A Conversation with Mayukh Sen
Talking to the author of 'Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America' about assimilation, writing from the left, and teaching the next generation of food writers.
It’s almost funny that I haven’t had Mayukh Sen on my podcast yet. But the truth is, I’ve been waiting for his book, Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America (out November 2—preorder it!), to be available so that we could discuss it in all the glory I knew it would achieve.
Here, he presents what we discuss is an Almodóvar-esque constellation of women who all moved to the United States and made their mark on its cuisine—to various ends. Their stories are rendered cinematically, richly. It’s a book you can’t put down until you finish. It’s an absolute triumph that challenges popular and dull liberal assimilationist narratives.
In full disclosure, Mayukh and I are good friends. But I think that only enriches this discussion of his work and especially this text. We discussed how food media has and hasn’t changed over 100-plus years, what it’s like to receive Establishment accolades at a young age, and how teaching food writing at NYU has influenced his work. (I didn’t end up quizzing him on Best Actress winners since 1960, but I trust he’s still got that knowledge.) Paid subscribers can listen and access the full transcript.
Alicia: Hi, Mayukh. Thank you so much for being here.
Mayukh: Thank you for having me, Alicia. [Laughter.]
Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
Mayukh: No, I can't.
Yeah, so I grew up in suburban New Jersey, two towns: Edison and North Brunswick. So most of my food memories from my childhood revolve around my mother's home cooking.
So my mother is an immigrant from the Indian state of West Bengal, just like my late father was. And so, every night for dinner, she would cook some sort of Bengali meal that had rice and dal, some sort of vegetable preparation, and then a non-veg protein. So those were most of my memories, kind of just her home cooking.
We didn't really go out to eat at restaurants very much. I grew up comfortably middle class, I'd say. But I don’t know, there's something about the etiquettes of going out to eat at restaurants that just seemed very foreign to our family. So what we considered luxury, when I was growing up at least in the ’90s and the aughts, was places like P.F. Changs and Cheesecake Factory. Bertucci's was a really big event in our family to go there, but that was kind of the extent of our restaurant-going experiences. So I didn't really grow up with a sense of what it was like to go out to eat at restaurants and partake in the culture in that way.
Alicia: Do you maintain the kind of eating at home that you grew up with, that your mom gave you?
Mayukh: I am such a bad cook in general that I find that a lot of those kinds of dishes are probably too involved for me to pull off as well as she could and still can. Sorry, she's not deceased or anything. [Laughter.] She's still with us. And she's still cooking this stuff really nicely.
The stuff that I cook at home now, over in—Brooklyn is where I live—is just staple stuff that is enough for me to survive on. I purely just only cook well enough to feed myself and exist in this world. [Laughter.]
Alicia: Well, and I mean, that brings me to my next question, which is that you didn't come to food writing out of a passion for food, which is what so many of us do. And that also is why you're such a unique voice in the field. You're not interested in why people cook well, that's not an interesting thing to do in your work. I mean, maybe it is interesting to you. That's sort of the least interesting part of why people cook and why food is interesting. And you're not kind of dazzled by that. [Laughs.]
Alicia: Yeah, how did you come to write about food and how did you kind of find your way to create your voice in this field?
Mayukh: For sure.
First of all, I just want to say thank you for even regarding my initial lack of passion for food as a qualification, because I think that a lot of people who we call colleagues and peers in this industry would consider that a demerit or disqualification for me existing in the space at all, but whatever. So, thank you for that.
But in terms of how I came to food, so I have been a professional food writer for five years now. Can you hear the exhaustion in my voice? [Laughter.] I never imagined that I'd be doing this with my life for this long.
But what happened was, so I grew up wanting to be a film critic. And I was the kind of kid who devoured Entertainment Weekly. I memorized everything about the Oscars in high school. I could name every Best Actress nominee from 1960 onward. Now I'm a little rusty, but we can end the conversation today with some tests and see how good I still am. But I was very hell-bent on becoming a film critic in the vein of Pauline Kael. And that didn't quite happen just yet, even though I still do write about film.
But basically, I graduated from college in 2014. And in 2015, when I was living in New York, I started to freelance a lot about topics like film and television and music. Everything but food, basically. I had only written one food piece, and it was for the RIP Village Voice. The OG Village Voice. And that piece was held indefinitely. And I think that the editor just didn't have the heart to actually kill it, you know? So, maybe that was a sign that I actually don't belong here.
But regardless, fast forward to summer 2016. I got an email from an editor at a site called Food52, which many listeners, readers may know. And they were just like, ‘Yeah, we're hiring for a staff writer position right now, someone who is not necessarily a food person in terms of home cooking or going out to eat at restaurants.’ And that’s like, ‘I'm your guy. ‘And someone who is going to be able to write about food to a broader cultural lens, and perhaps tap into a segment of the audience we haven't quite reached just yet.’
