When Merry White’s Cooking for Crowds was published in 1974, it was a radical text. The Harvard grad student had introduced baba ghanouj, garlic soup, pesto, Moroccan chermoulah and the frozen Indian dessert kulfi to Ivy League leaders and their superstar dinner guests as a caterer at Harvard’s Center for West European Studies. Her cutting-edge cookbook brought these exotica to a wider audience, one for whom Jell-O salad and chicken à la king was bold dinner-party fare. In those days, “tofu” was “soy bean curd,” coriander “Chinese parsley.”
White’s book, illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist Edward Koren—the one who does those fuzzy, lovable characters—made a splash; White appeared on the Today show twice. Still, some remained mystified. In an interview with Maclean’s, White recalls one letter from an irate reader: “She wrote: ‘I’m in charge of our church suppers and I can’t use this book—it’s all foreign!’ ”
Nobody will say that when Cooking for Crowds is reissued this month. Recipes ahead of the curve 40 years ago—dirty rice, pork vindaloo— remain au courant; others—Swedish meatballs, Charlotte Malakoff au chocolat—exude a retro ’70s vibe that’s also au courant. Prep details for six, 12, 20 and 50 servings of each recipe are provided. Practical advice abounds, including not to multiply powerful spices like other ingredients.
White had no formal training when she started cooking in 1970; she got the job out of “the kindness of their hearts”—and because she couldn’t type: “In those days, if you were a girl, you typed or cooked.” A culinary rebel, she rejected being told by a high school teacher that “pepper is too heating for young ladies,” she writes. “From then on my life has been a search for the heat and pleasure of food.” Hence her focus on Asian, Indian and Middle Eastern dishes, inspired by her travels and friends’ grandmothers’ recipes. The decision was partly strategic: “I was cooking things that I hoped people had never eaten so they’d have nothing to compare it to.”
White fed a long list of luminaries. She dialled back the spice for German chancellor Willy Brant: “I figured older Germans were not into chilies.” She went “fancy rather than exotic” for former U.S. first lady Jacqueline Onassis, serving squab stuffed with veal pâté cooked at home and reheated over a hot plate. Her anxiety was for naught, she says: “They were all soused by the time they got to the table.” White often turned to Julia Child, who lived nearby, for advice. She remembers calling Child in tears after burning a Ukrainian stew. Child walked her through a salvage operation requiring sour cream, lemon and parsley, then told her to rename the dish “smoked borscht.”
One impressed diner, Erwin Glikes, publisher of Basic Books, an imprint known for serious, intellecual non-fiction, spied the mimeographed recipes White left out for diners and shrewdly saw cookbook potential. Political and social forces were making tastes more cosmopolitan: the arrival of the jumbo jet exposed the middle class to foreign travel; rising immigration mainstreamed “ethnic” food; Richard Nixon’s visit to China stoked acceptance of egg rolls and chow mein.
That another publisher wanted to reissue the cookbook four decades later was a shock, says White, now an anthropology professor at Boston University. She still caters occasionally; at home, she cooks from the Ottolenghi cookbooks—“like everyone,” she says. Peter Dougherty, director of Princeton University Press, had heard of White’s book decades ago; he bought a used copy earlier this year and was captivated by its academic pedigree—“dishes for scholars prepared by a scholar,” he writes in an email—and its illustrations. Cooking for Crowds is “a milestone in the changing of the popular palate from the monotonous fare of the post-Second World War era to the magnificent multiculturalism that has marked cooking since the ’70s,” Dougherty writes. White sees the book as a “time capsule.” As it is. But it also remains a boffo resource for those hankering to make chicken Bengal for 12 or baklava for 50—or, of course, for anyone in charge of church suppers.