tv QA Mayukh Sen Taste Makers CSPAN November 22, 2021 5:59am-7:00am EST
[laughter] >> that is elena zelayeta. that is her on a television program she was involved with. she is one of seven biographies in your new book, "taste makers." tell me about your book. mayukh sen: my book, "taste makers: 7 women who revolutionized food in america" really changed the way that americans cook and the ready eat and cook today. i wanted to dig into their stories. so many of these women had not been sufficiently honored by american cultural memory in the way that other figures like
julia child may have. my book is an attempt to correct the record in some way. >> you started off wanting to tell the story of immigration in america through the per some of food. what did you end up with? mayukh sen: i ended up with something a bit more nuanced. as i spent time writing the book, it took me about three years because i sold it in late 2018. it was a bit more of a critique of american capitalism or what it means to belong to a marginalized community and live under american capitalism and try to make a living while also attempting to express yourself creatively. that is the struggle i faced in my own work and i saw that same struggle in the stories of each of these women who came to america and try to triumph and an industry that was not
designed to accommodate them. host: your own family has an immigration story. mayukh sen: yes. i am a child of two immigrants from india. i late father passed away in 2017. he had an arranged marriage to my mother. she is my best friend. she influenced however this book. it came to america in the early 1980's. -- and they came to america in the early 1980's. i father was studying at rutgers. they both came to america in the 80's. they settled in new jersey. that is where i was born. as i was writing this book, i thought about what their journey must have been like to come to america from india during such a challenging time for indians in this country. all of the steps they would both have to take to acclimate to this new home.
especially my mother. she did not grow up speaking english and she did not have certain class privileges that others might enjoy in this country. to come to america and kaput the adopt a new way of life and create a culture in which i could have so many luxuries like i enjoy today. >> you are a food journalist profession and you actually teach the subject at university level. how did you find this path? mayukh sen: it was a jagged path. it was completely unexpected. i grew up -- i really wanted to be a writer going up. i wanted to be a film critic. i recorded old issues of entertainment weekly madman. pauline hale and david thompson
were big with me and my teenage years. i was so enraptured by their words. after encountering that kind of work, i told myself i want to be a film critic. that is what i pursued after i graduated from college in 2014. i soon realized that it is not exactly easy to make a living as a film critic. at least it wasn't seven years ago when i started to try to do it. i was working as a freelance writer covering topics like film, television and music. i was writing about every aspect of the culture except food. the reason why i avoided food as a topic was because i never thought food writing was a viable career for a viable career for person like myself. i had always regarded it as a line of work in the domain of
rich straight white men. people who were so unlike me. i am not sure what movie it might have been. it might have been mystic pizza. the critic comes to the establishment and writes a glowing review. fast-forward to 2016, i get any mail out of the blue from an editor of the site called food 52. they asked me if i would be interested in joining as a staff writer. someone who could write about food. i am still a pretty bad cook. after some reluctance, i took those meetings and i took the job. my journey with food ready began in 2016 when i was 24 years old.
i did not anticipate that it would last this long. nor did i think it would culminate in a book. here i am. definitely unexpected. i don't know that i am the typical person who rises to any degree of prominence in this field. >> yet, you were already an award winner for writing about food. i wanted to use this as an opportunity to talk about this. julia child, you call them the gastronomic trinity of the era. what kind of power to these people have over the way that americans ate in the 50's, 60's and 70's? mayukh sen: they are the gastronomic trinity. i believe that is what molly o'neill called them in a wonderful essay.
