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Arts & Culture

The new book 'Taste Makers' celebrates 7 immigrant women who shaped American cuisine

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Often, when people think of women who have helped shape how Americans eat, they land on this woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE FRENCH CHEF")

JULIA CHILD: Hello, I'm Julia Child. Welcome to "The French Chef."

CHANG: Julia Child. The thing is, though, American cuisine is an amalgamation of all the traditions and tastes, the sensibilities and stories of the many, many immigrants who have come to call this country home. And a new book challenges us to question which of those immigrant stories our American culture values and which it tosses aside.

In the new book, "Taste Makers," Mayukh Sen seeks to elevate seven immigrant women cooks who have left a mark on American cuisine but whose names most Americans have probably never heard of. This book traces their personal stories, their rise within the culinary world and the forces that largely kept them from center stage.

Mayukh Sen joins us now. Welcome.

MAYUKH SEN: Thank you so much for having me here. I really appreciate it.

CHANG: Well, before we get to a few of these individual women that you profile, you know, one of the largest themes in this book is about the compromises that immigrant cooks have to strike between preserving the authenticity in their cuisines but also trying to attract American palates. And these women - they each approach that balance in their own way. And I want to start with Chao Yang Buwei. She was a doctor in China before she emigrated to the U.S. Can you just describe what Americans' impressions were of Chinese cuisine back in the 1940s when her cookbook first came out?

SEN: Well, you know, Americans, especially in the early 20th century, often associated Chinese food with chop suey, which has its own complicated origin story. But in addition to that, it was tied to so much prejudice. So many white folks in particular perceived Chinese cooking to be unsanitary and too unclean for this white American palate to consume. And she wanted to combat such notions while also getting American readers and home cooks to understand that there was far more to Chinese cooking than chop suey. And...

CHANG: Right.

SEN: ...It was possible to bring that into the realm of the home.

CHANG: And where would you say Chao Yang Buwei struck the balance between staying loyal to authentic Chinese cooking but also trying to accommodate American tastes?

SEN: Yeah, you know, it is interesting because she was writing, you know, around the time of World War II's end. And as a result, she did have to make certain compromises in her cooking. For example, you see in the first edition of her cookbook, she used ingredients like peanut butter, for example...

CHANG: Right, instead of sesame paste.

SEN: Exactly because that was what was more readily available in American supermarkets of that time. Yet in spite of that, there were so many other instances in which she refused to parrot these American patriotic talking points and really, you know, claim herself as someone who lived in and loved America in a way that, you know, you don't find with a lot of other cooks and chefs of that era, her fealty to kind of her Chinese home and her Chinese roots.

CHANG: Yeah. Another woman in this book who was also willing to compromise with American palates was Elena Zelayeta, who grew up in Mexico during her early years. But then her family moved to San Francisco and she opens her first restaurants during the Great Depression. And, you know, at that time, you write that Mexican cuisine, quote, "occupied a subordinate position in white America's culinary hierarchy, a mere notch above Chinese." Can you say more about that?

SEN: Absolutely. My understanding through my research is that many Americans regarded Mexican cooking at the time as too hot and too fiery to really consume and therefore understand or appreciate. In spite of that, you know, Mexico had a language of cooking that was too diffuse, I - you could say for a lot of Americans to really decipher at that point. And so Elena really wanted to break down those complexities in a way that was easily digestible, let's say, for a lot of American home cooks.

CHANG: (Laughter).

SEN: No pun intended.

CHANG: No pun intended. But actually, pun intended because on one hand, she does try to expand the scope of Mexican food in the American imagination beyond tamales and enchiladas. Like, we're talking lamb brain tacos, sardine tostadas. On the other hand, she's making her mole mild and telling her readers that they can use hot dogs in place of Spanish sausage. So, yeah, can you just tell us more about her mix of tradition and adaptation?

SEN: Absolutely. I believe that if you look at Elena Zelayeta's story, you really see a story of assimilation in the sense that, you know, she came to San Francisco the start of the Mexican Revolution. And going back to Mexico really was not an option for her. And as a result, she really became quite comfortable adopting so-called American values. She was happy to live here and have cooking reflect that.

Her final books, for example, are more about California cuisine and California cooking. They're borrowing techniques, ingredients from Japan and Italy and other immigrant populations. And even if today some people might regard her cooking as accommodationist because she was so willing to compromise to reach as wide an audience as possible - yet that reflected of who she was.

CHANG: Well, I want to turn now to someone who took a very different approach to this balance between tradition and accommodation. The woman I am thinking about is Norma Shirley, who lived in Massachusetts, in New York but then returned to Jamaica because she decided she just wanted to cook for Jamaicans first and foremost, not Americans. What burdens did she free herself of by just focusing on Jamaicans?

SEN: Absolutely. So she spent a lot of the 1970s in the Berkshires, and she was the chef and owner of a restaurant called The Station restaurant, where she was making French food with Jamaican flair. And after a few years, she decided - you know what? I'm going to go to New York, and I'm going to try to mount my own restaurant on my own terms. And so she did that in the early 1980s. Yet was impossible for her because she, as a Black immigrant woman from the Caribbean, could not find enough capital or any sort of connection to the food establishment that allowed her to realize that dream.

And so she decided - you know what? I'm going to go back to Jamaica and begin these - my own restaurants that really reflect my culinary sensibility without filter. And the great paradox of her career is that it took her exit from America and her return to Jamaica for the American food media to really appreciate her talents. After she returns to Jamaica, you see all these American food publications call her the Julia Child of the Caribbean.

CHANG: You know, you pointed out that some of these women earned accolades being called the Julia Child of - dot, dot, dot. What does a phrase like that reveal to you about the culinary world back then and today?

SEN: I feel as though - the popularity of that phrase reveals to me that the American food media is so fixated on creating idols and sustaining those idols over time. Julia Child undoubtedly shaped the American palate, yet so did so many other women throughout American history. And I want the American mind to accommodate all those other names rather than reducing them and flattening them to the sort of point of comparison in which they are the Julia Child of their origin countries when they are so much more. And they deserve so much more.

CHANG: Mayukh Sen's new book is called "Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food In America." Thank you so much for joining us. This was great.

SEN: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF L'INDECIS' "SECOND WIND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.