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.]

Mayukh: Totally.

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. 

Alicia: Yeah. 

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—

Alicia: Oooooh.

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. 

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