each of those three figures held tremendous power and spy. there was food coverage at the new york times. in that post of his, he was really responsible for championing so many of them. this is a name that i am sure many american home cooks are familiar with. he was one of the first people to really give her a platform in the form of a profile in the new york times. through such endorsements, i think that a lot of these women
were able to have access to capital and opportunity that may not otherwise have been available to them. the fact that they were outsiders to this country or because they belonged to other marginalized immunities. that was his part of the equation. when it comes to james beard and julia child, they did not quite have positions like being the food editor of the new york times yet they were so well-connected to publishers of the era and others who were gatekeepers in that time. any sort of alignment with them could open up access to capital and opportunity for these women. we see that in the story of someone like marcella. i will not talk about her too much just yet. >> before we do a deeper dive into some of the subjects, can you comment on food as a yardstick as history and culture
in a society? elena zelayeta food -- mayukh sen: food is an object almost all of us consume. it is very popular and tempting to believe that food unites us and brings all of us together. i am a bit skeptical of that notion. i do feel that in narrative terms, food can tell so much about where person comes from, the culture that shape them, the values in which they grow. i believe the same holds true for all of these women. this entire world. that is why i am so excited by the prospect of writing about food. as kind of a window into understanding humanity a bit more. host: why did you focus on women? mayukh sen: that is the
question. i realize i present to this world as assist man. -- as a cis man. i have gravitated toward the stories of women so often. i was one of those gay kids that loved judy garland. i never quite understood why that was. i have these affinity with these performers and these women. as i was writing this book, a lot of that became clarify for me. in my time in this industry as a food writer, it is still very
white. there are many discriminatory parts of the industry. when a at the story, so many of these female figures -- when i looked at the story, so many of these female figures in particular, i was able to understand and navigate the challenges this country throat had me -- had thrown at me. i was able to better understand myself and how to face these challenges and overcome these hardships. beyond that selfish motivation, i think that america skews way from women and it is working to assign credit to men. that will be seen in this book where the legacies of these women were overwritten by the stature of important men.
they really entered the cultural consciousness. i really wanted to push against that. host: if your thesis is that these seven women helped to revolutionize the way that marca eats, set the stage for me. what was american cuisine like in this postwar europe? -- era? there was an emphasis on convenience food. it was the rise of television and mass media. how did that affect what people were eating at the time? mayukh sen: you saw a lot of convenience foods, a lot of canned foods. foods like chef boyardee and rice roni work taking off. so many americans wanted cheap, quick, easy food. something that would not require too much labor to get on the table. in spite of that, what created room for so many of the women in
my book to thrive was an increased appetite for cuisines from around the globe, especially in this more forgiving postwar europe -- era. in the 1940's, you saw so many home cooks want to pepper their dinner table with some flavor. whether that was chinese, mexican or italian cooking. that really set the stage for a lot of these women to make an impact through their cookbooks or existing television shows that really reached a lot of american home cooks. i think that is kind of the era that a lot of these women were working in. host: another scene that will be pervasive in all but one chapter is cookbook publishing and how that help to their success. -- helped their success.
cookbook sales rose 17% in this country. that shows they are enduring. even in the digital age of publishing cookbooks -- mayukh sen: cookbooks have meant a great deal to americans for so long. especially beginning around the time of world war ii. that is when you see books like the joy of cooking. so many americans still swear by them today. they gained a lot of traction among american cookbooks. i don't believe they will die out. there is something that is so meditative about the act of cooking and the act of engaging with the cookbook. as opposed to staring at a screen while you try to cook a recipe at home.
as a result, i really do feel that cookbooks will indoor as time goes on -- endure as time goes on. host: you opened up with a story about cookbook from 1901. why was that important? mayukh sen: that is called the settlement cookbook. i believe that many home cooks will be familiar with this. it is still in circulation today. in the genesis of that book, it was compiled by a woman named elizabeth. she was the child of immigrants from europe. they came to america and did a marvelous job in the 1800s of assimilating into the american way. they adopted the american way of dressing. they really matched the language and so on and so forth. in her work as a social worker, she helped a lot of young immigrant women assimilate into
the american way of life after they had come from russia and eastern europe. she did so as a way to shield them from any sort of discrimination they may face in their new adoptive home. this is the one way to make sure they did not face that sort of off discrimination that was so commonplace. it was to cook the american way. this cookbook was filled with so many american recipes alongside jewish and eastern european traditions. to me, i thought it was so fascinating that this book has so much importance for so many people. it is essentially a document that helped the simulation of emigrants. -- assimilation of immigrants. assimilation should not be the only path toward success for
immigrants in america. there are other ways for immigrants to make home in america without assimilating to the american way. the very idea and concept of the american way has shifted so much . host: we will dig into a few but not all of your seven so that we leave the viewers wanting more of your book. why seven and what criteria did you use to select them? mayukh sen: seven is a lucky number. that is the best answer i have. i think that if i had too wide a cast of characters, this book would not have felt as compact as i wanted it to feel. there are so many women i wish i could have written about. that gets me to the second part of your question. it was a real challenge and struggle to curate and winnow
this list of seven women and figure out which ones i wanted to write about. one that i try to keep in mind is how compelling are their stories? as someone who came to food writing so unexpected they without any desire to be a food writer early in life, i saw this problem within food writing. it is so easy for food writers to write for a very specific audience. that audience being a food delivered one, one audience could be home cooks. i wanted to make sure i was capitalizing on the potential for food writing to reach so many more readers beyond that. i looked for women that had stories that excited me and might excite someone who is not a home cook or restaurant enthusiast. that was kind of the first issue at hand.
