"What She Ate" by Laura Shapiro; Viking (320 pages, $27)
Learning Laura Shapiro's new book on women and food includes the stories of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, whose tenure was marked by some of the worst White House meals ever; Eva Braun, Adolf Hitler's mistress; and Helen Gurley Brown (did Cosmopolitan's iconic editor actually eat?) left me startled. It's sort of like lauding the Lucrezia Borgia of poisonous legend for a deft hand with seasoning.
Where is Julia Child? Lidia Bastianich? Fannie Farmer? Edna Lewis? But that's why "What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tell Their Stories" is such a fun read.
Spinning Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's famous saying, "tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are," Shapiro reveals the lives and times of these women through the food they ate. Besides those mentioned above, the list includes Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of the Romantic poet William Wordsworth; Rosa Lewis, the ambitious Cockney cook whose life inspired television's "The Duchess of Duke Street"; and Barbara Pym, the midcentury English novelist.
"Tell me what you eat, I longed to say to each woman, and then tell me whether you like to eat alone, and if you really taste the flavors of food or ignore them, or forget all about them a moment later," Shapiro writes in her introduction. "Tell me what hunger feels like to you, and if you've ever experienced it without knowing when you're going to eat next. Tell me where you buy food, and how you choose it, and whether you spend too much. Tell me what you ate when you were a child, and whether the memory cheers you up or not. Tell me if you cook, and who taught you, and why don't you cook more often, or less often, or better. Please, keep talking. Show me a recipe you prepared once and will never make again. Tell me about the people you cook for, and the people you eat with, and what you think about them. And what you felt about them. And if you wish somebody else were there instead.
"Keep talking," Shapiro continues, "and pretty soon, unlike Brillat-Savarin, I won't have to tell you what you are. You'll be telling me."
It's these sorts of questions about food and eating and self, Shapiro notes, that got her writing about food and women some 30 years ago. Her past work, including "Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century" (1986), "Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950's America" (2004), and "Julia Child: A Life" (2007), make her well-suited to write holistically about these six women.
Food is a means for Shapiro to frame their stories. There's the sisterly yet intense devotion of Dorothy Wordsworth for her brother, a focus which in her later years will turn to food itself; the unwillingness of Roosevelt to submerge herself in a public role and her discovery of "what food could mean when love did the cooking."); the willful obliviousness of Hitler's mistress, sipping purloined Champagne and nibbling on sweets amid what Shapiro describes as the "saga of starvation" that was of the Nazi regime; and Brown's obsession with her weight and body image. When Gloria Steinem asked Brown to "say something strong and positive about herself," her reply was "I'm skinny! I'm skinny!"
Each sharply drawn profile reflects the personality, the opportunities and challenges, and the times they lived in. Particularly well-executed is Shapiro's placement of Lewis' rise from kitchen to drawing room in the context of late Victorian and Edwardian culinary and social mores. By writing about these women and not focusing on gastronomy's usual suspects, Shapiro is able to use the unexpected context of the book to bring great insight into the roles and expectations of women and men, particularly during the 20th century.
Reading these stories, one after the other, one realizes how Shapiro deftly uses food to link one woman to another – and to us today. Wordsworth and Brown saw food through their men, she writes, while Braun and Lewis used food as a mark of rank. Brown may have splashed sex all over Cosmo's pages, but it was Pym, writing in and out of popular favor, who "loved food and she loved love, and most of all she loved the connection between them, which was writing."
Writing this book, Shapiro notes, has made her "aware of all the food stories that will never be told."
"The women in these pages were prominent in their time, and they're still visible in ours; but most women don't live that way," she wrote. "They never attract public attention, they don't leave boxes of their personal papers to delight historians, and unless they happen to be unusually captivated by cooking and eating, they don't write memoirs."
As a food writer, it's easy to understand Shapiro's curiosity. Yet, as a reader fascinated by the history of cooking and the table, "What She Ate" proves a deliciously satisfying read – these six stories are more than enough for now.