Mayukh Sen Takes on the World (of Food)
THE PROVOCATIVE YOUNG WRITER ON CELEBRATING LOST ICONS, PUTTING THE POLITICS BACK IN FOOD, AND THE NEED FOR MORE DIVERSE VOICES IN FOOD WRITING
INTERVIEW AND PHOTOGRAPH: ROHAN KAMICHERIL
ayukh Sen—to use an expression my mother is fond of—likes to stir the pot. At first glance, you might not expect it of the 26-year-old writer for Munchies. In the couple of years since he made his entry into the world of food writing, he’s earned a reputation for his thoughtful, in-depth profiles of culinary heroes (both celebrated and forgotten), as well as for his self-scrutinizing essays on topics as wide-ranging as the devolution of the word "fruitcake" into a slur and the cuisine of Bengali widows. But he’s also demonstrated an unwillingness to accept many of the commonly held bromides of food media wisdom and piety, often stepping out of line with the popular consensus to speak out about the hypocrisies of the food world, routinely calling out problems related to issues of privilege, gender, class, and race.
I met with Sen on a gusty, blue day last May. Winter hadn’t quite blown past yet and the two of us spent a long time chatting on an unsheltered bench on the High Line as the wind ushered shivering lines of tourists by. Sen was still a staff writer at Food52 at the time, one of the first writers of color that the site had seriously engaged and whose columns on “Columbus-ing,” and the lack of country-specific cookbooks from Africa were (and continue to be) welcome curiosities amid the recipe- and retail-driven content on the rest of the site. In person, Sen’s gentle, thoughtful demeanor does much to lighten the intense mix of modes he embodies: he seems to relish equally the roles of gadfly, food-culture archaeologist, and pop-culture critic.
His frankness when it comes to many hot-button issues has often made him a lightning rod for criticism from online readers, many of whom find it hard to reconcile his sometimes censorious takes on contemporary food culture with the common idea of food as a form of glamorous and nourishing escapism. At one point in our talk he says, with an air of aggrieved mystification, “I wonder sometimes if food media just attracts more conservative people.” It’s a notion that scandalously undermines the anodyne view that a renewed consciousness about healthy, sustainable eating and cooking has erected a protective bulwark against the gathering forces of social conservatism in America. It’s a contention that’s become fraught with uncomfortable implications in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential victory; critics of the administration continue to struggle to close ranks around a uniting ideological goal, one that has remained elusive both in politics and, clearly, in food.
Sen’s work can be discomfiting in this way, through its goading, persistent inquiry into questions that many cultural critics would prefer to consider settled truths. To Sen’s great credit, despite his misgivings about the ailments that plague the current discussion and economy around food, he’s also proved to be a champion for those unheralded actors of the food scene who are working hard to change things for the better, those whose contributions have been erased by the passage of time, or who were never acknowledged to begin with. What’s most persuasive about Sen’s particular brand of discontent is its hopefulness: for every takedown of a mainstream food story gone wrong he’s doubly enthused about a story gone right, some rare instance of the right thing happening for the right person for the right reasons.
It’s a confusing, energizing time to be eating, reading, and cooking in America, and it’s hard to know what guideposts to use for direction and motivation. Whichever way the culture moves, though, you’d best watch out for Mayukh Sen—he’s watching out for you.
Rohan Kamicheril: I love the way that you combine your interest in a really broad range of subjects with a willingness to examine your own food background—your mom’s home cooking, the place of Bengali cooking within the grand scheme of Indian food. Can you tell me a little about how you define the kinds of food topics that interest you?
Mayukh Sen: I sometimes feel that I've parachuted in to food writing from a different universe entirely than most other people who make a living as food writers. I grew up with nothing close to a sophisticated understanding of food or cooking. Or, at the very least, I convinced myself it wasn't sophisticated. I find that the vast majority of other food writers I know are either white, rich, or both. I am neither.