that is what makes these chapters come to life. what i really had to find was women who had recorded their own stories like cookbooks. or women who had given a lot of interviews in the lifetime. women who have given interviews like that in their lifetime speaking in their voices. i wanted to see how these women wanted to present themselves to the world and i wanted to reconcile that with how the press may have misread them. those are two things i kept in mind. it was still a struggle and i regret that there are so many really fascinating figures left on the proverbial cutting room floor. it is what it is, that is the
work of other writers got me and the other, younger generation to pursue. >> you describe america as having a complicated infatuation with chinese food. what did you mean by that? mayukh sen: any historian will know that the late 19th century in particular was a time when america had quite a lot of hostility toward chinese-americans. that was really enshrined in the 1882 chinese exclusion act. that part a lot of chinese americans from even coming to america, especially laborers. in spite of that, so many americans had quite a lot -- quite a large appetite for chinese cooking and chinese restaurants were getting
resistance in that century and they would flourish as time went on. it is not until 1943 when you really start to see repeals to that chinese inclusion act. in spite of that, chinese cooking made a form of restaurants in america at that time. that was the phrase in which she was entering. she wrote this cookbook called how to cook and eat in chinese. it was a runaway success. a lot of american home cooks were able to embrace chinese cooking in their home. host: hers in particular, you
write about a lot of different immigration laws over the 100 years or so since the chinese exclusion act. then the 1965 immigration law that eliminated quotas, bringing more chinese. the interesting thing -- she was a medical doctor. how did she make her way into food? mayukh sen: it seemed to be the last thing on her mind. she had attended medical school in japan. from my understanding, that was quite radical for that euro. after she wed a very famous linguist, he had an academic job that brought them to america. they came in the earlier 1920's.
she did not have a confident grasp of the english language. that limited her possibilities in this new home. she could not find work as a doctor the same way she could back in china. that -- left to her own devices, what was she left to do? cook at home. she found she did enjoy cooking. especially cooking the flavors from her youth in china. and those she encountered from her travels. that is the unexpected way in which she came to cooking. so many of these women had that sort of wayward path into the industry. host: after she published how to cook and eat in chinese. she had a number of important supporters. one was pearl buck.
what was the connection between the two women? mayukh sen: yes. she was instrumental in helping get the book published. they had their own publishing house that was really devoted to putting out books that would advance american understanding of china in particular. when they came across the cook book manuscript, they thought it had the potential to change american perceptions of chinese food and chinese people by extension. pearl s. buck wrote in the opening pages that she thought the cook herself deserved a nobel peace prize for her pioneering efforts in putting
these words to paper through writing this cookbook. i think that is sort of hilarious. unfortunately, she did not win a nobel. i think that connection was really for mental. -- really important. in the immediate yours -- years following the book's location, -- in the immediate years following the book's publication, i believe the asia press, that had published how to cook and eat in chinese. they wanted to capitalize on the
commercial success of how to cook and eat in chinese publishing the memoir which came out in 1947. it is called autobiography of a chinese woman. that book felt more true to her authentic voice that her cookbook did. her cookbook itself had a quite tortured genesis. there were many cooks in the kitchen. other family members of hers interfered in the writing process. host: one thing we found in our library's video of president nixon making his famous 1972 trip to china, we have some b roll of that so that people can be reminded of that historic event. what trip did that due to
america's interest in chinese food and chinese culture? host: that is -- mayukh sen: that is a wonderful question. from my research, i understood that so much american interest in chinese cooking really flourished in that area -- era. this all the rise to prominence of so many incredibly important figures in chinese cooking in america. there was cecelia chang. she worked in california's bay area. there was a cook that wrote in a normally popular cookbook called the key to chinese cooking. in 1982, america saw the rise of martin yang. his show really captured the american imagination.
