Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America by Mayukh Sen was a true disappointment. The idea is great and I like the women they chose to focus on but the writing is poor and convoluted. It reminded me a lot of the work I’ve read by high school students. Lots of sources, mostly from online newspaper archives and a bunch of strung together opinions, guesses and impressions strung together as facts. Great cover. The actual text is only about 150 pages so don’t be lured in by the printed length, there isn’t much there about any one woman.
Some chapters were marginally better than others but they often drew what seemed like tenuous connections and conclusions about the women. I could write about all of the issues but it would be longer than the actual book.
As a capsule of what was wrong with all the sections, I’ll share some issue with the Julie Sahni section.
They write about Julie’s (the author refers to all the women by their first names) microwave cookbook in some detail but then a few pages later talk about how Julie didn’t get respect as a cook because Americans wanted quick, easy Indian recipes. What could be quicker and easier than food made in a microwave? This stuck me as nonsensical but it was the crux of his conclusion about he felt was the woman’s lack of popularity.
The author also talks about the “high profile celebrity” Sean Lennon going to Julie’s restaurant between 1984-1986 when he would have been an elementary school student. Of course, a child can dine out but surely he would have been with his very famous mother or some caretaker? He wasn’t going to the Nirvana Club One with Duran Duran and Pointer Sisters as the author implies. How did that slip through? What else is just wrong or misinterpreted?
The thread of these women largely starting to be interested in cooking after marriage and often after having other major interests and even careers outside of the food industry was never remarked on which seems like a massive missed opportunity. I would have liked some reflection on the age of the women at the time of their success as well. Largely they were not particularly young women with little formal training yet had great success in a male-dominated industry. I also got the distinct impression that the author really doesn’t see the value in any sort of work done inside the home. There was some mention of the women needing to work outside of the home to use their brain in nearly every section. For a person who is supposed to be celebrating women’s work, I was left with the distinct impression the only way he felt women’s work could and should be celebrated is if you did it out in the workplace and, often, got public approval. This is very strange in a book about celebrating women. If the women felt this way personally and said so, why wasn’t the information in quotations and attributed to them? It speaks to the poor quality of the writing that this is even a matter up to debate. Neither reason is good–either they are sloppy or they really think this way themselves yet thought they were fit to write a book about women.
I really tried not to nitpick but it was tough, especially for a book that was supposedly fact-based. The issues were so glaring and odd.
Where was the editor? Was this rushed to print as some mea culpa for all of the recent wrongdoing in the food world? I can’t figure out what went wrong here. The author has said he was surprised when he won a James Beard Award for a piece on Princess Pamela (restaurateur Pamela Strobel). Kudos to him for making a career out of it but I would have been a little surprised too. Perhaps what made that piece work a little better is that he seemed to talk to people who knew her and since no one knows where Princess Pamela is or what happened to her, the subject lends itself better to the type of speculation we also see in this book. He actually speaks to some of the living subjects in Taste Makers but even then he draws some tenuous conclusions. Maybe he got in this habit while writing about Pamela Strobel? I do not know but the book reads like the work of an ambitious but not very experienced high school student who is banking on their fellow students doing virtually nothing so their own work won’t be judged harshly.
It is horrible when books like this are bad because these women really do deserve attention to their work. The book is very short so my suggestion to you is to take this list and his long list of research (most of it appears to be readily available online, I came across a lot of it while doing a very basic google search on the women) and read up on these women on your own. Many of the women have written memoirs so you can read their own words and thoughts. I can see why it was a very highly anticipated book but I can’t imagine recommending it to anyone after actually reading it.
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