A lot of my food writing, right now, is my way of working through my impostor syndrome and feeling that I don't belong here with people who actually know anything about cooking. Writing about myself is a natural register for me because looking inward feels like the most natural place to start—to ask myself what food I ate growing up, and what assumptions and understandings my family's food traditions were laden with that I'd never considered putting into words. I'm basically forcing myself to recover all these food memories and, through writing about them, see the worth of these experiences and convince other people to see a part of themselves refracted in it. It's my way of convincing myself that I even deserve to be a food writer.
"I find that the vast majority of other food writers I know are either white, rich, or both. I am neither."
RK: Do you think being a writer is an opportunity to introduce people to Bengali cooking and the way your mom cooked?
MS: Absolutely. But how do you do that in a way that honors how special it was to you and the feeling that it gives you? Because it’s obviously about more than just the taste of a dish. I can’t think of anything more comforting than aloo sheddo deem sheddo bhaath. It was just something that we’d cook up really quickly. If you describe the flavors and textures to someone that’s not enough. To some reader in Wisconsin who doesn’t know our Bengali family, it’s just potatoes [laughs] that you mash with your hand or a spoon into some rice with some salt or some dhal.
It’s more about discussing the memories attached to a dish and how integral it was to your childhood. That’s really important, and I feel like, given the service-oriented bent of a lot of food writing, it’s really easy to lose track of a lot of that. If you shoot a certain dish in, say, a test kitchen, it feels like something is lost. Nik Sharma does a really good job of having his brown hands in his photographs, which is really important because in a lot of food media the hands in the photographs are white.
RK: How do you choose who you want to profile?
MS: [Sighs] So, lately I have been on a kick of just women food writers, and especially women of color. I didn’t consciously choose this at first. After I wrote that Madhur Jaffrey profile and the Padma Lakshmi profile I realized that I like interrogating one person’s life—and one woman’s life especially. Especially those who I feel haven’t gotten their due, or gotten the respect that they probably deserve, or have been taken for granted—in Padma Lakshmi’s case, for example.
RK: Because that can cut both ways. Padma Lakshmi is very well known. But you seem to say in your profile on her that she’s not very well understood.
MS: What was astonishing to me was the fact that she’s risen to this high level of authority but it hasn’t really been interrogated—how that happened or what she had to face, what she had to overcome. I couldn’t really think of other South Asian women who were as visible as she was in this sphere, though Madhur was another one, obviously. And I was interested in profiling Madhur because once upon a time I wanted to be a film critic and a lot of my writing before I joined Food52 was about film and that’s something that I love writing about. And sometimes I feel like it’s my natural register. I was so attracted to the fact that Madhur wanted to be an actress. I kept having these doubts as I was writing that profile. Is this really about food? Or is this just my excuse to write about this woman’s acting? But I sensed this profound difference between the way that she sees herself and the way that the world sees her and I wanted to bridge that gap.
"I like interrogating one person’s life—and one woman’s life especially. Especially those who I feel haven’t gotten their due."
But to answer your question about what brings me to profile these women—I don’t even know that there’s an overarching reason. I go down these Wikipedia rabbit holes a lot of times. But then again, some people I’ve profiled didn’t even have Wikipedia pages. One was Princess Pamela. That just came across my desk. There was a Publishers Weekly article announcing the fact that her book was being reissued by Matt and Ted Lee. And I thought, Oh, this is interesting. This was right after Trump had been inaugurated and I’d had all these silly, cheeky stories in mind for my next features. Like, “Oh, I want to do a story on why there’s no grape-flavored yogurt,” but then I started to think, what actually feels urgent right now is this story about this Black woman who just disappeared for two decades but had been a huge sensation. The only real mention of her was in Toni Tipton-Martin’s book The Jemima Code. If you Googled Pamela Strobel before that you just got hits for a woman in Wisconsin. Black women in the culinary sphere, like in many other spheres, just don’t get their due, or tend to be rediscovered way too late—usually after death.
I’d just read Tejal Rao’s piece about Vertamae [Smart-Grosvenor], which I thought was so beautifully done. One thing I was thinking of was, I’m not Black, and I don’t want to overstep my boundaries, or walk into this with some kind of hypothesis about why this woman is not remembered in the way I think she should be. Because I’m just not a Black American, or a Black woman from the South. And there are going to be insights into her experience that I just won’t be able to bring to the piece in the way that I thought I could, at least sort of, do with the profiles on Padma and Madhur. I wanted to make sure I stayed in my lane. But I just thought, “This woman’s life is fascinating,” It almost feels like a fictitious life—there were all these weird details that I encountered as I was reporting the story. Like the eleven-fingered delivery boy who she lived above, or the fact that she threw her keys down to customers from her restaurant-apartment window. All of it was so scenic and interesting to me.