And initially when I got that email, I was like, ‘This is hilarious. Please. Absolutely not.’ But I took the meeting, because back then I was 24 years old. I was a freelancer. I wanted to write more ambitious, deeply reported stories. That was back when I still equated the length of a story with narrative strength in some way. I was like, ‘I want to write long stories,’ which I've now kind of moved away from. But we can talk about that later.
But anyway, so I took the meeting. And I really wanted the trust of an editor to allow me to write those kinds of stories that I just did not get as a young freelancer. And the fact that this was a salary job with benefits, those were hard to come by in 2016 just like they are today. A salary culture writing job with benefits? Excuse me. It’s a rarity.
So I kept interviewing for it, and then I got the job. But I just remember in the days leading up to me realizing that I was going to accept this offer, I was kind of laughing to myself. And I was just like, ‘Wow, I'm going to be a food writer. That's hilarious.’
Because I had grown up—and I'm not sure what kind of cultural depiction is responsible for this. But I'd grown up thinking that food writing was very much the domain of straight, white, affluent men. And I was one of those things. I was a man. But otherwise, I was a queer person of color and child of immigrants. I grew up speaking two first languages. It just seemed so not an option for me career wise, and so I never even considered it. So, I just thought that the whole little ride was kind of hilarious. So just like, ‘Strap in, Mayukh. See what's in store for you here.’
So, it was definitely a challenge in those first few months. It remains a challenge, of course, to be in this industry coming from marginalized communities and having leftist points of view. But back in late 2016 when I started that job at Food52, I had to struggle for a few months to really find my footing in that site because I was the only person of color on an editorial team of white women—wonderful white women. A great collection. [Laughter.] But I was just writing from a different center of gravity than everyone else. And it was quite apparent that I was a new voice to the site in the sorts of comments that I got that were just so allergic to my point of view, and the way that I expressed that point of view.
So it was tough, but the way I started to kind of ease into the job was writing a lot of personal essays, because throughout my life I had never really considered what food meant to me beyond providing me mere sustenance. I was always like, ‘Ok, cool, this is something I need to do. I need to eat, and then I'm going to go to sleep and wake up and do this over again the next day.’
But being in the job at first really asked me to consider like, ‘What does food mean to you, especially as a queer Bengali person?’ All that stuff. And so I wrote a lot about my identity and how food is tied to it, and how I'd never really considered all these things and how food had shaped me in ways that I just was not aware of, so early on in my life.
And after I got all those personal essays out of my system, I started to grow extremely bored with myself as a character. I was like, ‘I've exhausted every story that lives inside me, so let me move on and turn my gaze outwards.’ So what I started to do was write a lot of profiles of figures who were like me, kind of on the margins of the food industry, were not from the dominant, over-represented populations within this industry and really made an impact with their food or their writing or both in some way.
So often, these figures tended to be people of color, women of color, immigrants, immigrants of color, queer people of color like myself, etc. And I found a lot of comfort in exploring these stories, because they made me understand my place in this industry a bit better because I just felt so alone and so confused and those first few months had me be just like, ‘What am I doing? How did I get here on this planet?’ And I still feel the same way, but just less intensely now.
And it was also kind of a way of me educating myself, because there's so much about culinary history in America that I was just so unaware of when I stepped into that job. You think that that's kind of a prerequisite for taking on a food staff writing job, but I was just like, ‘I'm an idiot. I've seen Julie and Julia.’ That was kind of the extent of my culinary history education. So, writing these stories as a way of schooling myself in a very public manner. I was learning on the job, in that sense.
I mean, it's funny because I think still, the picture of food writers in movies is so far from what it actually is. [Laughs.] Well, it's funny that you thought food writers were straight dudes, because I was—I think restaurant critics have always been straight, white men generally. And then, the people writing about lifestyle like Craig Claiborne or James Beard or—it's always been women or gay white men. It's always been such a segregated field where—and maybe now we're getting better. I don't know.
Mayukh: Oh, I don’t know. [Laughter.]
Alicia: I mean, there is a movie I really like because it's one of those—one of the last middlebrow adult movies, which I hope are making a comeback. But it has Toni Collette and Greg Kinnear. And they go to dinner at a friend's house, and I can't remember—is it Dinner with Friends?
Mayukh: Little Miss Sunshine? I don't remember that scene.
Alicia: Wait, there's a different movie where it's them, I think.
But anyway, the people whose house they go to are writers for Saveur. And they're just going on glamorous trips, and they have kids and they have a huge house. And it's like, ‘Wow, I did think that that's what it would be like to be a magazine writer.’ I was like, ‘Oh, my life is going to be so glamorous. And I'll have money.’ I had no conception of how difficult and poorly paid this job was.
