Reflecting on the immigrant women who shaped how America eats

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Julie Sahni advanced Americans’ understanding of Indian food and is one of seven women profiled in the book “Taste Makers.” Photo courtesy of Julie Sahni.

For decades, the world of cookbooks was marked by the broader cultural and social disparity in gender, with female authors often taking a backseat — despite their historical influence — to the voices of their male counterparts in the public eye. Nearly all of them were immigrant women who were given short shrift — not TV personalities, but trailblazers nevertheless. 

In his new book “Taste Makers,” professor and award-winning writer Mayukh Sen profiles seven taste-making immigrant women who left a lasting mark on our culinary landscape and how Americans cook and eat today.

KCRW: Tell us about each of the women you profiled in your new book and the name of their own book that brought them to the public.

Mayukh Sen: Absolutely. There's Chao Yang Buwei from China, who wrote 1945’s “How to Cook and Eat in Chinese.” There's Elena Zelayeta, who wrote a number of cookbooks beginning in the 1940s, focusing on Mexican and Spanish cooking. Then we've got Madeleine Kamman from France, and her most famous work might be “When French Women Cook,” which came out in the mid-1970s. Then we've got Marcella Hazan, who really made her mark beginning with 1973’s “The Classic Italian Cookbook,” followed by Julie Sahni, who wrote 1980’s “Classic Indian Cooking.” Then we've got Najmieh Batmanglij from Iran, who wrote 1986’s “Food of Life.” And then I end my book with the story of Norma Shirley from Jamaica, who sadly does not have a cookbook to her name, yet definitely left a lasting impression on the way Americans cook and eat today.

Chao Yang Buwei is credited with exposing Chinese cuisine to a larger American audience. Can you share a bit about her life and how her family reacted to her voice?

Chao Yang Buwei was born in China in the 19th century. And before she came to America in 1921, she had a really vibrant, flourishing career as a doctor in China. And she had gone to medical school in Japan, which was pretty radical for its era, at least in my understanding. Yet she came to America because her husband, the famed linguist Chao Yuen Ren, had gotten an academic job in America, and as a result, they were transplanted to the East Coast. Because of her lack of fluency or comfort with the English language, she couldn't find work as a doctor in America. And so instead, she busied herself with cooking, and she became exactly what she feared, which is a housewife. 

Yet she created a career out of cooking by writing that cookbook, 1945’s aforementioned “How to Cook and Eat in Chinese.” The genesis of that cookbook was quite tortured, because her eldest daughter, Rulan, helped her in putting the words on the page, but then it was her husband who looked at that draft and said, “No, this is all wrong,” allegedly. And as a result, he kind of went through it with a red pen and struck out a lot of Buwei’s own voice and grafted his own onto the text. So as a result, this pioneering cookbook is a clash of different voices and styles. And you can see the family conflict right on the page, which is absolutely fascinating. Yet, it saddens me because the voice of Buwei herself was effectively obscured in spite of her great contributions to the way that Americans cook and eat today.


Mayukh Sen explores the histories of women who moved to America and made their mark by paying homage to their homeland cuisine and culture, but who were often obscured. Photo by Christopher Gregory Rivera.

Tell us about the story of Elena Zelayeta.

She is a truly rich, fascinating character, in pure narrative terms. Elena Zelayeta was born in Mexico in the late 19th century. She came to America, and specifically California's Bay Area, in the early 20th century and was displaced here as a result of the Mexican Revolution. And she made a career as a cookbook author, a one time restaurant chef, and occasional television cooking host, in spite of many challenges throughout her life, the primary one being that she lost her sight as an adult. 

And afterwards, she taught herself how to cook again relying on all of her other remaining senses. And that spirit of tenacity I found so inspiring. she was really able to make a career out of it. And she really did provide a sense of hope to her audience in America, especially in the postwar years. Yet, I’m sad to say that I’m sure that very few American home cooks today really know her name, in spite of her impact. And that's what I wanted to try and correct with this book.

Her parents were actually Spanish. So she grew up in Mexico, this place that had been so deeply colonized, and she had this experience of Mexican food, but also the overlay of her parents’ memories, and then all of her time in California, because she became known as an authority of West Coast cooking.

She wasn't just relegated in popular culture in the time to being the poster child, so to speak, for Mexican cooking or just Spanish cooking. It was for West Coast cooking or California cuisine. She was good friends with Helen Evans Brown, who was another incredibly significant figure in California cuisine. And it's fascinating because Elena's sensibility really started to reflect her adoptive home over time. 

As you look through her bibliography, her initial cookbooks were really just focused on Mexican and Spanish recipes, at least in framing. Yet, as time went on, she started to write books about California foods, and you saw recipes that borrowed ingredients or techniques from Japan, Italy, and other immigrant populations that existed within California. And she was absolutely content to have her food reflect the person she had become by living in America. And perhaps her feeling of outsiderness in Mexico itself may have contributed to that. I don't know.

Tell us about Norma Shirley, and your decision to include her despite the fact that there isn't a book that we can turn to, which puts more responsibility on you, in a way.

Yes, that was its own kind of challenge, to write about a deceased subject who did not leave behind any memoirs or cookbooks with memoiristic passages that I could really rely on. Thankfully, she had a family who was quite open with me. And in addition to that, she had many interviews that she'd given throughout her lifetime that really presented her vivid personality and put it on full display. 

Norma Shirley, for listeners who aren't familiar, was a chef and restaurateur from Jamaica, who came to America in the late 1960s. And during the 1970s, she operated a very popular restaurant in the Berkshires in Massachusetts that cooked “French food with Jamaican flair,” is how I believe she put it. And after a few years of running that restaurant, she decided that she wanted to strike out on her own in New York and try out running her own restaurant in the Big Apple. And so she moved there as a single mother with her son. And upon coming to New York in the early 1980s, she really struggled to gain sufficient capital and investors who could really help her mount that restaurant of hers. 

After a few years, she decided that it was not worth the pain or struggle of trying to make this futile dream happen. And so she returned to Jamaica in the mid 1980s. And it was only then, when she experienced real success as a restaurateur by opening a spate of restaurants under her own name in Jamaica. And those restaurants are the ones that got her the attention of the American food media. Suddenly magazines like Vogue and Bon Appetit and Food and Wine were fêting her as the Julia Child of Jamaica and the Julia Child of the Caribbean. 

I was so intrigued by her story because this was a Black immigrant woman who was working in a time before the American food establishment was really willing to understand the nuance and beauty of Jamaican cooking, the kind that she was trying to impart upon her audience. And it was only after she left America and returned to Jamaica that she was able to make a living doing what she loved and expressing herself creatively. And I felt as though that was a real indictment of the American food establishment and the American food industry and who it makes room for.


In “Taste Makers,” writer and professor Mayukh Sen chronicles seven immigrant women and their lasting impression on how Americans cook and eat today.  Photo courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company.

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