Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America
Book by Mayukh Sen, published November 16, 2021
Book Review by Emily Kulzer, Director of Museum Operations
One of the things I love most about living in the Fargo-Moorhead is the variety of cuisines that are available here. One can take a veritable epicurean tour across the globe without leaving the metro area. Restaurants that serve Chinese, Mexican, Indian, Thai, Mediterranean, African, Vietnamese, and Italian food are just a few examples of the different cultures represented in the FM area alone. I decided to pick up this book not only because I love the taste of food but because I also want to better appreciate the cultures and the people behind the food. This book does just that.
Taste Makers contains short biographies of seven immigrant women who influenced how Americans eat today. Chao Yang Buwei (China), Elena Zeleyeta (Mexico), Madeleine Kamman (France), Marcella Hazan (Italy), Julie Sahni (India), Najmieh Batmanglij (Iran), and Norma Shirley (Jamaica) are who Mayukh Sen dubs the “Taste Makers” who have revolutionized the way that Americans eat starting in the 1930s to the present day. These women were crucial to bringing the cuisine of their home countries to America. Julia Child is also discussed in the book but only as an interlude.
Chao Yang Buwei was a physician by trade. She says she became interested in cooking while attending medical school in Tokyo because she found Japanese food “inedible.”
I appreciate the way that Sen gives context to the lives of these women by connecting their stories world events and attitudes. This context creates a book that isn’t just about food history. It is also about immigration, gender, diversity, and socio-economic issues. Each of these women were faced with the challenges that came with being immigrants in America, as well as being women in a field which was, and still is, dominated by white men.
A criticism that I’ve seen from other readers of Taste Makers has been, that it’s too short and is lacking detail. Could Sen have spent more time on each woman’s story and gone into more detail? Sure. Do I think that it would have made this book better? Not necessarily. Sen’s brevity did leave me wanting more, but in a good way. It caused me to seek out the cookbooks and recipes written by these women and I’m looking forward to trying some of them at home.
Elena Zelayeta was a restauranteur, cookbook author, and culinary instructor. She was also blind. In the early 1950s, she became the first Latin American to host a televised cooking show. She reportedly had a rope tied to her pant legs that producers would tug to let her know which camera to turn to.
In my opinion, Taste Makers earns a 4.5 out of 5 stars. I enjoyed all the short biographies of all the women and the historical context that Sen provides. I do, however, wish that the interlude on Julia Child would have been shorter or excluded all together. American-born Julia Child is probably whom all of us think of when we think of the most influential female chefs in the last century. I’m a little disappointed that she shows up here, and that these immigrant women are not the complete focus. Regardless of that minor critique, I highly recommend giving this book a go.
Taste Makers reminded me of Fargo-Moorhead’s own female food revolutionary, Sherbanoo Aziz. Sherbanoo was born in Mumbai, India and came to the United States when she was 38 years old. She’s been a local teacher of Indian cuisine for many years. We have her cookbook Sherbanoo’s Indian Cuisine: Tantalizing Tastes of the Indian Subcontinent available in our gift shop or on Amazon.
If you’re interested in what else I’m reading you can follow me on Goodreads by following the link below. https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/9503549-emily
Want to read Taste Makers for FREE? Sign up for a library card today! Taste Makers is available to check out at both the Fargo and Moorhead Public Library (LARL).
Fargo Public Library Online Library Card Application: https://catalog.fargolibrary.org/cgi-bin/koha/opac-memberentry.pl
Lake Agassiz Regional Library Online Application: https://larl.org/get-a-library-card/