Mayukh: What are you talking about? It pays so well.
Alicia: It pays so well!
Mayukh: Scrooge McDuck over here just swimming in money, you know?
Yeah, I'm trying to think of what film kind of made me think of food writers in that way. You're definitely correct that I equated food writing with restaurant criticism. Maybe it was Mystic Pizza. I don't know. But I remember—
Mayukh: Yeah, ’cause I remember—there's that scene near the end where the restaurant critic comes in.
But yeah, I can't think of what else. [Laughter.] But anyway, my point stands, which is that however you cut it, whether food writing was the domain of those white straight rich dudes or gay white men or white women, there—there's not a place to me there at the table, so to speak.
Alicia: No, yeah, we could go on forever about that.
But in your book, Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America, you profile seven women. You put them in there chronologically, which I think tells a really great story and really kind of contextualizes an evolution of food in the United States in the 20th century. And you kind of vary your selections between popular people like Marcella Hazan and also the less obvious choice like Julie Sahni. The obvious choice, if you wanted to talk about a woman immigrant in America who did Indian food, you talk about Madhur Jaffrey, right?
But by making these choices, you get to present some really interesting contrast between reception of how people were received and how people really change things. And even what kinds of books were successful, like I—so much about what someone's book would look like versus someone else's book, and how that also influences the reception.
And so I wanted to ask how you decided on those women? I know you write about it a little bit in the afterword, but how were your—what was your process for deciding?
Mayukh: Yeah, that's a wonderful question.
It took me many months. And it even changed after the proposal writing process, because the women who were in my—whom I had selected for my proposal were not the ones who ended up in the book, which is funny. In terms of selecting people like Marcella Hazan, I realized that I needed to provide some sort of entry point or way in to readers who might be scanning books at a bookstore or online and be like, ‘Oh, this sounds kind of interesting. Is there anyone I know here?’ And Marcella Hazan is close to a household name for people who are home cooks.
And actually once I selected her, it really illuminated why certain other women were kind of in that book as well, because Marcella Hazan is someone who I obviously have great affection for. And I have even more affection for after reading about her. Yet throughout her career, she was dogged by so many accusations of being a ‘difficult woman.’ We now recognize that as a sexist dog whistle to call a woman difficult when she stands up for what she believes and fights for the integrity of her work.
But it's interesting how those sorts of criticisms, you could say, did not torpedo her career in the same way it may have for other women who didn't possess the same advantages of her, that she did, you know.
And so, that's why I selected someone like Madeleine Kamman, who is from France, who was so brilliant, had just an incredible sense of French technique and how to apply it to different styles or—cuisines rather, excuse me, like American cuisine. Throughout her career, however, her brilliance was overshadowed by the fact that she was very openly critical about Julia Child and Julia Child's position as a white American woman being this ambassador for French cooking in the United States. And as a result, throughout her life and career, Madeleine Kamman faced all these accusations that she was just this bitter woman who could not stand to see other people succeed, etc.
And so I start to wonder, ‘Why is it that someone like Marcella Hazan did become a big name in spite of these perceived difficulties versus someone like Madeleine Kamman, her road to recognition was so much more rocky.’
And in terms of selecting other women—so, I initially did not set out to write about Julie Sahni, because I did go for the obvious choice, Madhur Jaffrey. This didn't have much to do—Sorry, how do I say this? This had a lot to do with the fact that she was a film actress, in addition to a food writer. And of course, my whole topical passion and interest is in film. So I was like, ‘Oh, this is gonna be fun for me.’
But then I realized, in spending more time with Julie’s work, I realized that there has not been the kind of deep appraisal of her work that she certainly merits and—A. And then B, I think that her whole philosophy in general is just so admirable to me. She is someone who truly focuses on the strength of the work. She puts her head down, lets the work speak for itself. She's not always out there and trying to grab eyes or attention. Which is okay, if she were to. No judgment there.
But that's just such a fascinating way to live as a creative. And it's really aspirational, to be honest. And I think that there's something to say in his story about the kinds of—what it's like to live as a creative person under American capitalism and how to survive in public memory through that. And so that's why I was like, ‘Julie Sahni might actually be a more interesting challenge to me.’ Also, I had written about Madhur Jaffrey before, back at Food52. So I was like, ‘This is kind of worn territory for me. I want to tackle a fresh story.’
So, those were the kinds of considerations I had when I was curating this list, let's say—cast of characters rather. It’s a more diplomatic way to put it.
And then in terms of my last story subject. Surely you know, she was from Jamaica. The way I landed upon her actually was, I googled ‘the Julia Child of.’ Just that phrase, literally. And so many hits for people like Marcella Hazan and Julie Sahni. They've been called respectively, Julia Child of Italy, Julia Child of India.