i believe that nixon visiting china in 1972 had quite a deal with the emerging interest. host: at that point, buwei yang chao had already been in the american market for years. how much does that new generation of chinese cookman ship -- cooksmanship owe to her paving the way? mayukh sen: so much. they really did state how important buwei yang chao's work was. there was one in 1962 that wrote a book called the pleasures of chinese cooking. she stated to the press that it was the buwei cookbook that allowed her to write such a cookbook. i would say that buwei blazed
the trail for the future of these cooks. prior to that, there had been some "a for effort" books that came out that were not able to reach audiences the way that she was able to. >> now i want to talk about elena zelayeta. what viewers may not have picked up on in the opening clip is that she was blind. mayukh sen: that was one of the many challenges she faced in life. she was an immigrant displaced into san francisco as a result of the mexican revolution. she lost her sight and her husband to a very catastrophic
car accident in adulthood. those twin tragedies really shaped her and resolved her will to create a life for herself that involve cooking. in the 1940's, the beginning of the 1940's, she became quite popular both in the bay area and beyond for being a cookbook author. she was a real celebrity chef in her time. for some reason, her name has not had the stamina that her impact deserves. host: you mentioned her family coming to visit the united states during the masking revolution of 1910. 890,000 documented x against
flood to the united states during the revolution. you also write about the repatriation that happened. mayukh sen: absolutely. that happened a few decades later from my understanding. that was during a very hostile time for a lot of mexicans thing in america because so many of them came under fire from white americans who accused them of taking their jobs during this catastrophic economic time for america. they engaged in this force repatriation. they had never even set foot in mexico. it was fascinating that elena was seemingly immune to such institutional prejudices at the time and reading her memoirs and
their cookbooks -- and the cookbooks, there was very little about the discrimination she would face as someone who was a mexican woman living in america at that time. host: hers is the chapter where craig claiborne does play a part. how did he affect her trajectory? mayukh sen: he was someone who championed her in the pages of the new york times. he positioned her as america's authority on mexican cooking. he put so much praise on her cookbooks in the new york times. he did the same for another figure in mexican cooking who now reigns supreme in the american mind. some american home cooks 90 familiar with the name diana kennedy. she went to mexico and was so fascinated with the food wave of
that country that she started to document them. i think her first cookbook came out in 1972. that was around the time that elena passed away. that allowed kennedy to serve the previous decade. when you look at the story, i think you can see quite clearly how american memory functions. there is usually only room for one figure when it comes to certain cuisine. especially if that cuisine is not part of continental europe. in this case, diana kennedy has the right portion of being that
person for mexican cooking. host: this happened after the car crash that killed her husband. it shows her determination. she and her son started a frozen food business bearing her name. a woman entrepreneur at that time. it struck me that it helped to nationalize mexican cooking. that might have been more regional up until that point. mayukh sen: it was a daring move for the era. that was the time in which convenience food and whatnot were really burnishing and america. usually those were swanson dinners. there were not nexus early -- necessarily masking food. for her to do that -- mexican food. there are so many aspects that
strike me as pioneering. that is why i am flummoxed as to why americans don't remember her in the way they should. >> you say her legacy should be an ambassador for mexican cooking at a time when one was needed. why was it needed? mayukh sen: mexico is america's southern neighbor. i feel that we should understand the cooking tradition of our neighboring countries. especially if people from those neighboring countries have a significant population in america and mexicans really do. >> another very well educated woman has dual documents. how did she get into food? >> it was quite unaffected. you see the through line here. what would happen is she had a dual doctorate in the natural sciences and biology and then she met a man named victor who
loved cooking and loved food. he brought them to america. this was in the later half of the 20th century. once she got to america, she settled and forest hills. she had a real tough time committing to this new home. especially because she detested the food that she got in america. she was introduced by her husband to hamburg. she was so appalled -- to a hamburger. she was so appalled by catch up and why someone would want to drench hamburger meat in ketchup. she felt she needed to learn how to cook.
as a result, what she did was she began pouring over cookbooks of a marvelous telling cookbook author who wrote a cookbook in the 1920's that was a tome for italian cooking. especially in america. she felt a connection to the italian home that she missed so much. she could picture quite clearly her family members cooking beside her. it was that displacement that was the result of immigration that allowed her to realize that was inside her.
