obscura spoke with Sen about the myth of the melting pot, sexism in the industry, and why food often lays bare systemic injustice.

You write in the introduction, “Reading this book may warm your heart, but it should unsettle you at certain points. It should make you squirm.” Let’s talk about why you don’t want your readers to be completely comfortable.

I think that a lot of my readers will come to this book wanting to know how America became a so-called melting pot of different cuisines and cultures. There is a lot of struggle embedded in making that reality possible for consumers. You see just a fraction of that struggle in the stories of these women. Food writing can be so much more than a heartwarming or anodyne genre. A lot of readers come here to escape the misery and horrors of the outside world, but to me, food can be a clarifying force that allows us to see inequities.

What exactly made you squirm in your research process?

There was a lot that unsettled me in the sheer amount of discrimination that these women faced. I was thinking of all the descriptors that journalists attached to Madeleine Kamman—abrasive, difficult—which we now see as sexist dog whistles. Or there was a critic in Esquire, in 1999, who just dismissed Jamaica’s entirety of cooking traditions by saying that Jamaica does not leap to mind when one thinks of great food. So many people in the food media were completely unapologetic in these attitudes.

One part that definitely made me uncomfortable was Paul Bocuse telling Craig Claiborne at The New York Times that women chefs could not be artists for the same reason that “there are so few women architects and orchestra leaders,” because “they are not great innovators.”

The Paul Bocuse quotes really upset me. I believe he told Newsweek in 1975 that the only place for women was in bed. This is recent history that we’re talking about. I felt a lot of anger when writing this book and I hope that comes through. I’m sure that there are so many other male chefs that are crowned as media darlings or titans of their era that spoke in such dismissive terms of women.

Najmieh Batmanglij preparing a rice dish with cumin and potatoes in her home.
Najmieh Batmanglij preparing a rice dish with cumin and potatoes in her home. Getty Images/The Washington Post

This book very much feels like an attempt to correct our larger understanding of American foodways. Why did you feel it was necessary now?

I began working on this book in 2018. Prior to that point, so much of my writing had been focused on women in food. And I couldn’t quite articulate why at first it was that I gravitated towards the stories of women in a way that I didn’t towards many male-identifying culinary figures in history. As a queer person, I’ve realized I have a complicated relationship to gender that my appearance may not suggest.

In terms of why this book in this cultural moment, I could feel as I was reporting on women from marginalized communities that there was an appetite—if you’ll forgive the corny food word—for the stories of women who had been effaced by dominant narratives. There was an audience that was eager to consume these stories and consider why certain ones are recorded and others are cast aside.

As you acknowledge yourself, there are a lot of other women you could have chosen to profile. How did you choose your subjects?

It was really hard to winnow the list to just seven figures. I asked myself as I was choosing story subjects what would be interesting about this woman’s life and legacy to someone who is not a regular consumer of food media. I wanted to compel myself to reach people who don’t just read Bon Appétit.

Why, say, Chao Yang Buwei and not Grace Chu? Why Julie Sahni and not Madhur Jaffrey?

The reason why I chose to focus on Buwei was I had always been so intrigued by Buwei’s story. There was this incredibly charged backstory embedded into that book with family conflict. By her own admission, it was her husband who had retooled all of her prose because he found her English to be substandard and unclear. I wondered if that literal overwriting could speak to something more symbolic. I also felt it was a statement to begin the book with a woman of color.

In terms of Julie Sahni, I’ve always been fascinated by her story because she’s worn so many different hats. She began as a dancer then had this flourishing career as an architect and city planner, then found her way into food. A lot of people have asked me why not Madhur Jaffrey, but many people have celebrated her work—maybe still not enough—and there are people in my generation who will not understand Julie Sahni’s import as much. I wanted to nudge them in that direction.

Did you run into any pushback?

There was a prominent critic a few months ago who went to Twitter and said, “Why did you write about Julie Sahni and not Madhur Jaffrey?” I did not entertain a response, but in my head I thought, why not both? Both of these women are incredibly talented and incredibly gifted. There shouldn’t be room for just one figure, but that sort of thinking persists.

It’s true that you don’t really see that kind of binary applied to white, cis-male chefs or cookbook authors. No one really questions why we’ve got both Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver.

Today, there is a scarcity mindset that plagues so many of us in the American food media. There were certainly times when I felt that my recognition gave me a leg up on other writers from a similar background. And that’s such a poisonous mindset when coming from a marginalized community. I hate that line of thinking. There should be room for all of us in this industry, and yet I don’t quite see that in the American food media, at least when you look at its history.