But Norma Shirley is a name that came up as well in one article. And she was from Jamaica, and I thought that her story was so fascinating because she did live in America for a few decades, from the ‘60s ‘til the ‘80s. But then she went back home to Jamaica, and she became a star there. And I think that her story had so much to say regarding the hurdles that Black immigrant women from the Caribbean had to face in terms of getting enough capital to make their creative dreams a reality in this country, in culinary terms.
Alicia: Yeah. No, I love that.
Have you written about the phrase, ‘the Julia Child of’? [Laughs.]
Mayukh: I would love to. There's an op-ed in there.
Alicia: There is definitely an op-ed. [Laughs.]
Mayukh: I have a little spiel about it in the Norma Shirley chapter. But originally, it was this long thing, super blown out. But then, I had to cut in subsequent drafts. But yeah, it was there originally. So yeah, thanks for the reminder.
Alicia: ‘Cause I want to read about it. There's a cookbook author from Puerto Rico, who's been referred to as the Julia Child of Puerto Rico. I actually have to open her cookbook today.
Mayukh: What's her name? Do you know?
Alicia: Her name is Carmen, and I can't remember the rest of her name. [Laughters.] But she wrote Caribbean Cookery, I believe. Oh, no, Cocina Criolla.
Mayukh:, Right. Ok. Ok, that’s what I figured.
Your appreciation for the difficult women is maybe part of—And you also mentioned this earlier that you knew the Best Actress since 1960, was the winner of the Best—You have a love of women and drama and glamour. And I think that you bring that to the book with how you write about them. You really bring them to life, and you see all sides of them. And you just appreciate them in such a way that is—I don't know, it's just so alive and vivid and cinematic.
And so, did you think about that while you were writing the book? Did your love of film and of actresses influence your appreciation of these women and your ability to render them so vividly?
Mayukh: First of all, thank you for saying that. That’s a huge compliment, because the last thing I want anyone to say about my book is like, ‘Oh, this is boring as shit,’ you know? That's my big fear. And that's what I asked myself when I'm self editing is like, ‘Is this boring me to tears? Does this feel like homework?’
Yeah, I would absolutely say that my love of cinema, and actresses in particular, influenced the way that I approached these stories. When people ask me what my favorite films are, of course, I have a list. The conversation almost immediately pivots to, what are my favorite film performances? I have that running list. And my favorite performances in the film are ones by actresses who just dominate a whole movie and their performance just overtakes the entire film.
So I'm thinking of, like Jane Fonda in Klute. That was one performance that when I first saw it in high school, I just—it completely expanded my notion of what a movie performance could be. Because her skills such that you are able to understand what this woman, who is a sex worker and actress in the movie—it's a wonderful movie. You should watch it if you haven’t yet. You're able to understand what she is feeling at any given moment in time, without the need for dialogue or narration. First-person narration, excuse me.
And so many of my other favorite performances in film operate along those same lines, like Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas and the Indian actress Sridevi in English Vinglish. They don't need dialogue to tell you what they're feeling. And I wanted to bring something similar to these chapters.
And that's why I took the approach that I did, which is that I don't necessarily—I did a lot of reporting for this book. Of course, yeah. I don't directly quote those people. It's like ‘Julie Sahni’s friend said this to me about—’ The kind of journalistic gaze there just feels so apparent in a way that feels antithetical to the kind of book that I want to offer, a book experience that I want to offer, excuse me, to readers. And so, I decided to instead just kind of write this book in a way that would allow readers to kind of step through these women's lives as this woman lived those lives.
So that's why it was really important for me to find women who had memoirs or were still alive, like Julie Sahni, Najmieh Batmanglij, whom I could speak to about what it was like to experience all of these different things at different junctures in your life. So that's one way in which performances, the performances that I love really influenced the way that I approached these chapters. I wanted readers to feel what these women were feeling at any given moment in time, as intimately as possible.
And you might appreciate this because I know you're a fan of his as well. But the filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar really influenced my work so much and my writing, because he is someone who, like me, is a queer man who has tremendous affection for female stories and renders them with—sorry, not to compare myself to him in saying that I've done—He, not myself, does such a wonderful job of rendering these stories with such love and care.
In my favorite movies of his, he really works in such a broad canvas. I'm thinking about All About My Mother and Volver, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. All of those movies have so many characters and so many vivid women who are interacting with one another. And I want to do something similar with this book as well. That was kind of my approach because, of course, the question that was hanging over me as I was writing is how will people react to the fact that I am someone who presents the world as a man writing these stories? And so he was kind of a very helpful model for me to follow in terms of what sensitivity looks like in that regard.
And I think you really achieved that sort of—what would be the adjective form of Almodóvar? [Laughs.]
Mayukh: Almodovarian? I don't know. Sure.
