Ex-Chicagoan Merry White is a Boston University anthropologist and author whose most recent book is Coffee Life in Japan, a memoir cum ethnographic study. But back in her school days at Harvard (she now holds a faculty research appointment there), she took a job cooking at the campus’s Center for West European Studies, where she was responsible for weekly luncheons. When I think of 70s-era food I think of, say, the fondue craze (my mom’s pot sat in the back of one of her cupboards gathering dust). I think of the microwave, which was just then making its way into home kitchens (the first time I used one I blew up a potato). I think of Tang. White evidently thought of pesto and pollo al limone, and though not a formally trained cook, she developed a pan-ethnic repertoire, from Swedish limpa bread to rogan josh. A publisher at Basic Books who dined at the center was so impressed with her fare that he became set on gathering her recipes in a collection. The result was Cooking for Crowds, a little book filled with dishes scaled to feed six, 12, 20, or 50. Edward Koren, best known for his New Yorker cartoons, illustrated; there are double spreads of his work throughout.
That was 1974. Now Princeton University Press has released a 40th-anniversary edition even the jacket blurbs for which summon Harvard. “These diverse (and feasible) recipes for large tables are ideal for any occasion, whatever your group passions,” says eminent historian Charles Maier, a former director of what is now Harvard’s Center for European Studies. “Edward Koren’s illustrations capture the unbuttoned hirsute fellowship of ingredients and diners.”
No stuffed shirt herself, White, who goes by Corky (and incidentally is staff writer Deanna Isaacs’s cousin), is a cook more along the lines of her old Cambridge neighbor Julia Child, whom she once called on during a culinary emergency. A Ukrainian stew with pork and cabbage had burned—what should she do? Child told her to add sour cream and lemon to mask the burned taste and call it smoked borscht.
White will be at 57th Street Books (1301 E. 57th, 773-752-4381) Wed 11/20 from 5 to 7 PM; Z&H Market Cafe is catering.