“Good to Think With,” but Also Delicious: A Conversation Between Merry White and Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft

Merry White and Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft discuss their new book “Ways of Eating: Exploring Food Through History and Culture.”

“Good to Think With,” but Also Delicious: A Conversation Between Merry White and Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft

Ways of Eating: Exploring Food Through History and Culture by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft and Merry White. University of California Press. 256 pages.

SOMETIMES WRITING a book produces more questions and conversations than it answers or ends. This is what my mother, Merry White (“Corky,” to her friends), and I have learned about the book we wrote together, Ways of Eating: Exploring Food Through History and Culture, which just came out in mid-September.

To give shape to this conversation, we decide to go shopping for groceries. We’re not silent shoppers: we like to talk. In fact, the Armenian market we go to, called Sevan, is one that my mom visits regularly with her food studies students. On arrival, my mom, a professor of anthropology at Boston University, slips into lecture mode, noting that Sevan was a product of the “secondary migration” that brought Armenians to the Boston area via various “first ports of call”—Turkey, in the case of the family that runs Sevan. The shop is, in fact, full of Turkish delicacies. We start to pick up favorite items—string cheese, flatbreads, packages of za’atar—and simply observe a few things that surprise us, like a whole case of carrot juice. Sevan’s aisles aren’t large, but we manage to fit a conversation about our book, and my mother’s career, between them.

As we leave Sevan, we talk about our haul, which includes flatbreads and items like hummus. The practical goal of our shopping trip is, in fact, to prepare for breaking our fast for Yom Kippur, and we have selected items that we often associate with Jewishness. But our bag also contains İmam bayıldı, an eggplant dish with Muslim origins whose name literally means “the imam fainted.” One story attributes this name to the sheer amount of garlic in the dish, and another states that the priest fainted from the expense that must have gone into it, along with copious amounts of olive oil. We have this along with our pita bread and hummus and baba ghanoush, and on reflection we realize that these are Middle Eastern foods that need not be specifically Jewish, and that we got them from an Armenian family that imports Turkish products.

Our bag is a bit like Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbooks in this regard, containing foods that could be Jewish but are beyond the range we associate with old-fashioned American Ashkenazi delicatessens. It’s a way of getting to be recognizably Jewish as we break our fast, of having our tradition while not feeling limited by it. “It’s like the matzo ball pho you make,” I suggest to my mom—in other words, a dish we all love that combines a recognizably Jewish thing with something from another tradition. Thus, we have our identity and our cosmopolitanism too.


BENJAMIN ALDES WURGAFT: When we were writing Ways of Eating, our only real argument was about whether or not to include recipes in the book. Why did you want to include them?

MERRY WHITE: I was of several minds about that, actually. I was once a professional cook; I used recipes and created recipes, and I still do. I collect recipes—and those I have, yellowed and crumbling, antedate by decades those that people store in their computer files. I respect the form and have opinions about what a recipe should be. But I also associate recipes with practice and was raised in a time when practice was antithetical to theory, to scholarship, and to elevated conversation—to all of which I aspired, in and after graduate school. I saw this book as a place where the two—theory and practice—could meet blamelessly. On a different level, I saw recipes as goads to appetite, to engagement of the reader in the sensory (and technical) aspects of food. One might read and smell the garlic, one might read and think, Yes, I ought to have a digital scale.

BAW: Wait, so you had, or maybe still have, an internal conflict regarding theory and practice when it comes to food? I guess I wonder what “theory” is, here, since as an anthropologist you’re generally not a theory-head. Is “theory” here a set of ideas about who eats what and why, and about the values and meanings people find in food?

MW: I think I still have some residue from the concerns people had about food as a topic, either from my high school days, when food wasn’t a polite topic for conversation, or from the biases I encountered later, against food as an academic topic—and then, within the social sciences, from the era when theory was higher-status than the mundane details of ethnographic observation. Even when I went my own way, doing more “practice” or giving practical details more prominence than theory, I had some defensive concerns.

A teacher at my high school said that we must separate food from thought when we were enjoined at lunch to think of food as “below the neck” and not to engage comments on food as we ate. The meal was invariably, and completely, beige. Compare that old Boston attitude with that of an early-20th-century Chinese “scholar-gentleman” who spent weeks before a small gathering considering the menu, commanding his taste buds to anticipate the flavors, and discussing it with friends.

But, on including recipes specifically: Recipes have figured in novels and memoirs as well as in food studies texts. Nora Ephron’s wonderful 1983 novel Heartburn contains a recipe in every chapter, tracking hope and heartache. I never followed reading with cooking, however: the recipes sounded great, but they were part of the romance, not inspirations for dinner.

BAW: So, maybe part of including recipes is aesthetic? And “aesthetic” doesn’t mean “decorative” here, but “an effort to produce feelings in a reader”—which, after all, is part of what food’s about.