Alicia: Yes. [Laughs.] No, but your book is Almodovarian.
Mayukh: Or esque. Yeah.
Alicia: Almodovarian-esque. [Laughs.]
But I mean, I was thinking—when I was writing, when I was reading the book, when I was writing these questions, I was thinking about that because I know it's been a criticism that you've anticipated that you’d sort of superficially maybe received.
It never would have occurred to me because I do love Almodóvar. Another of my favorite writers, Reinaldo Arenas, is a queer man who wrote a lot about women. I think most women love being seen and—by queer men. I'm going on a weird tangent now. It really is when you see Almodóvar films, when you read your book, when you read Arenas, when you like Manuel Puig, too. And so much honesty and humor and affection and warmth. It's not the male gaze or something. It's not the same thing. That criticism is completely off the wall. If it does come, it's off the wall. And I'll head that off at the pass right now. [Laughs.]
Mayukh: Thank you. Thank you for going to bat for me prematurely.
And I think that what's difficult for me, that I didn't have words for until I was kind of done writing this book and I write this in the intro in the book itself, but as a queer person, I, like many other queer-identifying people, have a very complicated relationship to gender and gender expression that my appearance might not necessarily reflect. And so I wish that more people who would come for me in that regard would understand that about me, and not try to erase my queerness and all its attendant complications. And it's really hurtful. And we live in a very inhospitable world for queer people. And so, it's not easy to kind of live with this.
So yeah, whatever. If that comes for me, I'll go to bat for myself. Well, whatever.
Alicia: Well, and the book’s introduction also takes aim at the kind of milquetoast nature of food media, which is where you might see this kind of baseline really banal criticism that doesn't engage with people in their entirety.
And that's also expressed in the text. Craig Claiborne comes up so much from the New York Times, how he named Elena Zelayeta the definitive voice of Mexican cooking, then later switched it, made it Diana Kennedy. And the contrast between how Madhur Jaffrey was received against how Julie Sahni was, despite the fact that Sahni has restaurant experience, which would later be erased, which we can talk about.
And that is a constant theme in the book, how women were pitted against each other, how being white and/or American allowed you to have authority where lived experience did not. It tells these stories, but it's also a critique of how narratives about women in food have been constructed.
And so, what do you think is the contemporary significance of the food media narratives that you portray in the book itself?
Mayukh: Yeah, that is a wonderful question.
I would definitely say that a lot of these sorts of patterns still persist. I think that food media, regardless of what lies it wants to tell itself, is still infatuated with stars and stardom. And as a result, that creates a culture in which there's a hyperfixation on one specific person as a sort of representative of a movement or cuisine or whatever, and that can sometimes blot out other figures who are doing equally commendable mark—work, excuse me. So, that definitely is still a thing.
In terms of who gets to be assigned authority, this kind of dovetails with my answer to your last question, but—the previous question, excuse me—But it is interesting how there's maybe a bit more scrutiny regarding white folks with material power, and how they get to ascend to positions of authority on cuisines or cultures that are not necessarily the ones that are inherent to them, or the ones that they grew up with, etc. Yet, I don't know that those kinds of questions are asked as urgently as they should be, at least by the people in power.
Just speaking from my own perspective and position, I think that I have gotten so much blowback from people in power about being a queer man of color writing stories primarily about women in a way that does not feel equal to the sorts of questions that, I don't know, a white woman writing a cookbook about Mexican food does, a white woman who is not native to Mexico, excuse me. And it just feels like there might be an imbalance.
I definitely think that, well, everyone should be asking those questions about who benefits materially from telling what stories based on their position. That's what diligence looks like. That's what accountability looks like, etc. Yet, I do find that whiteness is still quite powerful in this industry, and it goes unquestioned. And there's usually more scrutiny reserved for people from marginalized communities telling stories that people perceive to not be their own.
Alicia: No, I mean, it's really incredible how the power structures don't change at all. Yeah, we would still rather Diana Kennedy than a woman who appears and is indigenous to Mexico. And when I say indigenous, I mean actually.
We would rather have it filtered through Diana Kennedy who does learn things from people. I mean, nothing against her. I think she's actually pretty wonderful and a real spitfire, and that's great. But the narrative really hasn't changed from a sort of pre-feminism idea of how hard a white woman has to work to be equal to white men. And the narrative hasn't adjusted from that. We still are like, ‘Women have to work so hard to be the same as white men.’ It's like, ‘Well, that shouldn't be our goal. Our goal should be a bit more nuanced than that.’
Mayukh: Yeah, it should be in terms of equity for a lot of other people who are quite oppressed, you know? Yeah, so that's certainly true.
I also will just add that this is probably stating the obvious, but there's this presumption of objectivity, that dirty word, when it comes to folks like Diana Kennedy—and who I agree is she's really put in the work. And in spite of some troubling things that she said in the past, I have a lot of respect for her labor. I'm so sorry to put her in the hot seat.
