Food for Thought: The Inspiring Stories of Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America

Food for Thought: The Inspiring Stories of Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America

For this month’s blog, we decided to dive into the captivating world of food origins and share some insights on the latest book we’ve pondered upon. If you are someone who loves to read and think about food origins, then you’ve got your morning coffee read right here.

In "Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America" by Mayukh Sen, the lives of seven remarkable women are brought to light. This book goes beyond mere culinary exploration and delves into the question of what success looks like for immigrant women in America. 



Chao Yang Buwei, Elena Zelayeta, Madeleine Kamman, Marcella Hazan, Julie Sahni, Najmieh Batmanglij, Norma Shirley.

Often, history fails to acknowledge the contributions of women in various cultural spheres, and immigrant women, who are already doubly marginalized, are particularly susceptible to this erasure. Many of these women did not set out to dedicate their lives to cooking, but circumstances, talent, hard work, and luck brought them into the limelight. They had to overcome the perception that cooking is merely "women's work" and demonstrate that it can be a form of artistic expression.

In "Taste Makers," the author weaves together the stories of these women, revealing their struggles and triumphs. While not all of their stories have happy endings, what unites them is the incredible strength they carried. Their hardships served as inspiration for their creative output, and each woman documented her resilience through her recipes.

The selection of these seven women in the book aims to showcase those who persevered in preserving their creative inclinations despite the pressures of a system that demanded their talents, voices, and food be made as palatable as possible for commercial gain. Mayukh Sen reveals the extent of their contributions, as they helped popularize flavors that challenged the dominant palate of the nation. Moreover, they established new aesthetic standards in cooking, influencing generations of chefs and food writers to come.

While some of the subjects highlighted in the book may imply stories of women working with predominantly white, affluent audiences, others showcase their ability to cook according to their artistic whims without compromise. These women, through their dedication and determination, shattered expectations and left an indelible mark on American culinary history.

"Taste Makers" opens up a space for questioning and redefining success for immigrant women in America. It challenges the prevailing narratives and celebrates the resilience, creativity, and cultural contributions of these often-overlooked individuals. 

Why is it relevant to our beanless blog?

As consumers, we possess substantial power not only in shaping the narrative of success for immigrant women in America but also in promoting diversity and inclusion across different spaces. 

“Remind yourself of the influence you have, however minimal it may be, to determine tastes. In the reality that I inhabit, consumers aren’t completely powerless. As long as that’s the case, you can be mindful when deciding how to spend your money: where to eat, whom to buy ingredients from and what publications to support. “  Mayuk Sen.

When we are mindful of how we spend our money, we can amplify the voices and stories that have historically been overlooked.

If you know about our company, you know it was founded by Maricel Saenz, a female Latina from Costa Rica who continues to grow Minus with an incredible team from all parts of the world. This space is an invitation for you, as a consumer, to join us in building together a platform that can inspire change and showcase the rich diversity of experiences that make America what it is.

 Together, we can create a more inclusive and equitable society that fosters economic empowerment and strengthens its culture. 


Chao Yang Buwei

November 25, 1889 Nanking China

March 2 , 1981 Oakland California USA

Chao Yan Buwei came to America in 1921 to accompany her husband while he accepted a position at Harvard to teach philosophy. While working her way through her flaky English,  she wrote a cookbook in her mid-fifties, “ How to Cook and Eat in Chinese” (1945), where she wrote her recipes for dishes like stirred dandelion and jellied lamb in Chinese.

Her husband, a Harvard linguist, took it upon himself to tinker with the cookbook, suppressing her voice and minimizing Buwei’s presence in it.

Buwei’s cookbook was arguably America’s first genuinely comprehensive and ambitious Chinese cookbook. It arrived in an era when chop suey, a Chinese American innovation, held an enormous say over the American imagination. The book exposed America to the culinary glories of north China and the Jiangnan region below the Yangtze River and it opened the American view of Chinese cooking. 

While her cookbook was a success, there’s something unresolved at the core of her legacy which was the suppression of her voice. 