what did he do for her career? mayukh sen: in open so many doors for her. at that time, she had been teaching italian cooking to american housewives she knew. i believe this was in 1969. craig claiborne said that he was interested in visiting her and having lunch with her and victor and feasting on meals that she prepared for them. after the article came out, she found herself flooded with so many prospective students that wanted to take her class and really learn for her. 70 other doors opened. a year later, i believe that she got a call from peter.
she said i can't speak english. i can't write in it either. i can't write a book. it was her husband, victor that convinced her to come onto the project. she produced the classic is telling cookbook and she would write anymore telling cookbooks during her lifetime but she died just a few years ago. she really became the authority on italian cooking for so many home cooks. she is probably the most known of the figures that i have written about in this book. she is someone who people may perceive as difficult. to my mind, that is usually a sexist dog was used to describe women. despite that, she was able to succeed and burrow into american culture. >> her partner or has been
described as essential to her work. this clip is from a talk at google where he talks about his wife's cooking. victor: it was always the taste of home. wherever we were, the cooking we responded to was not chef cooking. it was not professional cooking. it was always the cooking from somebody's home. that is what distinguishes her work. it is not chef inspired. it is not chef related. the cook -- cooking is family cooking. >> we chose that clip because it really emphasizes preservation of culture. >> totally, what he was so committed to was honoring the
waiver of home cooks in italy and bringing that sort of knowledge into the american home. for example, with the debut that was published in 1978, she essentially traveled with a tape recorder with this intrepid journalist and she recorded the recipes of so many home cooks in italy. what you really wanted to do was correct this misperception that sony americans may have had in the area. -- so many americans may have had in that era. that italian cooking was just pasta in a puddle of red sauce. the way to correct this is understanding was to honor the home cooking that she did and not aspire toward any sort of restaurant cooking. host: we have about 15 minutes
left in our conversation. the last profile. can you tell me about the story? mayukh sen: she was born in iran. this was around the time of the iranian revolution. she had to flee because the country had become a place she could no longer recognize. she initially fled to france where some family members have lived in the past. after making home for herself for a few years there, specifically in a village, she had a child there and she had a husband who she met in iran. she realized that not be the most hospitable place for her to raise 2 brown children. she had another child on the way. as a result, she realized she might have an easier time in a
place like america. specifically washington dc. she thought that was a multicultural city. during her time in france, one thing that was quite nice about her living there was she did get to indulge in her love of cooking a lot. so much that she was able to write french language cookbook called la cuisine de iran. when she got to america, she realized she wanted to write another cookbook. this time in the english language. maybe more ambitious than her french language debut. she sent out so many letters to different publishers in america for this cookbook on iranian food. that was around a time when the revolution still loomed large in
american mines but the iran hostage crisis also cast such a long shadow. as a result, after she sends out these letters, she either got polite reductions or absolute science. -- silence. -- polite rejections or absolute silence. publishing and r rating cookbook at that time was -- an iranian cookbook at the time was not heard of before publishers. she said b and my husband will get our own publishing house and publish this book in the english language. they got enough capital to begin their own publishing house and they put out food of life. that was her english language debut in the mid-1980's. many american home cooks may recognize that as dramatically important work and the tome on
iranian cooking in america for american home cooks. she faced so many challenges. what i see in her story is someone who tried to navigate traditional food publishing. it did not have room for her. she worked outside the constraint of the system to make a name for herself. now she is widely respected in food establishments. for that to happen, she had to circumvent that whole system that should have been designed to accommodate her. her story is really tragic in some ways. >> here she is in 20 talking about persian cooking and culture. -- here she is talking about
persian cooking and culture. >> persian food has this tremendous possibility. of course, i am biased but to me, persian food is a measure of mediterranean food. to me, persian food influenced all schools of cooking. host: how was she able to successfully market a self published book in the age before the internet? mayukh sen: it involved a lot of labor that i cannot imagine as someone who is very much a child of the internet. these details squeak their way into the book. they involve finding people through the yellow pages or
documents that would be so foreign to me as someone who was born in 1992. just sending out something letters to those people urging them to support this book financially in some way. there was a lot of that bootstrap mentality that allowed this book to really find an audience. that book was out in the mid-1980's. it was not until the 1990's that the food media started to pay attention to it and really started to pay attention to her. it was only then that she started getting profiled in places like the washington post or publications like the new york times. it took a lot of work and effort on her mom's part. >> cooking and publishing was her gesture of resistance to those who transformed her country. mayukh sen: absolutely.
