These Immigrant Women Changed American Food Forever, Even If You Haven’t Heard Their Names

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Three cookbook covers on a green background.
Chao Yang Buwei, Elena Zelayeta and Marcella Hazan are three of the immigrant women who profoundly impacted the way Americans eat.

In 1945, an immigrant woman named Chao Yang Buwei published How to Cook and Eat in Chinese, one of the first books to make Chinese food decipherable to American home cooks, coining terms like “stir-fry” in the process. The cookbook was championed by literary figures of her day such as Pearl S. Buck, who asserted that Chao deserved a Nobel Peace Prize for the effort. In her time, she did as much as anyone to help push the cuisine into the American mainstream. 

Yet how many Americans know Chao’s name today? How to Cook and Eat in Chinese has long been out of print, and the author herself has largely been forgotten, even among people who write about Chinese food for a living. 

Why is it, then, that the record of history is so quick to discard the stories of immigrant women who helped shape the way that America eats? And what can we learn by examining the amazing, sometimes troubling, lives that these women lived? 

Orange book cover with white text: "Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Wo Revolutionized Food in America"s
Courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company

That’s the subject of James Beard Award–winning food writer Mayukh Sen’s new book, Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America. So, the book tells the story of Najmieh Khalili, who garnered a reputation as America’s foremost expert on Iranian food despite the fact that no publisher was willing to pick up her books. It profiles France’s Madeleine Kamman, who spent much of her cooking and teaching career in America fighting from under the shadow of the American, Julia Child. And it puts the spotlight on Chao, who experienced erasure even in the pages of her own book: One its striking features is the back-and-forth argument that she has in the footnotes with her linguist husband, who tinkered with the translation of the text—originally written by Chao in Chinese—in ways she hated.

The book also has unexpected Bay Area roots. Two of the seven women that Sen profiles were based in the Bay for a significant part of their lives: Chao lived in Berkeley for the last few decades of her life, and Elena Zelataya—a Mexican immigrant who became one of America’s early celebrity chefs—spent her entire career in San Francisco. 


“This book is partially a recovery project, capturing these women’s legacies in all their fullness,” Sen writes in the introduction. “But as you read, I also urge you to question which immigrant stories our American culture values versus those it tosses aside—and why.”

Sen spoke to KQED about the book’s Bay Area connections, this uneasy moment of diverse representation in the food world and the lessons that Taste Makers has to offer today’s food media—and those who consume it. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

KQED: Even after reading the names of the seven women you profiled in Taste Makers, I didn’t expect the book to have as many Bay Area connections as it did—which I guess speaks to the theme: Some of these women have been so forgotten that even locals don’t recognize their names! Can you talk about what kind of impact that the Bay Area’s food culture had on the legacies of Chao Yang Buwei and Elena Zelataya?

Chao Yang Buwei spent a lot of her professional career in America in the Northeast [in Cambridge, Massachusetts], but then in 1947, two years after publication of her groundbreaking cookbook How to Cook and Eat in Chinese, she moved to Berkeley because her husband, the famed linguist, Chao Yuenren, got a job at UC Berkeley. So she spent the last few decades of her life in Berkeley. It is fascinating to think about what that did in terms of her public visibility because she was working at a time before the locus of the American food media had really shifted to New York City, which is why her first cookbook was able to garner a lot of press attention and get endorsements from very powerful, influential people.

Yet, once she moved to California, her public visibility kind of waned. I think that may have hindered her ability to really stay alive in cultural memory, which might explain why very few American home cooks today really know her name and understand the extent of her impact.

Elena Zelayeta, the subject of my second chapter, was born in Mexico but spent most of her life, both professionally and personally, in San Francisco. In addition to the difficulties that many immigrants to a new city in America might have faced in the early 20th century, she also lost her sight when she was an adult, and she had to essentially teach herself how to navigate the world again, and how to cook again. Yet she was really able to make her a name for herself as a very prominent and prolific cookbook author in America. Starting in the 1940s, she was very much what we might recognize today as a celebrity chef, with her own television show that was broadcast in California in the 1950s.

The fact that a Mexican-born chef who also happens to be blind could have her own cooking show in the 1950s strikes me as so radical—and yet she was doing it.

Given how proud people in San Francisco are of the city’s Mexican food traditions, in some ways it’s surprising that someone who was as famous as Zelayeta was during her heyday is not still spoken of today, even here in the Bay Area. Why do you think she isn’t more well known?

Elena’s later books really reflected just how much California had impacted the way she cooked. She was no longer just cooking Mexican recipes. Instead, she essentially honored the fact that California is home to so many immigrant populations. So her last cookbook, Elena’s Favorite Foods, California Style, had recipes for burritos and enchiladas, but it also had recipes for things like teriyaki lamb chops and arancini. She no longer just wed herself to the cuisine of her home country, Mexico. She was willing to accept and absorb so many influences of her adoptive country and her adoptive home. And that may have made it harder for people to look back at her legacy and her career and say, Oh, she is the go-to resource on Mexican cooking. And so in some ways Elena's style of cooking and writing about food may have fallen out of fashion. 

