Dishing Candidly with Award-Winning Food Writer Mayukh Sen
Mayukh Sen’s face is a doe-eyed constellation of sharp angles and concise lines punctuated by a studly crown of curls. It’s a face that beckons to be photographed, to sell you things like Very Expensive Moisturizer and Millennial Bed Sheets. As it turns out, it’s also a face that dreads being photographed.
I am harping on Mayukh’s face because I am a shallow faggot, but also because celebrating it feels like a Mayukhian thing to do: highlighting that which has been obscured. As a food writer, he’s established himself as an excavator of oft-ignored stories about queerness and people of color, complicating narratives that have been suffocated by the griphold of colonialism, homophobia, or death. He did it maybe most queerly with fruitcake, the barnacle of baked goods, and most notably with his profile of soul food restaurateur Princess Pamela, who vanished without a trace in the late ’90s. Last year, it won Mayukh a James Beard award for profile writing, the Oscars of food journalism.
He was initially drawn to film criticism, influenced by his father, a film buff who passed away in the summer of 2017. Though death—literal and metaphysical—had always floated in the periphery of Mayukh’s prolific output, it suddenly felt central: writing became a mechanism to work through his grief, to process his own loss while connecting with the losses of others. “I have always been attracted, for some reason or another, to subjects who are dead or forgotten in some way,” he says. “I became conscious of why I was attracted to these kinds of stories and how I was pursuing them and what kinds of things I did while I was reporting them, after my dad’s death.”
The last year has seen the 27-year-old’s profile expand at pace: recurring bylines in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post; a book deal writing about immigrant women who’ve altered American food culture; and a position as an adjunct professor at NYU’s journalism school. I met Mayukh a week after this shoot at a coffee shop in Brooklyn to talk about gay spaces, self-care and beauty.
Are you on the apps?
I delete them every other day. And redownload them. I just do Grindr and Scruff.
MK: Is your face on those profiles?
MS: Yeah, that’s fine. I usually don’t want to hook up with guys. I prefer to go on dates. I’ve met some guys on Instagram lately, so that’s been fun.
MK: Do you slide in, or do they?
MS: They slide in, which is very flattering and wonderful. I’m putting pictures of my face on Instagram so that can happen more. That happened more recently, I think in the last few months.
MK: Was it because of the James Beard award?
MS: I think that actually helped, honestly. I think it’s hilarious.
MK: Are you trying to embrace being hot? Or is that not even on the table?
MS: I think it is. I’m too young to resign myself to the fate of being like, it’s always going to be bad. It’s weird because some days I wake up and feel fantastic about my appearance and other days I feel like shit. I know this is a malady that a lot of people have. It operates in this really cyclical way, this fear that I’ll never really get to that stage. Obviously one way out of it is to find a man that loves me a lot. But I also feel too obsessed with work right now to devote energy to dating.
MK: How did you land in food writing?
MS: I came to food writing feeling like such an outsider. The first thing I wrote about food was for Food52 as a staff writer. Basically, that team was like seven women. All of them were white and lived in BedStuy and were from New England or something.
MS: Yeah, straight as far as we know, and I was just like this brown gay guy. I just felt so different from everyone else, and I was writing from a completely different perspective.
MK: Which is why they brought you on?
MS: Yes, totally, and I’m so grateful that they did, but it also was really alienating in some ways. So I think my work really gravitated towards people who were also outsiders. Like Madhur Jaffrey. I honestly see her as an outsider because she never intended to be a food writer. Like, she didn’t learn how to cook growing up or anything—she wanted to be an actress—and now she’s just like this authority figure on Indian cuisine. Princess Pamela, same thing. Not to compare myself to these women, but I definitely felt like I existed on the margins of the field.
MK: Yeah, you felt kinship.
MS: Exactly. There’s a kind of kinship that’s really crucial to all of these stories.
MK: Being brown and queer, was there a certain identity that motivated you more, in terms of elevating other voices? Or do the two feel intertwined?
MS: I’ve felt like more of an outsider as a brown person than I have as a queer person. Not that these two things don’t coexist with one another. But I feel like I grew up in a lot of white spaces in New Jersey, and in a lot of spaces where it felt as though being brown is kind of frowned upon or seen as disgusting, or gross. And I think I’ll always carry that sense of difference with me, no matter how hard I try to undo that damage. So, I think that that is something that influences me more than my queerness. Maybe I haven’t thought about it hard enough.
MK: I’m asking because in your fruitcake piece you mention not feeling like those two parts of yourself ever connected; that they feel very separate from each other.
MS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. They kind of do.
MK: It’s presented as sort of a throwaway line, but as a gay person I wanted to read an essay about that.
MS: It’s interesting. I mean, because now, as an adult, I don’t necessarily feel that way. Looking back on my childhood, I do feel those two things didn’t interact with each other that much. But now as someone who is gay and living in New York, those two things really coexist and kind of affect the way that I navigate the world and view myself.
MK: Well, they have to.
