Mayukh Sen has received numerous accolades for his food and culture journalism, including a 2018 James Beard Award for his profile of midcentury soul food sensation Princess Pamela. In his debut, Taste Makers (Norton, Nov.), he seeks to further complicate the canon of culinary brilliance, so often homogeneously male, through portraits of seven immigrant women who transformed how Americans cook and eat. PW’s starred review called the book “a vibrant, empathetic, and dynamic exploration of culture, identity, race, and gender.” Here, Sen discusses how and why he works to amplify underrepresented narratives.
What draws you to the culinary profile?
I gravitate toward people and their stories more than I gravitate toward food as a subject. Throughout my career, I’ve tried to maintain a focus on people and their stories. I grew up wanting to be a film critic; when I approach pieces, I have specific films that I love in mind. The films that I respond to are ones that have strong female performances at their center—Jane Fonda in Klute, Sridevi in English Vinglish—ones that allow us to see what the main character, a woman, is feeling at any given moment, regardless of whether they have dialogue or narration or anything else that’s obvious to render that.
In writing this book, I tried to do something similar: a zoomed-out look at a woman’s life while preserving a sense of intimacy and allowing the reader to feel what her thoughts were at a specific juncture.
How has your identity informed the stories that you present?
I’m a queer person of color. I’m a child of two Indian immigrants from West Bengal. I understand acutely what it is like to grow up and live on the margins in this country. I’ve faced so much discrimination, and that became amplified once I stepped into food media. I found myself drawn to those stories of people who I could have some imagined kinship with—immigrants, people of color, women of color, queer people of color. They weren’t necessarily representative of the dominant culture within food media, yet they tried to create work that was passionate and forceful enough to effect change within the industry. I looked to my subjects as models for how to preserve your creative impulses in an industry and in a country that can so often be rigged against you.
What do you hope your book adds to conversations around representation in food media?
I’m sure that a lot of people will pick up my book and think, “I want to know how America became a place where I can get a taco on one block and saag paneer on the next. I want to know how it became a culinary melting pot.” One of the impulses for writing this book was the narratives in food media that said “immigrants feed America” or “immigrants get the job done.” These statements are incredibly patronizing and they subtly center a certain kind of consumer. I write against that by telling the stories of individuals with as much texture as possible, rather than treating them as abstractions in service of a liberal talking point. There are subjects in this book who wanted to assimilate and their food reflected that, but others did not care if Americans saw the foods of their homeland as “American food.”
The way to succeed within this industry, and within this country, is not always going to be by gaining the approval of white institutions and white establishments. I want to write against assimilation, which, though valid in some cases, is not the only narrative that should exist within American food media.