Madeleine Kamman with her students at the French Library in Boston.
Madeleine Kamman with her students at the French Library in Boston. Getty Images/The Boston Globe

I feel like you address this in the chapter on Madeleine Kamman, a French woman making French food at the same time as Julia Child. What was your take on the very heavily publicized rivalry between her and Julia?

I definitely feel that the American food media has the tendency to pit women against each other. When it came to this conflict between Julia and Madeline, I did see implicitly or explicitly that a lot of writers thought Madeline could not measure up to Julia’s greatness, because when Madeline was on the rise, Julia had cemented her status an icon and a beloved figure, so for anyone to question that supremacy was an anathema to the American press at that time. There is just so much sexism wired into the DNA of the American food media.

Since you started working on this project, our present-day food media ecosystem has gone through something of a reckoning. How did that impact your research?

It definitely ended up coming out in a fraught time in American food media. In 2020, you saw so many very public upheavals of power in Bon Appétit and The Los Angeles Times. There was a more intense conversation about discrimination in the food world than in the years that had preceded. I started to see this book as a way to understand how these discriminatory barriers were established in the first place and how the American food world got to where it is today.

Najmieh Batmanglij in her home kitchen in Washington DC.
Najmieh Batmanglij in her home kitchen in Washington DC. Getty Images/The Washington Post

One quote from the Najmieh Batmanglij chapter really stuck with me, which was when she said, “In exile, you become so much more conscious of your culture.” How do you feel being removed from their own cultures changed the way these women relayed them and related to them?

When it comes to Najmieh, what I sensed in speaking to her for so many hours was she seemed to be writing against this fear that her sons would never experience the same food that she did growing up in Iran. She felt as though political circumstances would deprive her sons of so much, so she felt that writing was the most powerful way to preserve some of that culture. It was only after she left Iran that she was able to get that clarity of outlook. That first book was conceived as a love letter for her sons, yet she was also writing for other members of the Iranian diaspora. She wasn’t necessarily writing for a wider American audience.

That’s very much not the case with some of your subjects. Chao Yang Buwei, for instance, said, “All of the ingredients in my recipes are American. Perhaps that is why the book has sold so many copies.” What did it mean for some of these cookbook authors to write for an audience unfamiliar with the cuisines of their homelands?

Women like Chao Yang Buwei and Elena Zelayeta were writing their books for an audience assumed to be white and middle- or upper-middle-class. They were willing to offer ingredient substitutes like peanut butter instead of sesame paste or to make foods more mild because so many Americans found Mexican food too hot. It might be tempting for some readers in the 21st century to say these women were making compromises, but they were working with the realities of what America was like in that time. I wanted to make sure that I was being empathetic to those challenges instead of judging them or saying, “These women were sellouts.” I feel that’s a lazy and incurious reaction.

Marcella Hazan with her cookbooks.
Marcella Hazan with her cookbooks. Getty Images/Santi Visalli

Some of the critical reactions from food media that you cite now read as exotifying or othering these women. How did they navigate this?

I think that when I look at the stories of all seven women, I think that they wanted to resist that sort of exotic gaze that had been imposed on their cultures and instead portray the realities that they had grown up with. In the case of Julie Sahni, she had lived in various parts of India, but when she came to America, she told me that this fascination with India from the Beatles or the long shadow cast by movies like The Jungle Book, did not coincide with her experience. So a lot of her work was positioned in a way that wanted to shatter those stereotypes. She was very careful in wanting American audiences to understand that Indian cooking is so much more than the limitations that Americans have put upon it. There was more to Indian cooking than curry, which is a very complicated and charged word. You see a version of that playing out in these other stories as well. A lot of these women, given the challenges that they faced, could have very easily leaned into that exoticism to sell books and make a living, but they largely resisted that. But even if they didn’t, it’s not for us to judge.

When you’re trying to understand the perspectives of different women from different time periods, what do you turn to?

A lot of that sort of empathy that I had to force myself to have came from looking inward on my own time in food media. As a queer person of color, I have faced discrimination and I’ve also made choices in my writing that I look back on today and think, “I’m not sure I would do that in 2022.” I had to learn to be generous with my past self and recognize that I was facing certain challenges at certain times in this industry and I have to apply that same kind of thinking to these women.

Gastro Obscura covers the world’s most wondrous food and drink.

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