MW: Actually, yes, that’s a good point: the effort to produce a reader’s sensory reactions. I think, though, that rather than “aesthetic” for this thought, I’d call the inclusion of recipes a chance to do a kind of “fieldwork” on the page, perhaps a way to bring the reader into the text as a potential participant observer.

BAW: Certainly, making a knife with our knife-making teacher, Adam Simha, helped me to think differently about the function of knives, not only technically but also culturally. I wouldn’t say I felt “closer” to any cooks or chefs in the process, just more conscious of the subtle way the act of cutting ingredients establishes the dynamics not only of a dish but also of a meal—after all, you cut things differently when they’re meant to be shared. It’s funny—I think I inherited your experience of conflict regarding theory and practice when it comes to food, and much of the time, when I’m writing about food, I’m trying to ask myself, “What questions does this dish, or way of eating, help me to ask?” As if that gesture could bring theory and practice together and harmonize them. And I think I was against including recipes in our book because I suspected some readers would take the book less seriously if we did. I was worried about an old prejudice, in other words.

But here’s another question. “Food studies” exists today as a field in a way that it didn’t when you were in graduate school for anthropology and Japanese studies. And you were working as a caterer and cookbook writer while you were in grad school. Was it hard to navigate the divide between food and academia, and did your teachers support you?

MW: In graduate school, I had a partial scholarship and needed to work. I couldn’t type, but I thought maybe I could cook, so, with no experience, I took on the job of catering lunches and dinners for Harvard’s Center for West European Studies (“West” because the Berlin Wall hadn’t come down yet). I made lunch for 50 people each week, and often one or two dinners for 25 people each week, including such scary notables as Henry Kissinger and Jackie Onassis. My six-year-old daughter joined me in the kitchen. My strategy was to cook foods from everywhere except Western Europe, so that the Europeanists couldn’t compare them to what they had in France or Italy or Germany. I was lucky, but I always feared I’d be found out. Was this impostor syndrome? My good luck was that Julia Child lived near and was generous with her time and aid—she saved my skin. I was also lucky that one lunch guest, a New York publisher, silently picked up all the recipes from the reception desk. He called me to say he was publishing my cookbook—something I’d not even thought of doing. My friend Ed Koren illustrated it, and 40 years later, the head of Princeton University Press called, out of the blue, to say he wanted to do a 40th anniversary edition; Ed Koren was happy to do even more cartoons.

Of course, food studies wouldn’t always have drawn the audience and publishers it draws today. I’ve lived through its budding and flowering, and I remember when food was not a reputable scholarly topic. At one point, my advisor in Japanese studies told me to take all the cookbooks and other food publications off my CV “or I’d never get an academic job.” He meant well, and he had a point; it was true then.

But I’ve lived long enough to put my food work back on my CV and to add lots of food writing. Still, there are people who say, “Oh, what fun” when I say I’m a food anthropologist, and yes, it is fun. Or they say, “You must be a great cook” or “How come you’re not really fat?” or “How do you get away with that?”

BAW: In other words, people still find ways to imply that, because food is fun, studying it must be a scam. Does applying the tools of anthropological theory to food and drink sometimes feel like a betrayal of food, as if you’re implicitly agreeing with your high school teachers or your grad school advisor?

MW: Yes, sometimes it seems I should bow my head to the plate of toast, or to the perfect cup of coffee, and say, “Don’t worry, I’ll get back to you after I practice extreme deconstruction on you.”

BAW: But you don’t practice extreme deconstruction!

MW: That was a joke! In any case, I feel like I serve two masters. It’s only within my lifetime that anthropology has really embraced the anthropologist’s own experience as a central part of fieldwork, allowing her to be present with the objects of her study: the use of “I” still gives me a shiver, though I do it.

BAW: You’ve been thinking about (and enjoying) Japanese food and drink for decades. There’s that famous phrase from Claude Lévi-Strauss—“good to think with”—that we love to apply to our objects of study, so I wonder, is Japanese food and drink “good to think with” in different ways from, say, Chinese food or British food?

MW: I’ve been happily eating Japanese food since the early 1960s, when on the East Coast there were maybe three restaurants serving it. My first trip to Japan, in 1963, opened my eyes and mouth to its dazzling—and subtle—tastes and most especially its appearance. Yes, I think Japanese foodways (and there’s not just one!) open eyes and thoughts to somewhat different frames of thinking than those of China or whatever we are calling “British” food. Chinese foods have so many regional identities and also have been influenced strongly by economic and social history—and revolution!

