Thursday, July 18, 2024

“Ways of Eating” by Merry White and Benjamin Wurgaft on display at Porter Square Books in Cambridge. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Food is a big part of our culture, and not just the celebrity chefs going cleaver to cleaver on television – though that is part of it, so are hunters and gatherers, local sourcing and how you prepare food and consume it. There’s a lot to fit in a food history of fewer than 300 pages, but Merry White and Benjamin Wurgaft have done it in the new “Ways of Eating: Exploring Food through History and Culture.”

“The idea,” said White, a teacher of anthropology at Boston University for more than 35 years, “was to pair an author experience with an anthropological deep dive on food and culture,” meaning the exploration of the causes and reasons behind culinary cultural traditions. “Take chopsticks and the wok,” White said, explaining how the Chinese style of cooking and eating was born out of deprivation: Using a deep, hot-oil pan was a means to cook fast and save fuel.

Wurgaft, a historian, editor and writer living in Northampton, is White’s son, and the two had been chewing on the idea for the book for more than 10 years. The project came together when the University of California Press, where each had been published, stumbled into soliciting pitches from the two for what they already wanted to write: a short but encyclopedic book on food history.

Wurgaft, whose 2020 book “Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food” examined lab-produced meats, the beef industry and climate change, takes an analytical, academic slant to his view of food and humankind. “I like thinking about food systems and the larger scale of culture, rather than say, ‘What’s delicious,’” he said during an interview at the Porter Square Hotel in Cambridge.

“’I’m all about what’s delicious,” said White, “and stories – the stories behind what’s in the dish.” Her passion is Japanese culture and food. Her last book was “Coffee Life in Japan,” from 2012; she’s fluent in the language.

Co-authors White and Wurgaft, mother and son, in Porter Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Their “Ways of Eating” covers topics that range from medieval women beer makers to truffle harvesting, as well as the culinary and cultural effects of the Venetian spice trade and the “Columbian Exchange” across the Atlantic beginning in the 15th century. (How do you think Korean food got chilis for sweet and spicy gochujang sauce?) Each chapter is one of those anecdotal author experiences that delves into history, taking into account world-shaping factors such as immigration, colonization politics and shifts in technology while deconstructing long-held assumptions about cultural traditions built around food.

White’s been ensconced in Cambridge and its food scene for years. Her longtime partner, Gus Rancatore, owns and runs Toscanini’s ice cream, and before she went to graduate school, White catered to make ends meet. For that job, she had an ace in the hole: the ear of Julia Child, who always picked up the phone when White needed food-prep advice. Her best story from those days revolves around catering a “Roman orgy” party for a classics professor at Harvard. The experience is one of those cases of don’t-assume-too-much-about-tradition without knowing the origins, because sexual bacchanalia is ascribed to ancient Rome without much basis in fact – events then were more about feasting and feting the gods. That said, what happens at a classics professor’s house in Cambridge, carnal or not, stays in that house in Cambridge. After the admittedly nervous White delivered the food, she was asked to leave and come back the next day to retrieve her platters, serving utensils and other catering wares.

White and Wurgaft underscore that celebrity and trends tied to food culture are a relatively new phenomenon. At BU, White said, she didn’t have the liberty to stretch anthropology to food until the 1990s. She now teaches a class in which students learn that ancestral diets were mostly about vegetables – more calories came from what was gathered than what was hunted.

“Ways of Eating” was released last week. Copies are available at local bookstores. White and Wurgaft have a free reading at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Harvard Book Store, 1256 Massachusetts Ave., Harvard Square, Cambridge. Information is here.