MS: Right, totally. And when it comes to dating for example, I think that being a brown gay person, like, I don’t know… it’s very hard sometimes. I don’t have that classic Grindr story with someone rejecting me explicitly on the basis of my race, but I will always feel that kind of difference as a result of my race, even in gay spaces. I think I’ve just arrived at my answer to your previous question through talking about this, which is that even in a lot of queer spaces or whatever I still feel like an outsider because of my race.
MK: What drew you to film, growing up?
MS: I was a hardcore cinephile because my dad was. He worked in IT during the day, but by night he wrote plays and directed short films, and he started his own film-festival in the late aughts. I’d always wanted to be a film critic because I read Pauline Kael growing up and I was totally enchanted by her writing.
MK: She was also an outsider.
MS: Yes, absolutely. There’s a lot that you could criticize her for but like, at the end of the day, she re-established the parameters for what film writing could be. I was especially drawn by her ability to take her impulsive reaction to a film and just like write the shit out of that.
MK: Have you heard her discovery story?
MS: What was her discovery story?
MK: She was like, sitting in a café somewhere in the city…
MS: Right, and she was complaining about something?
MK: She was complaining super loud about a movie…
MS: Right, right!
MK: And a film critic from a paper was there and was like, “Hey, do you want to write about this?” And she was like, “Sure.”
MS: That’s right, I forgot about that. This is how far I’ve strayed from film writing since I’ve gone into food. But I was really drawn to Pauline Kael and it was kind of why I wanted to go into film criticism. But I didn’t pursue it enough in college, honestly. I was very sheepish about putting my own writing out there in college. Like, I actually went to college with the intention of being a creative writing major.
MK: Oh, but you studied history at Stanford?
MS: I studied history and comparative literature, but we don’t talk about that. [Laughs] After I graduated I was writing about film for places like Vice and The Fader and whatever, but that’s kind of how Food52 found me. They were like, “We want someone who is not a food writer but can write about culture and has a perspective and voice to bring to the site.”
MK: Do you ever feel like an advocate for other queer South Asian folks?
MK: I mean, your face is on things.
MS: Yeah, I mean, accidentally, yes. But it’s just really tough because I never want to speak for anyone else’s experience but my own, and I think that it’s so easy to have the line between speaking for yourself and speaking for the communities that you represent be blurred in a way that erases your own experiences and the specificities. So that’s kind of what I’m really wary of, and I think about it a lot, even just in terms of food writing. Whenever I write about Indian food, I always try to capture the personal because this is my own experience of Indian food, and I think the same kind of thing applies to narratives beyond that, like queer brown narratives. Like, this is my queer brown narrative.
MK: The word “we” is so tempting.
MS: It really is. But I really am trying to shy away from that. I think that with my book I basically want to have the muzzle removed, because even at a lot of places that I write for now, I won’t name them specifically, but I have to write in a very tasteful, neutered way. In a way that I fear risks furthering the idea of the “good immigrant” who is very docile and hardworking and is valuable because they’re exceptional in some way, and they assimilate.
MK: The model minority.
MS: Exactly. Some of the subjects of my book will be like that but a lot of them also will be women who were forgotten because they didn’t fit that rubric. I’m compelled to find the stories of people who are not just going to make some white liberal reader who’s self-identified “hashtag resistance” be like, “Oh my goodness. Food brings us together. What a wonderful story about someone who does not look or act like me.” I’m totally bored by that kind of story, honestly. And again, not to invalidate those kinds of stories, because a lot of immigrants have written about how they’ve assimilated and found happiness and peace within their own lives by following that trajectory, but there’s so much more to the value of immigrant lives beyond just like…
MK: Appeasing white people?
MS: Exactly. And I want to show that through this book, because so far I haven’t found a space online for stories that push against that “good immigrant” narrative to really exist and breathe. I mean, I think that just goes back to this larger problem right now which is that there aren’t a lot of places to support ambitious, morally complicated writing, you know? To be really dramatic about it, at least when it comes to food.
MK: Totally, and the same goes for a lot of things in culture at large right now. What else can you tell me about the book?
MS: Well it’s going to be 85,000 words or so. I don’t know how many pages that is, like 200 or something? It’s a lot of shit to write within a very short amount of time while also freelancing. Everyone has told me that I’m crazy for having asked for 9 months instead of more time, but I really just want to write this book and get it out of my system while I feel a lot of passion for pursuing this subject
MK: Was there a symbolic relevance to the 9 months, like being pregnant?
MS: No [laughs].
MK: Do you make time for self-care?
MS: Uhhhh, let’s see...
MK: I know, it’s such a loaded question.
MS: I know, it truly is. I try to exercise, but, again that’s like a chore and not like a…
MK: I think that chores can be self-care.
MS: Okay, well that’s one thing. I’m trying to think of what else I do for fun...like, I don’t know, face masks?
MK: Face masks?
MS: But I haven’t worn a face mask in like, six months.
MK: Okay, so like you’re super stressed and need to decompress, what do you do? Are there movies?
MS: I like to watch reruns of the Nanny. Let’s go with that.—