Elena Zelayeta

October 3, 1897 Mexico City

March 31st, 1974 San Francisco California

 An immigrant in post-World War II in America, with an inspirational story to tell. She lost her sight in adulthood due to a mature cataract and a detached retina, but  taught herself to cook through her blindness. From there she powered through and hosted her own cooking show on television. Her cooking was a mixture of Mexican cooking with flavors from her adoptive home in California. A way to show the desire to live and cook as an American woman.

 In her time, Mexican cuisine occupied a subordinate position in white America’s culinary hierarchy, a mere notch above Chinese. Elena began cooking at a time when Americans actively questioned whether Mexicans like her even belonged in America.

She aimed to represent Mexican food for both white Americans and immigrants who, like her, may have aspired toward assimilation. 

In Elena, postwar America had found a mascot for Mexican cooking at a time when it needed one, with a backstory that endeared her to the public. She provided a cherry face for a cuisine that Americans had once misunderstood. 

Madeleine Kamman

November 22 1930 Courbevoie, France

July 16, 2018 Middlebury, Vermont, USA

If Julia Child cast a long shadow on French Cooking in America , Madeleine Kamman spent much of her career fighting her way out of darkness. She wondered why an American woman like Julia, would become the emissary for French cooking when others, like herself, had been more qualified.  

 She began working at a restaurant out of desire to empower the women working under her. She noticed how strenuously female chefs had to work to prove their worth in traditional restaurant kitchens, while men were exempt from such unspoken odes. 

 Madeleine’s career gave permission to a generation of younger women to follow her lead, to be angry and agitate in public. “I never wanted to be a star, and I resisted it very strongly by saying what I thought all the time. I’m not a popular person. But you know what? So what!”


Marcella Hazan

April 15, 1924 Cesenatico, Italy

September 29, 2013 Longboat Key, Florida USA

 An authority on Italian cooking even after her death. When she first began writing in the early 1970s, America had not yet found an interlocutor as skilled as she for Italian cooking. Marcela endured because of her talent, and a bit of luck.

 Long after Marcella became the face of Italian cooking in America, though, she remained honest about the fact that she fell into food. She was at the right place at the right time. Her talents fitted the market’s demands in the 1970s when America needed an author who could make Italian cuisine legible to home cooks. 

Julie Sahni

October 16, 1945, Kanpur, British India

 A woman of many gifts: an accomplished cookbook author, cooking teacher and restaurant chef. In the 1980s she reportedly became the first Indian woman to serve as an executive chef of a fine dining restaurant in New york.

 In many respects, Julie is a pioneer. Her work has advanced the cause of Indian cooking in America. But she also exhibited a refreshing disinterest in public attention and never worked in search of institutional validation.

Throughout her life in America, she thought often of what her parents instilled in her: to prize personal fulfillment.
“Long, long ago I learned it was not only important to excel, but also to be content” 

There is honor in the labor.

Najmieh Batmanglij

November 29, 1947 Tehran, Iran

Najmieh lived in exile in America as a result of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. She settled in Washington DC, in 1983, a time when Americans harbored great prejudice toward her native country so she couldn’t sell her cookbook to a major publisher. The book turned into the self-published Food of Life: A Book of Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies (1968), which established her as an authority on Iranian Cooking. Najmieh has written eight cookbooks since, all of them self-published. What motivated her throughout her life was the desire to preserve what she would term the soul of her home country. 

Her story is one to admire but according to the author, living and writing in exile limits your audience and so, recognition from the food establishment hasn’t equaled her reach. 

Norma Shirley

August 13, 1938 Saint James Parish, Jamaica

November 1, 2010, Kingston, Jamaica 

An outlier. Norma never wrote a cookbook or memoir. She spent the majority of her life back in Jamaica after working as a restaurant chef and food stylist in the USA. Upon returning to Jamaica, she established a number of restaurants that led to a food revolution in the country. The work she did back home placed Jamaican cuisine to a place of respect in America. She maintained a fierce dedication to her mission to cook for Jamaicans while showing America new ways of cooking Jamaican cuisine.


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