Is it weird to begin by saying I’d kinda like to be Merry “Corky” White? For starters, she is a cook and food anthropology professor at Boston University. She’s written cookbooks, travel guides, articles, and sometimes gets to talk on TV. She takes her students to hidden Boston food-gasm inducing spots and teaches courses on “Japanese society, women in Asia, food and culture, and the anthropology of travel and tourism.” Corky has literally written the book on Japanese coffee culture- Coffee Life in Japan will be out this May. I could go on and on…but I will restrain myself and say that above all, she is a fantastically warm, fascinating woman with a generous spirit. She embodies what I love about food (and coffee!) people.
HnS: I was “doing my homework” and reading your bio online. There’s a lot of stuff on there, not exactly random but I definitely got the sense you’re a “go to” person for on matters that don’t directly relate to each other (food or Japanese culture). How did that happen?
CW: Oh no, you read that? I better go see what’s on there…Well, I started out as a Japanese study person, but before I went to grad school I had to earn money so I became a caterer because I couldn’t type (because those were the two things girls could do: cook and type). I really didn’t know anything about food, except that I liked it, so I boldly walked in and said, “Hire me.” I began catering at these Harvard institutes and they were tough. They had “eaten everything” and “gone everywhere.” I was pretty untried, I hadn’t (gone) anywhere yet, so my strategy with these guys (and they were mostly guys) was to cook things that were off their trajectory- marginal foods. Sometimes I’d make Afghan food and since this was in the ‘70s no one was really eating that stuff. They didn’t have anything to compare it to. I was also doing a lot of Asian food and building a tiny profile. One day this guy walks into the center where I’m catering and picks up my Xeroxed pile of recipes that were at the front desk (for the locals to have if they wanted them) and the next thing I knew I got a call from New York, “We’re publishing your cookbook…”
CW: Yeah, it was shocking! I had no intention of doing a cookbook- that doesn’t happen, especially now. I was launched in spite of myself and then of course they wanted another cookbook after that one. I then got in to restaurant reviewing and other food journalism. Finally I made it to graduate school and my advisor said, “Take all that food stuff off your resume or you’ll never get a good job in academics.” It wasn’t proper to do food stuff- yet! So I sat it out, did exactly as I was told, and did a dissertation on Japan (which I’ve been interested in ever since high school). Finally I got tenure and decided, “I’m putting all that ‘food stuff’ back on the resume.” Food is like my second wind.
HnS: Speaking of the intersection of Japan and food…it seems like Japan has really exploded on to the American food scene in the past few years. It’s become a huge influence on chefs, ramen is becoming trendy, a lot of the coffee methods that are getting popular originated in Japan…what do you think is behind all this?
CW: Japan’s “rise” is all about soft power. In the early 1990s they had an awful recession and lost a certain amount of political and economic clout. They aren’t in trouble, compared to a Greece or Spain, but there was a loss of international influence in those two areas. At the same time, however, there’s all this cultural stuff that is flowing out and in. It began with anime and manga, those are the reasons most students began to take my class on Japan. To American young people Japan became “cool”- that’s soft power.
That’s not all there is to say about Japan, but the rise of consciousness about it from the outside, especially food but other things too, brought a lot of culinary tourists, especially chefs. Suddenly everyone was thinking, “What is this emphasis on pure flavor, simplicity, the aesthetic, finickiness but to a good end…” Suddenly people were religious about it.
The Japanese aren’t religious about it- they are very straightforward. For example- Japanese tea ceremonies. When I was a graduate student living in Japan one way I got to know my senior professor, a very austere man, was to take tea ceremony lessons with his wife who wasn’t austere. I subjected myself to a year of five hours a week of sitting on my knees and whisking tea. I never asked “Why are we doing this? What’s that about?” because that’s a very American thing to ask “Why?” She could still hear the “Why?” unspoken so one day she told me, “This is only to make a nice cup of tea and give it to somebody.” She was being a little disingenuous because what she really meant was “making a really good cup of tea in a serene environment that makes you feel good about everything.” The art of service is something that is self enhancing in Japan, not diminishing.
HnS: I really want to ask you, in particular, about the James Beard Awards. When the semifinalists were announced this year I began to think about the Awards themselves and what they really meant, not just to those who are nominated but to us “eaters” and to our culture in general…
CW: I think about them a lot too…why do we think about them so much?
HnS: Exactly my question! I think it has something to do with prestige and the power of that prestige…
CW: Yes! And I think, “Why food? Why does food, at this moment, get this kind of recognition?” In Japan food television is almost as crazy as it is here. There was a survey about four years ago and for the first time little boys, instead of saying “I wanna be a astronaut” or whatever, were saying they want to be a chef. So what did food have to become to be a popular image? Who did chefs have to become to move out of the elite category? They had to become a man of the people- chefs everywhere now have this image. Mario, Emeril…you had to put some muscle behind it and get people to relate to you. It used to be food was about elite chefs or it was a domestic chore. You never thought about the person making it.
This morning I was remembering Craig Claiborne, who was the former food editor of The New York Times. In the 70s he visited Boston and called me up, “Where should we eat, Corky?” At the time Boston only had a few chic places that weren’t French restaurants (Durgin-Park, Locke-Ober…dark, cigar smoking kind of places). Most of the rooms at Durgin-Park were men-only even in the ‘70s. Claiborne wanted to eat at the “best Boston had” so I gave him the name of a couple of places. One was a French restaurant on Huron Avenue in Cambridge, not far from Formaggio. It was a new wave, interesting, French-Italian restaurant with a female chef-owner. They (he and Pierre Franey) go on my recommendation and later I asked them if they liked it. Craig explained he liked it very much, but apparently Pierre Franey said, “I could tell there was a woman in the kitchen.” I don’t know what that was all about except that in those days there was still this elite, French, male definition of what good food was.
HnS: So we’ve come a long way in a relatively short period of time…that curbs my cynicism a little bit. The aspect of the Beard awards I obsess over is whether their impacts are all good. For better or worse once someone receives a Beard award that is the “comma” that goes after their name (Chef X, James Beard Award Winner). It becomes a distinction tied to one’s name and reputation and I can’t help but wonder about all the chefs and cooks and restaurants that might be deserving but will never get that kind of recognition. Looking at the list I think examples of what I’m talking about might be a lot of ethnic restaurants…
CW: I think you make a good point and that there are valid questions around what the standards are to be nominated, as there must be standards. What does a restaurant have to do beyond what grandma used to make? That’s the question. Grandma may have been the best cook in the world but would she be on the list? We don’t know. What are the baseline parameters of choice? That would be very interesting to learn.
I think of the Beards as being very democratic. I like the distinction of them as being very American (in a good sense) and the fact that they emphasize regions. They are not a guide to eating, they are a recognition of hard work that people (men and women both) have done. It’s a recognition that the work of food is hard. There is that on top of the fact that there are always so many women across the list- so regionalism, democracy, and not gendered. There may be elitism, I’m sure there is, but the basic premise is that “these people have struggled.” That’s what I love about the Beards.
Corky’s book Coffee Life in Japan is due out in May but is available for pre-order now. Ask her about Japanese scotch and follow along with her adventures (Japan, coffee, or otherwise) on Twitter: @merrycorkywhite
Photos via Amazon author page