RK: For you, what has been a good roadmap to writing across difference? Are there things that you do to prepare yourself for when you want to bridge that gap?
MS: There are three food writers working right now who I really love. Usually as I gear up to write a feature story I start to read their stuff. They are John Birdsall, Tejal Rao, and Bill Addison. I find that the way that they write—though they all have very different styles—is always very careful, very intentional, very nuanced. It doesn’t show off—which I think is something that comes with age. They can be really austere sometimes but still very gorgeous in their prose. So I kind of warm up by reading their stuff. And I still read my favorite New Yorker pieces and New York Times magazine pieces just to understand the structure of a story. I think that a lot of food media companies are only just starting to play this longform game but there aren’t really a lot of existing models for it.
RK: Do you think it’s also because there’s such a service component to a lot of food writing and it’s hard to do that in a literary, anthropological, sociological way?
MS: Oh my god, absolutely.
RK: You can’t say, “make this lasagna,” and then include this complicated, emotional story along with it…
MS: Exactly. And one of the constructions that irks me the most is this kind of three- or four- paragraph embryonic personal essay that’s connected to some kind of anecdote and then at the end it’s just topped up with a recipe. You have to scroll through some throat-clearing before you can get to what you need. And I haven’t really read a lot of those pieces where I find that the paragraphs that precede the recipe—the service—are really beautiful or arresting.
RK: And maybe it’s just better to just give each thing its own space. A recipe can just be a recipe…
MS: Totally, and I would hope that more food-media publications would be willing to separate content in that way. I can’t really even think of a single article of mine that has been attached to a recipe. Especially a personal essay. It’s always going to be food-tangential stuff and I feel like more food writing should be that way. And less service-driven and -oriented. I think a lot of it feels really boring to me for that reason. And a lot of it feels really uneasy because it’s trying to strike this balance between being thoughtful and not being just a recipe and having this kind of gloss of depth through attaching a personal anecdote to a recipe.
"I think one of the worst things that a young writer could be is too self-centered and constantly talk about themselves."
RK: You seek out things that are a little outside your ambit but you also talk a lot about your own personal experiences. Growing up, being Indian, being queer. How do you decide which direction you want to go in—the unaccustomed or the familiar?
MS: I want to strike a balance between writing about myself and writing about other people. I think one of the worst things that a young writer could be is too self-centered and constantly talk about themselves. The Internet is awash with so many young people writing about themselves, not really showing that much self-awareness. I want to avoid that as much as possible so I’ve been asking myself, what are some ways in which food is connected to my own memories or my family’s history and how can I tell that? Because beyond me and my boring-ish life, I do think that my mom has such interesting stories to tell about her upbringing in a village in West Bengal and how food factored into that—something that was pretty much the foundation of a piece I wrote as my father was in the hospital, and that eventually came out after he died, on the cooking of Bengali widows. It was a piece all about my great-grandmother's cooking after she was widowed, and my mother's memories of her cooking.
And the same thing goes for my dad, who was sort of a supporting character in my fruitcake piece. He was the one who raised me to love fruitcake and it was kind of an offshoot of the fact that he grew up in Kolkata and was raised on it. I'm sad that he's no longer around to tell me stories about what he grew up eating in Kolkata. But to answer your question about how I balance these things, I just want to make sure that I’m not self-obsessed or, at least, that I don’t let that seep into my writing.
RK: Well, if it’s any reassurance, I think it also signals to readers a recognition of a certain category of experience. So, even when you’re talking about yourself, you’re also not just talking about yourself—you could be a stand-in for so many other readers who might not otherwise get their voices heard.
