Mayukh Sen’s ‘Taste Makers’ Shows How Immigrant Women Changed American Food

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. 

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.