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Week of 17 September 2004 · Vol. VIII, No. 3

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Dim sum and duck feet: anthropology students take food tours of Boston

By Jessica Ullian

Professor Merry White, eating “Chinese Muslim” bread in Shanghai, 2003; students take culinary tours of Boston in her anthropology course. Photo courtesy of Merry White


Professor Merry White, eating “Chinese Muslim” bread in Shanghai, 2003; students take culinary tours of Boston in her anthropology course. Photo courtesy of Merry White

Merry “Corky” White will never force you to eat anything, but she would like you to try what’s on your plate. On a field trip for her course Food, Culture, and Society, that could be dim sum. Or durian. Or duck feet.

“It’s not a gut,” White warns students hoping for an easy grade and a good meal. “Though it treats the gut,” she jokes.

White, a CAS anthropology professor, has been teaching her immensely popular course to the University’s undergraduate and graduate students for six years. As a survey, it covers everything from world hunger to the organic food movement, and demonstrates — in walks through the streets of Boston — that changing food trends reveal a lot about changing cultures.

“What we do is look at neighborhood, identity, community, ethnicity, in food ways,” White says. “People are, in various ways, into preserving food consciously.”

To observe the city’s changing cuisines, White and her students travel to some of the best-known and least-known ethnic neighborhoods in the city, where they have a chance to study food as it relates to migration and community-building. They visit the North End, of course, where Italian food has become enmeshed in the promotion of Italian culture, and Chinatown, less of a tourist destination, but a neighborhood with a strong “food identity,” White says.

But to get the full experience, the students also go to Revere for Cambodian food, where they witness a new immigrant community’s attempts to set down roots; to Watertown for Armenian foods, White says, the plural emphasizing the multiple identities and culinary traditions; and to Brookline, to check out the small kosher markets along Harvard Street.

For the students, the course offers the opportunity to explore Boston, try new foods, and learn from some of the city’s top chefs.

For White, it is a sign that her studies of cooking and culture have finally been deemed a legitimate and important part of academia. “It’s a matter of how food has come into acceptance in the curriculum in general,” she says. “In the late 1980s, I think the world wasn’t ready for it yet.”

White developed her interest in cooking as a caterer in the 1970s, when she was saving money to go to graduate school for Japanese studies. At the time, she says, the word “pasta” wasn’t even a part of everyday vocabulary; people simply called it “noodles.”

She published two cookbooks during that time: Cooking for Crowds in 1974, and Noodles Galore in 1976. But when she was writing her dissertation at Harvard, White’s advisor told her to eliminate all food-related experience from her résumé, since it wasn’t considered a respectable field of study.

The cut lasted until White’s arrival at BU in 1987. “As soon as I got tenure here, I put them back on again,” she says.

Now, White blends her academic and culinary experiences for her courses, teaching her students that Korea is the “ancestral home” of sushi and that Thai food is to the 21st century what Chinese food was to the 1960s — meaning, she says, that it’s been “normalized for mainstream consumption.”

The courses she teaches at BU include Modern Japanese Society, and Tourism and Travel, and treks throughout Asia remain a major part of her life. She spent last year in Japan as a visiting professor at the Kyoto Center for Japanese Studies, and is a founder of Cambodia’s Ratanakiri Project, which sells Cambodian coffee in Japan to raise money to build schools. (She describes the coffee named in her honor, “Corky’s Blend,” as a “really, really layered and rich” French roast.)

Her personal tastes extend beyond the borders of Southeast Asia, however. Her list of preferred restaurants changes all the time, but she has a few perennial favorite foods: ice cream from Toscanini’s (the owner, Gus Rancatore, is a frequent guest in her class), barbecue from Blue Ribbon in Arlington, and the Cuban sandwich at Chez Henri in Cambridge, which she says you must eat sitting at the bar.

And while White asks her students to be bold and daring when testing out new foods, she is aware that sometimes special measures are required.

She introduced her students to the durian, a notoriously smelly fruit that grows in Southeast Asia, by smashing it open with a hammer in a parking lot. If she had opened it in a classroom, she explains, the smell would have been overwhelming, and she had a very good reason for wanting the students to try it: “Nobody had had one,” she says.


17 September 2004
Boston University
Office of University Relations