The first celebrity chef in America was an Indian immigrant named Prince Ranji Smile. Described by an excitable reporter in The New York Letter as having “clear dark skin, brilliant black eyes, smooth black hair, and the whitest of teeth,” Smile was poached from London by the New York restaurateur Louis Sherry to work in his eponymous Fifth Avenue establishment. Smile’s complex curries enthralled the city, and by 1907 he was touring the nation, performing cooking demonstrations at department stores and food halls. Fans, particularly women, flocked to him. But in the 1920s he left the U.S. after a Supreme Court ruling denied citizenship to Indian natives on the grounds that they weren’t white. No further records of his life remain.
Smile’s biography is revealed in Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, a new book by Sarah Lohman that unpacks the diverse history of a nation’s palate via eight distinct ingredients. Through chapters focusing on black pepper, vanilla, curry powder, chili powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and sriracha, Lohman reveals how a nation founded by immigrants built its national cuisine on tastes from all over the world, and how those tastes continue to evolve. But almost more fascinating than the countless odd facts Lohman reveals—the Vanilloideae orchid is native to four continents, which suggests it was around before those continents divided; ketchup has its origins in an early recipe for soy sauce—are the people whose work had a profound impact on the way Americans eat, but whose biographies have been almost completely forgotten. In that sense, American food, which Lohman describes as “the most complex and diverse cuisine on the planet,” offers a unique and surprising view of American history.