A man in a black T-shirt poses for a portrait with a city skyline behind him.
Mayukh Sen is an award-winning food journalist. (Christopher Gregory-Rivera)

One of the things I’ve always admired about your work is how, even before Taste Makers, you often wrote about these amazing women chefs from marginalized communities who had somehow become lost to history. Perhaps the most inspiring thing about Taste Makers is that the book even exists at all, given the relative obscurity of many of its subjects. Magazines and publishing houses aren’t exactly known for embracing these kinds of topics, so I’m curious how you’ve navigated that challenge over the course of your career.

It's something that I thought about constantly in every stage in this book. I did get a few responses from publishers along the lines of, well, too many of these figures are too obscure to really register with readers. And because I was anticipating that response, I was quite intentional, even in the proposal stage, about putting in a “popular” name like [Italian cookbook author] Marcella Hazan, which many home cooks in America might know. That's just an unfortunate reality of the way that the American consumer’s mind works, so I had to swallow that truth.

In my five years in food media, to convince editors that certain stories of figures from marginalized communities are worth telling, I often get the same productive but also semi-cynical question from editors: Why does this story matter now? And no matter how compelling a case I try to make, sometimes I’ll get crickets or an editor who passes.

When I got the opportunity to write this book, I asked myself what it is about this person’s story that is going to grab a reader who is not necessarily a consumer of food media. My ultimate intention was to change a general reader’s understanding of the story of food in America and the role that immigrants—and immigrant women, specifically—have played in shaping it. I think each of these women have at least one aspect of their stories that will intrigue a lot of readers—like how Buwei coined the term “stir-fry” for Americans. And so that really informed my approach. 

But it’s always a challenge. I do think there might be a bigger appetite these days for stories of figures from marginalized communities who have not been sufficiently honored for their contributions to the culinary world, but I hope that will really last and that this is not just a passing fad.

It does feel like we’re at this moment now where every single food publication is at least paying lip service to this idea of “representation.” Is that something that you consciously think about when you're choosing what to write about?

I definitely do think about representation. I will say that I do tire of “representation matters” as a talking point, because it is so often a way to justify very superficial engagement with telling the stories of people from marginalized communities. I've seen this happen at so many food publications that previously committed many, many offenses that I found truly egregious and insensitive. Now I see well-intentioned editors essentially checking off boxes to appear as though they’re doing the work. And so I wanted to make sure that I was not coming off that way at all in writing this book. 

One approach that I took was to make sure that I was decentering a white reader as much as possible. During my time as a staff writer at a publication called Food 52, I often found myself writing for a specific kind of reader who is white, middle- to upper-middle-class, and basically someone who does not belong to the same communities that I belong to as a queer, brown child of immigrants. So in writing this book, I wanted to make sure that I was not privileging the same reader that the American food media has privileged for so long. In each of these stories, I tried to ask myself, am I writing this in a way that might offend or rankle someone within the community that this woman belongs to? And if so, how can I change this to make sure that I'm not causing offense or simply reinforcing the many problems of this genre? And so that was how I tried to deal with this notion of representation: I really wanted to make sure that readers from these communities felt as though I was doing these women’s stories justice.

What do you think the  primary lesson of this book is, whether it be for general readers or those of us who document food culture? I think about how certain types of stories are privileged even today—and how few writers have the luxury of having a platform to write a long feature on someone who might be today’s equivalent of a Chao Yang Buwei. What’s the answer to that?

So, how could you make sure that the brilliant minds who are working today are not the subjects of a book like this 30 years from now?


I hope that food journalists like myself will really be looking for subjects who come from communities who have not historically been covered sufficiently in a sensitive way in the American food media. And to really try to tell their story in the most careful way possible. And if [journalists] are not doing that, then I hope that the American food media can give these figures the capital and access and opportunity to tell these stories themselves in the form of memoirs or cookbooks.

In general, I do hope that the concentration of capital starts to shift in years to come. Because in spite of the incremental changes that we've seen over the past year and a half, I don’t have a ton of faith that much will fundamentally change about where money comes from and who gets it. One way to maybe remedy that is to make sure that independent food media—like Stephen Satterfield’s Whetstone—are getting enough money to survive and thrive. 

I don’t want readers to come away from this book thinking that the burden is on them, because ultimately it’s a system-wide issue that requires a system-wide solution. But the consumer is not completely powerless. They can look at their bank accounts and ask themselves where they’re routing their money, and if they're really supporting these independent outlets that are trying to do path-breaking work.


Taste Makers is out on November 16, from W.W. Norton & Company.