in talking to her for so long and spending so many hours with her, i got the sense that around the time of the iranian revolution, there was so much freedom she knew from her youth that had very suddenly disappeared. one aspect of that culture that was at great risk of erosion was cuisine and cooking. she realized raising her sons in america would mean they may never be able to set foot in iran and taste and experience the same kinds of pleasures that were such a vital part of her upbringing in iran. she wrote this book because she wanted her fun to be preserved. i found that so touching.
she began writing this book as a love letter to her son. it just so happened that it took off in a very normative way -- a really enormous way. >> you did have a chapter on julia child. mayukh sen: absolutely. my editor said it was so fascinating how julia child hovers as a presence over so many of these chapters. she is a character and some of them in the stories of other women. she is a point of comparison. she urged me to write an essay that would really examine the privileges that julia child carries that allowed her to rise to prominence. i wanted to write a brief essay just examining the advantages she did possess that allowed her to rise and that way.
-- in that way. what i concluded was that she was a white american woman. that allowed her to become this ambassador for french cooking in america quite easily, beginning in the 1960's. there may have been other talents obscured because of hers liberty. she often thought about this herself. she wrote in her memoir that she lamented that one of her good friends who she collaborated with on the art of french cooking named simone had all the ingredients to become a star. in spite of that, she was unable to because she was french and julia child was merrick and. she was aware of those -- american. she was aware of those privileges. i wanted to reiterate in some way that i have tremendous love
and respect for julia child. i hope that comes across when i -- when people read the book. host: do chefs stand on some of the -- stand on the shoulders of the women at your profile today? what is it like for people today who want to enter the food market in the united states? mayukh sen: i would say it is still challenging and there might be increased public awareness of those very challenges. last year saw many public upheavals as prominent publications that expose the inequities. specific we went comes to race and class and gender. i think it is still quite a difficult space for people to make a name for themselves.
i see a lot of hope when i look toward independent creators. people who are working outside of the confines of the system to make an impact. as we dealt with the pandemic and the appeal is, i have seen the proliferation of so many independent creators who are not locking this traditional path you could argue i have also walked as someone who pursued getting the right recognition from award bodies. also, reaching the audiences that i want to reach. when i find so inspiring about a story like this is to begin writing in america because she wanted to write a love letter to her son and she also wanted to reach others. i find that aspirational. you can find a lot of fulfillment writing for people
within your own community. i would advise anyone looking to break into the industry is that is -- to understand that that is also a viable path. >> what has social media done for this generation that these women did not have as an advantage? >> it has allowed that audience to exist. so many of the most talented creators working in the food space don't necessarily have access to the visibility that comes with having a devoted publicist. this is visibility that does not easily come to them. that is one of the few boones of social media.
there are many negative aspects of social media as well but i won't go into those. >> what other kinds of conversations that you hope will happen for people who learn of your work? mayukh sen: yes, i do hope that -- i know that so many people will pick up this book and say i really want to know the story of how america began -- became this melting pot of different cultures and cuisines. in a place where you can get mexican cooking on one block and indian cooking on the next and then jamaican cooking on the next one after that, i want my readers to understand that there is so much struggle embedded in that wonderful reality for consumers. you see that struggle in the story of each of these women and we should honor that struggle as much as possible. >> there seems to be many more stories.
do you see this as a possible series? mayukh sen: i do. but i hope that other writers take up the slack. like i was saying earlier, i came to this industry so unexpectedly. in my work as a professor at nyu , i have come across so many incredible young writers who have such passion for the topic at hand and they have the chops. they are much more talented and hard-working than i am. i hope that moving forward, i can do whatever i can with my very small influence to make sure that those really talented writers who are younger than me don't have the same barriers to access that i had to work around. i would love to see them write the stories. there was a lot of talent out there. >> the new book is called "taste makers: seven women who
revolutionized food in america." thank you for spending an hour with c-span. mayukh sen: thank you, susan. i appreciate it. >> all of these are available as a podcast on our new >> broadband is a force for empower quam. that's why charter has invested billions. empowering opportunity in communities big and small. charter is connecting us. >> charter communications supports c-span as a public service along with these other
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