But yeah, there's still this presumption of kind of like, ‘Oh, this person is coming to this culture, this cuisine from a very even-keeled place. And they're going to be able to be the interlocutor for this presumed white affluent audience.’ And so, I think that presumption of the reader remains the same, as well, on food media, it's still kind of, at least in the mainstream food media, you see stories that are kind of written with white rich audiences in mind.
Alicia: Exactly. Yeah.
And one thing I noticed also throughout the book was how teaching was a really essential part of many of these women coming into their own in food. Julia Child was teaching before she was writing a cookbook. I think Marcella was cooking, I mean, teaching before she was really writing a cookbook. And also, you are teaching food journalism at NYU. How has teaching complemented or not your writing practice? How did it work with the book?
Mayukh: Well, I love teaching. So I've been teaching at NYU since 2019. That was the same year I was working on the first draft of the book. And I teach two classes there at the journalism school. First is an introductory class to food writing, and the second is advanced reporting food journalism class.
And so, that first semester I was teaching, it was the introductory class. And so, I was dealing with a lot of students who were not necessarily used to writing in any sort of journalistic capacity. So I had to really revisit the basics and figure out how to communicate those basics to students who really wanted to learn. And so, I talked about story structure. I talked about sentence structure. I talked about varying your sentence length, and resisting cliche when you describe food as an object. All these kinds of one on one things that were incredibly helpful for me, as I was writing.
One lesson that I impart upon my students, for example, I kind of said earlier, which is that if this is boring for you to write, chances are it's going to be boring as hell for the reader to absorb. And they’re gonna put the book down. You don't want to lose the reader in any way. And that is something that I really tried to tell myself as well, as I was going through multiple drafts of this book. It's like, ‘Are you bored as shit? Let's go back to the drawing board here.’
Yeah, so it was immensely helpful. I will say this. Teaching is a lot of work. Grading is so much work. And I was definitely a disaster trying to balance book writing against the demands of teaching. But ultimately, I do hope that it served this book well, because it really asked me after years of just kind of feeling as though I had gotten into my little groove as a writer, really asked me to take a step back and be like, ‘Ok, are you being as disciplined as you can?’
The flip side of that, of course, is that when you do kind of have that rigorous self editor in you, you risk kind of, I don't know, losing a sense of play or whimsy in your writing. And that's something that I worry about with my own self. I'm not fishing here for compliments. Please don't reassure me being like, ‘Oh, yeah, no, no, it's so playful. I’m really into it.’ I'm not looking for that. No pressure there.
But when I revisit my early writing, I'm like, ‘Damn, this is so overwritten.’ But there's also a sense of kind of throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks. And I don't quite have that anymore. And so, that's something I'm trying to get back. And trying to have more flexibility with what I teach my students as well. I encourage them to kind of experiment a little bit rather than hew to some sort of trusted format.
Do you write for yourself? Do you journal or anything?
Mayukh: I don't. I really fear just writing something that I'm going to revisit a few weeks, months, years down the line and being like, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is just this incredibly mortifying time capsule. And I don't want to revisit what, these raw thoughts in my mind.’ It takes me a long time to write something these days. I like to give myself that time, so I don't. I know so many writers who do. Just never worked for me because I'm so, so repulsed by myself.
Alicia: Oh, no. [Laughs.]
Well, I mean, it helps with the editor and the—and shutting yourself down, I think. If you do the stream of consciousness thing a little bit. I think this isThe Artist's Way, this is what The Artist's Way teaches you. [Laughs.] I've never done it. I think I have a natural inclination toward whatever it tells you you're supposed to do, which is write indulgently and take yourself on dates. That's easy for me to do. I can do that. [Laughs.]
I will say this. I reread my first draft of this book. It's a total vomit draft. I don’t love that phrase, but it's just like, damn. I had to do so much culling after that point. But yeah, yeah, no, I did kind of indulge my worst tendencies as a writer in the first draft. I got it out of my system.
Alicia: I think it's important. It's important to do.
And in the book—this is jumping into a different area. But many narratives about cuisine in the U.S. are all about assimilation. I wrote about this when I wrote about Taste the Nation. And I wanted to ask how did you resist that easy pull about how they were only significant in terms of what they taught and brought to whiteness and to Americanness?
Mayukh: Yeah, that is a wonderful question. Because you're right, in that assimilation has been kind of the dominant narrative when it comes to talking about immigrants and cooking and cuisine in America. And I am no longer interested in assimilation just as a concept when it comes to immigrant cuisine, ‘immigrant cooking,’ because it is in service of white supremacy.
