by Radha Chitale
Merry White introduces herself with a handshake and an offer of tea. In her cozy office at Boston University, cluttered with books and Japanese art, she looks every bit the calm, seasoned academic. No one would ever take her for an ex-convict.
“I served a short stint in jail,” White said. “We all did.” Like many intellectual, politically active young people of the time, she and some Harvard classmates were jailed in 1968 for participating in sit-in strikes.
But going to jail for protesting was one of the few “conventional” things White did in her life. A natural food lover and cook, the first two books White published were cookbooks full of exotic, foreign recipes. But White, fascinated with Japan and concerned with being taken seriously as an academic, shelved her talents to focus on her career in anthropology and sociology. As food became a legitimate topic for scholarship, White’s knowledge and experience confirmed her to be a forward thinker, though food remained on her back burner all along.
White, an anthropology professor at Boston University, received a BA in Anthropology and Japanese Studies from Harvard University in 1963. At the time, anthropology focused on primitive cultures and Japan was on the cusp of modernity; not a subject en vogue for academic study.
Still, "my young husband and I were both totally in love with Japan," White said. After their graduation and wedding, the couple left to travel abroad for one year. Japan was the first country on their list.
“I got there and I was so excited, I can even feel it now,” White said, clasping and unclasping her hands. “I thought, ‘this is the rest of my life.’”
Japan drew White for more than academic reasons. "I think I studied Japan because it was as far away from home as possible," she said.
White, 66, grew up in Chicago but spent long summers at an aunt's lake house in Minnesota, close to her maternal grandmother, who lived in St. Paul.
Much more than her father or mother, White’s grandmother, an Austrian immigrant, instilled a passion for food in her granddaughter. “She never properly learned English so we communicated through cooking,” White said, recalling how her grandmother made the strudels of her home country, delicately stretching out paper-thin layers of dough.
After her year abroad, White wished to return to academia. She did a masters degree in comparative literature at Harvard and wanted to continue with a PhD in Sociology.
“I went back to get a PhD because… I was still hungry to learn about Japan,” she said.
To pay for graduate school, White parlayed her grandmother’s informal cooking lessons into a catering business, which she and her family ran for about ten years. She got a regular gig cooking meals for guests at the Center for European Studies at Harvard. White cooked foreign cuisines, from Japanese and Indian to Afghani, at a time when the word ‘ethnic’ was not even a concept. She served foods like spanakopita and rogan josh to the likes of Henry Kissinger and Jackie Onassis.
The recipes from Harvard eventually became White’s first book, Cooking for Crowds, published in 1974. White published her second cookbook, Noodles Galore, in 1976. Though White was proud of them, she refrained from putting her cookbooks on her curriculum vitae.
“Thirty years ago, as a woman... and as an academic, the last thing you want to be pinned as is the cookbook person,” said Robert Weller, Chair of the Anthropology department at Boston University.
Back at Harvard for her PhD, White studied various aspects of modern Japan including families, education systems, and youth culture. This last became the subject of one of White’s most famous books, The Material Child, published in 1993. She continued to cook and be interested in food culture but that part of her life receded into the background in favor of her academic pursuits.
After receiving her PhD, White joined the Harvard Graduate School of Education, then became a professor in Boston University’s department of Anthropology in 1987.
White has gone to Japan nearly every year since her first visit, sometimes with her son and daughter in tow. In the last decade, she returned to her first love, food, and brought it into her academic research. Her latest project is on the social history of cafes and coffeehouses in Japan. “I finally decided what I do in Japan should be the object of what I study,” White said, referring to her habit of frequenting cafes.
Among her courses at Boston University, White teaches a popular course on food and the cultural identity of various Boston neighborhoods.
“She’ll find the weirdest thing on the menu… and say we have to have that,” said Deborah Samuels, a food writer at the Boston Globe and one of Whites cooking buddies.
This credo led White and Samuels to try Kopi Luwak during a trip to Europe. Kopi Luwak is coffee made from beans excreted from a civet cat. “It was rich and strong, with quite elevated and elevating caffeine,” White said.
Five years ago, white got involved in Japan’s coffee industry. She helped to found the Ratanakiri Project, a charitable company that sells Cambodian coffee beans in Japan as a non-profit venture to build schools in Cambodia.
“She feeds a lot of people,” in many different ways, Samuels said. No longer constrained by the academic stereotypes of the sixties and seventies, White is free to do just that. Her cookbooks are back on her CV.