MS: I see that. I don’t want to use the word “universal,” because I think that that’s a really dangerous word, but making sure that someone else will be able to find a way into seeing themselves in my own story—I think that’s extremely important. And, also, when I’m writing these personal stories, I want to make sure that if they start out being about me, they develop or splinter into something that’s a lot more interesting than just me and my life—like the history of something like fruitcake. It was the same way with my turmeric latte piece. It started out with me thinking, “Oh, this is weird, I’ve never had this drink,” and then I went into where this drink came from and how it traveled to Café Gratitude and all these other eateries in the West and what was lost along the way. So it’s not just about me but I can still have a personality in it.
RK: Did your mom cook a lot when you were growing up?
MS: Yeah, she cooked a lot.
RK: Does she pride herself on her cooking?
MS: I don’t think that she does. She would cook every day of the week and my dad would cook some sort of egg curry once a week—tops.
RK: Both your parents worked when you were growing up?
MS: I would say that my dad, who passed away in June, probably worked less than my mother. Again, my mom is like a superhero so she did everything, including cooking all the time. But I remember we all loved my dad’s egg curry, especially my mom, who always said, “Oh, he makes it so much better than I do.”
RK: Was he particularly expert at making egg curry?
MS: No, he made it the same way that she does. When my mom cooked, our usual dinner was bhath—rice—dhal, some sort of chicken—her “curry” I guess you could call it—some sort of greens, or green beans, some sort of vegetable, and that’s it. It was just those four staple things. Usually topped with potato sticks. I don’t know if they make those anymore. They’re so good! I grew up always having some kind of crunchy thing with my dinners—
RK: I think it speaks to a very Indian sense of balance of textures, too: You’ve got to have your dhal, you have your greens, maybe another vegetable, rice, and then you’ve got to have something crunchy! And I think if you haven’t grown up with that you don’t miss it. But if you’re Indian then your immediate response if it’s missing is—where’s the crunchy thing!
MS: Totally, and still, if I’m at home and I’m having my mom’s cooking, I always want potato chips! But, yeah, she cooked a lot, and I didn’t appreciate it or see it as special until I went to college. I wouldn’t say that I was seized by some sentimental longing for my mom’s cooking. I wasn’t like, “I just want my mom’s home-cooked food!”
RK: Just slap together three hundred words and a recipe and you’ve got a feature!
MS: If I ever do that, I’ll just not write ever again [laughs]. But whenever I went home on holidays or on breaks, the taste of her cooking was just so different from anything that I’d encountered in dining halls—even if the dining halls had Indian food. That food was nothing like the food that she cooked and the flavors that she used. And so I really began to miss it, and as I got older I started to cherish it. Her talent, one that is constantly deepening, grew out of her just having to learn how to do this. My parents’ was an arranged marriage so my mom had to cook for her husband and her in-laws—people she was told were her family all of a sudden even though they really weren’t. And she had to start doing this at a really hard time, when she had just come to America after growing up in India. And her own family was still in West Bengal in this small village and she was so far away from her home—and that’s how she started cooking. I got to know my mom more in college—I feel like in those four years my mom became my best friend because I just talked to her on the phone everyday. And I got a better sense of what she had sacrificed and all the stuff that I just hadn’t had a sense of before. It was during that time that I came to appreciate her cooking.
RK: What are your thoughts on the future of food writing in America? It seems like, with recent events, there's been an injection of seriousness into the national discourse—especially around issues like race, sexuality, labor. Do you think that food writing is working to embrace those issues, too? What direction do you see your own writing taking in the next couple of years?
MS: It depends on the publication. Without naming names, I can say that some publications aren't working hard enough. They're playing it safe. They've built their foundation around themes like "community," which means that they see these readerships that tend to skew quite conservative as crucial parts of their DNA. These publications may nominally embrace being "political" and spin that desire into some good PR, but from what I've seen and experienced firsthand, there's a reticence to put that into practice. I'm wary of putting myself in any position as a queer writer of color where the onus falls upon me to be "political" and take the fall for it, to do the legwork that other people higher up aren't willing to do. I'd like to be writing for publications where I feel I can have the space to write openly about how food is political without needing to soften or blunt my writing not to offend a certain readership. Writing not to offend doesn't make you a better writer.
This interview has been condensed and edited.