One of the things that's so troubling about a lot of these texts, including one of the ones that you just mentioned, being very diplomatic, is that it doesn't quite question the idea of the nation itself. And I personally, as a leftist, I am troubled by these alleged notions of America being predicated upon ideals of inclusivity and being a melting pot and everything like that.
And that's what I want to trouble with this book. And I want to show that there's so much struggle involved in creating that picture of America, and it can be really unsustainable for the people who are making that happen because they have to survive under capitalism.
So, I know that there have been books over the past few years where writers are writing about cuisines from the Global South or adopted from the Global South, they try to assert, ‘X food is American food. My mother's cuisine and what it represents is American food.’ With all due respect to those writers, that's ok that that is their prerogative, but it's not mine. Because ultimately, it centers the comfort of a white affluent reader, which is what food media has done for decades. And it's just useless. Why seek approval from white institutions?
And I think that it's easier for me to say this and come to this realization now, because I was very fortunate to get that approval, those crumbs of attention, let's say, from white institutions that gave me access to opportunities and capital that I would not have had otherwise. And I understand what that kind of recognition is useful for now. And I realized that that's not necessarily the world that I want to be a part of. And it's more gratifying to write for your own communities, or people from typically underseen—underseen by whom? Underrepresented communities, let's say. I think that's a little more careful. Yeah, it's more gratifying work to do than just seeking the approval of white institutions in any way.
And so, that's why I ended the book, excuse me, on the story of Norma Shirley, because it's kind of an indictment of people's conception of how wonderful America is because you can get a taco down the street and then you can get saag paneer on the next block or something. This was a woman who is a Black immigrant woman from Jamaica who tried to get her concept and vision of Jamaican cuisine filtered through French technique, tried to get it off the ground in New York in the ‘80s but it was incredibly difficult for her because she could not secure the capital to make that happen. So she literally had to return to Jamaica to make those possibilities and dreams come true. And it was only then that the American food media started to pay attention to her and her enormous talent. Yet, she literally had to leave America to make her creative dreams a reality. And that should embarrass readers, I hope, especially readers who are like, ‘Oh, America’s great, you know?’
Yeah. I'm not interested in assimilation.
Alicia: I'm really interested to see how people engage with that, or if people ignore that. That they ignore that there is an anti-assimilationist, anti-obsession with the nation state as a significant cultural force. And I hope that people do engage with that.
Mayukh: Yeah. I mean, I hope they engage in positive terms, because I'm sure that some people will be like, ‘What is this trash? I was expecting some heartwarming story of American food or whatever.’
Yeah, I do hope that point is not lost on the readers who need to absorb it.
Alicia: Well, has the experience of writing the book, as well as your experiences in food media, changed how you consider the ways in which white supremacy and capitalism kind of use identity? You really resist in the text that simplicity that—the circa 2019, 2016 response to Trump where it's like, ‘Immigrant restaurant, immigrants feeding America.’ This really patronizing perspective that does continue. People say that food media from 2016 really learned a lesson about something. I don't think it did.
But anyway, you in this text really resist that. How have you responded to that? I think you answered this, but also how do you perceive that sort of tendency in food writing?
Well, I actually am so glad you brought this up because those 2016, 2017 conversations, those talking points that were so pervasive in food media, that was what kind of animated me to start working on the proposal for this book. Because I just found it so, as you say, patronizing, so condescending. It's almost always white liberal gatekeepers, both men and women, talking about immigrants as the other immigrants, as people who only exist to serve the white, affluent consumer. And it's just plainly dehumanizing.
And it also rests on all these assumptions about what America is and what it represents, of course. And I really, really wanted to disturb that notion, and actually put those voices and stories of these actual immigrants who are treated like abstractions by these white liberal gatekeepers. I wanted to put their stories first.
So, I don't think that whole attitude has gone away in food media, at least from my observation. It's still quite pervasive, and I wanted to write against that. I think that's through writing this book, and also experiencing just a comical level of racism and homophobia in this industry. Comical, to me, at least. Also traumatizing. But made me realize that a lot of people who posture as being down with the cause or whatever, their politics are not fundamentally rooted in care. And that sometimes comes out in really ugly ways.
I think of people who in 2017, 2018, would say things like, ‘Screw Trump. Immigrants are great,’ in front of a stage of hundreds of people. They're the same people who turn around, and they look at my queer brown ass. And they're like, ‘Oh, you're too loud. You're too obsessed with ‘political correctness.’’’ Talking to me like they're a Fox News commentator or something. And it's just so plainly discriminatory.
And those sorts of moments just reveal how hollow a lot of these talking points are for a lot of these people because they don't see people from marginalized communities as actual humans. They don't treat them with care. And I wanted to restore some of that dignity in writing this book, and I definitely wrote through a lot of my anger at what I had experienced from people who were quite powerful people I very naively trusted because I got Establishment approval early on in my career. So that's definitely a thing.