You can’t think about British food without thinking “colonialism”—and the supposed dominance of chicken tikka masala as a national food. Japanese foods have been seen as “exotic” and perhaps scary: friends insist that raw fish is bad for you, and even some Japanese people expect foreigners to avoid natto as “slimy and sticky and smelly”—“othering” Western eaters and their own foods simultaneously. Chinese food in the United States was “naturalized” in the 19th century when workers on the transcontinental railroad ate chow mein and chop suey, invented to satiate their hungers and easily assimilated into American diets. Japanese food in the US also was transformed—into California roll and instant ramen. Thoughts about “origin” and “authenticity” come to the fore here even as “chow hounds” travel to Japan to find the “real” Japanese food—Kyoto’s “obanzai ryori” or a stick of grilled yakitori, street food transformed into haute cuisine. Good to think with, yes, but also just plain delicious and, as the Brits say, “moreish.”

BAW: So, different national cases tend to generate different associations! How about different questions?

MW: Yes, I do think that different cases (do we need to call them “national”?) would “respond” differently. How Japanese food emerged in the United States was something that varied according to its producers, its audience, its era. For example, what migrant laborers, often from the sugar plantations on Hawaiʻi, often ate, when they came to garden in Southern California or participate in the Gold Rush, was a product of the era—its economics, the availability of ingredients, etc. And the middle-class business people coming from Japan to the East Coast would be eating far different things in the 1980s.

Another source of difference was (and is) the fact that Japanese Americans come from very different parts of Japan with different eating cultures; I think many people see Japan as a singular, homogeneous culture with a single “menu” of foods, but again, it isn’t.

BAW: You’re now looking into Japanese whisky—what drew you to it?

MW: I took four years to research and write a book on Japanese coffee [Coffee Life in Japan (University of California Press, 2013)], and I love coffee; it’s a lifetime project to sit in cafés where a delicious pour-over either starts or interrupts a day. The other brown liquid I like, whisky, was in my repertory of ways to end a day, but first, I can’t drink more than a finger of it, and second, it doesn’t pepper my day the way coffee can, perhaps for that same reason. I first really learned that I like whiskey (the added “e” denotes a Western distillation, Scottish or American, while no “e” is Japanese) in India, working with colleagues in the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, who would gather outside at lunchtime to eat dosas and sip a bit of Scotch whiskey. I was impressed with their playful connoisseurship.

The recent stardom of Japanese whiskies in the global market, and world whisk(e)y auctions engaged me: what is it about Japanese whisky that is intriguing, and what makes it just so darn good? Working on a study of Japanese food workers, I started visiting distilleries—you came along to Ichiro’s Chichibu Distillery in Saitama Prefecture—and I learned a few things about work and a lot more about distillation and the product. The Suntory company, a huge drinks company selling a wide range of products and what have been called the “world’s best whiskies,” has been very helpful to me. A few months ago, I was treated to a sip of their Yamazaki 25. Come on! That bottle is “on sale” now at $19,999.99 (really), and at auction a Yamazaki went for $950,000. When I tasted it, I put a kind of performance face on, whisking it around the inside of my mouth, breathing in to take in the aroma, and willing myself to think (probably just to avoid cognitive dissonance) how extraordinary this whisky is, in order to match whatever image the price had instilled in me. That’s actually quite an embarrassing revelation. I really like their “Toki,” which is safely within my budget.

BAW: Is it really different to write about whisky, which is exclusive by nature, compared to writing about coffee, which is a more inclusive beverage?

MW: Exactly, whisky is exclusive by price and availability, and for me, it’s a set-apart experience because I drink so very little. The difference is that I drink coffee maybe three times a day, but whisky, and just a tiny drop of it, perhaps only three times a week. That really changes my own relationship with the beverage, with my fieldwork sites and time spent in them: my personal engagement with coffee is obviously deeper than mine with whisky.

BAW: We read a lot of different kinds of books and articles about food and drink, but I’m curious if you can name something, scholarly or simply writerly, that you return to again and again, for pleasure or edification? For me, for example, it’s John Lanchester’s 1996 novel The Debt to Pleasure, which is a murder mystery about aesthetics presented through a series of menus.

MW: Writerly indeed are Calvin Trillin’s essays on food, several volumes of them, and I seek them out for pleasure and humor and a wonderful comfort in reading someone whose tastes might not be exactly mine but whose attitude I readily adopt. I’ve spent time with him, and he’s as low-key as his writing, deceptively humble and yet strong in his tastes and hopes for a better eating world, ready to mock himself and the bad bagel he’s eating.

BAW: What a fabulous image. I bet you both enjoyed the conversation.

LARB Contributors

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is a writer and historian, whose books include Ways of Eating: Exploring Food Through History and Culture (University of California Press, 2023), co-written with Merry White; Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food (UC Press, 2019); and Thinking in Public: Strauss, Levinas, Arendt (Penn, 2016).

Merry (“Corky”) White is a professor of anthropology at Boston University, with specialties in Japanese studies and food. Her books include Ways of Eating: Exploring Food Through History and Culture (University of California Press, 2023), co-written with Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft; Coffee Life in Japan (UC Press, 2013), and Perfectly Japanese: Making Families in an Era of Upheaval (UC Press, 2002).


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