I think also, I came to become aware through experiences like that, and also writing the book about how white supremacy and capitalism, these twin terrors, let's say, they commodify people based on their identity.
I think that there are probably a lot of people throughout my career who have aligned with me, because they see me as this queer brown young writer who they perceive to be someone they should publicly support in some way. Yet, how often do those people actually engage with my work? Do they read the substance of what I have to say? And do they realize that my politics are very far left? They're not kind of just stroking liberal preconceptions of the world. They usually don't. They just see me as this little toy.
And so, I became cruelly aware of all this as I was writing the book, and dealing with various episodes that exposed just how racist some people in this industry are. And it's very scary when those people who are very racist, very homophobic also have a lot of material power, and you do not. But I hope that has resulted in a richer, more sensitive book.
Alicia: Yes, and it has. [Laughs.]
Mayukh: Thank you.
Alicia: No, it's interesting. There are so many people who, yeah, will be kind, so to speak, to your face, or your virtual face. And then once there's some sort of upheaval or something, they're always looking for a reason to discount the people who are critical of the Establishment. And it's a really delicate balance to strike how outspoken and how—yeah, just how outspoken to be, because they do not actually want to reward anyone who is critical.
I mean, everyone loves an underdog until they stop becoming an underdog, A. And B, I think, when—at least this is something that I felt, and maybe it's totally bogus, or whatever. Just my own kind of paranoia.
But as someone who did get Establishment recognition when I think I was like 26, I think that there may have been a perception in some corners of food media, especially in its highest ranks, that I was being a brat and getting all this stuff handed to me, as if I didn't have to work for it. Getting all this stuff handed to me, and then having the audacity to bite the hand that feeds him. [Laughs.] No pun intended. Yeah, that stuff.
And that's why I think in the past year, really reevaluated just how much of myself I put out into the world because I realized that no matter how righteous I felt in what I was articulating and broadcasting to the world, my mental health was suffering and my work was also suffering, because I was giving these uncharitable, ungenerous readers a reason to discredit me before they actually care to engage my work.
Alicia: Yeah. No, it's such a lesson that everyone needs to learn. [Laughs.]
Mayukh: Yeah, sometimes it comes in a really hard way. But whatever. That’s therapy. Therapy’s the answer. [Laughter.] Gotta do it.
Alicia: And since you are teaching food journalism, are you optimistic about the future of food media?
Mayukh: Yeah. Oh, sorry. I did not mean to say, ‘Yes, I am.’ [Laughter.] I meant, ‘Yeah, that's a good question.’
I am a cynic by nature. But I will say that I see fewer students these days, at least the ones I teach at NYU, who see writing for Establishment publications and the dominant mainstream publications as the best path forward. There was a time—and certainly, this was true for myself, where writing a story for a very big newspaper in a metropolitan area was considered just the Holy Grail. And once you did that, you've arrived.
And yet, I think that there are more students who do not see that as the only way to find success, in part because writing for those publications does not, is not always easy, especially when you have points of view that are a little more radical let's say than the left of center/center ideals that these papers champion. It's not easy to write about Palestinian food for a major newspaper. There's a lot that is compromised.
And what I've tried to tell my students is that you don't necessarily want to put your name on things that you know are going to compromise your integrity or your sense of how you view the world. And so that, coupled with the rise of independent food media like Whetstone, for example, I think that has convinced a lot of my students that writing for these big name publications is not the only way to find success.
So, I do hope that we see less fixation on those big publications. I'm cautiously optimistic. But I don't know, I'm not going to hold my breath. These institutions still have so much power and influence. And that's also where capital is concentrated. And I want my students to be able to eat. I want them to survive. Where's the good money? Where's the stable money? I don't know. [Laughter.]
But yeah, so sure. Cautiously optimistic.
Alicia: Well, usually I ask people, is cooking a political act for them. But you cook for sustenance. And I respect that. And so I wanted to just ask you, for you is writing a political act?
Mayukh: Right. Is sustenance political? Yes.
No, writing is absolutely a political act. For me, I think it's the most meaningful form of political expression that I can think of for myself, because it's a way for me to distill my thoughts on who I am in this world as a person of color who has leftist politics in a way that is more direct than any other form of political engagement or action, you know? Yeah, it is absolutely a political act for me.
But I hope others perceive it as that. I do worry sometimes that, like you said earlier, that some readers who want those more milquetoast narratives will pick up a book like mine and just be like, ‘Oh, how nice,’ and not truly absorb the more radical points of view that I have to offer.
But, whatever, one reader at a time. That's all I can hope for. If I make a convert of one person, then I'm good. I’ll see.
Alicia: Well, thank you so much.
Mayukh: Thank you for having me. Appreciate it.