Culinary Biographies of Six Surprising Women

Book review: What She Ate, by Laura Shapiro (Amazon / Book Depository)

Culinary historian and longtime Newsweek writer Laura Shapiro examines the lives of six very different women through the lens of their relationships to food, cooking, and culinary culture in this lively, readable group biography.

“Tell me what you eat,” wrote the philosopher-gourmand Brillat-Savarin, “and I shall tell you what you are.’ It’s one of the most famous aphorisms in the literature of food, and I thought about it many times as I was probing the lives of the six women in this book. Food was my entry point into their worlds, so naturally I wanted to know what they ate, but I wanted to know everything else, too.

The women are quite a mix, making an interestingly varied set: Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of poet William; Rosa Lewis, an Eliza Doolittle-esque Cockney cook and caterer who served the high society of Edwardian England; First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt; Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress(!); British novelist Barbara Pym; and legendary Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown.

Noticeably absent from this selection is anyone of color. Race isn’t a topic in the stories here, beyond quickly noting a few less-than-savory attitudes towards Africans or African-Americans. This is more than disappointing; it seems like a remarkably untapped opportunity, given the strength of the relationship between food, culture and identity that Shapiro explores. The noticeable lack makes the end product feel culturally imbalanced.

As much of a shame as this is (and I felt like it needed addressed before anything else) the stories that are presented are worth reading. In some cases, they veer further into general biography than foodoir (I learned that word from Shapiro and I love it) but with a quirky, unusual twist.

Some of these women are clearly household names, others lesser so. But even for the well-known, Shapiro has a knack for surprises, digging up parts of their biographies that show something new. Plainly women had been feeding humanity for a very long time, but for some reason only the advertising industry seemed to care,” Shapiro explains, and she’s right. There’s always more to food – the culture, the era, the social climbing, the romance, heartbreak, or deprivation – than simply a meal.

I loved learning about Eleanor Roosevelt’s intense, contradictory relationship with food, especially during her White House years, despite her own self-professed lack of interest in all things culinary. Yet she was active in bringing the subject of home economics to US schools and households, and at the heart of that was food preparation, nutrition and feeding families. She also presided over White House dinners and entertaining during the Second World War, a time of food insecurity coupled with heightened patriotism in the US. This influenced her decisions and menu planning considerably, and makes a completely different case for even her son’s assertion that food was fuel to her and nothing more, like gas in a car.

In addition to Roosevelt’s chapter, I especially appreciated the section on Cosmopolitan editor and lifelong dieter/borderline anorectic Helen Gurley Brown. She initially seems an odd choice for this collection, but Shapiro shows how a troubled relationship with food and eating sheds light on the personality involved, and says a lot about the culture of the time and women’s place in it, especially related to the workplace.

“For Helen, dieting was a mission that went well beyond weight loss. It was a crusade against every enemy she had ever imagined lurking in her future, from poverty to spinsterhood to a pitiable old age. Fat – measured by a tiny increase in the number on the scale, a tiny change in the fit of a skirt – was the enemy that stood in for all the rest.”

Brown loves diet sugarfree Jello made with one cup of water instead of four, so as to get the strongest taste out of the chemically sweet lump of rubber. She tops it with artificially sweetened diet light yogurt, and delights in this treat. Telling, isn’t it? Meanwhile she was writing a decidedly unappetizing-sounding Cosmo-styled cookbook when she avoided any normal semblance of eating herself. It was just fascinating.

I was initially shocked to see Eva Braun among those covered here, and not sure what to think about it. We get a small tour through Eva’s infamous relationship, and the differences in food preference between her and Hitler (he being vegetarian most of the time). Their story is juxtaposed with that of the many starving, often on Hitler’s orders, in Europe at that time.

“But the truth is, you never just eat. No matter how hungry you are, it’s never just food,” Shapiro writes in Braun’s chapter, but it applies universally, not only to the women depicted here. Shapiro wholeheartedly makes her point in that line, even if at times the stories did stray a little far from the culinary aspect. But she has a smoothly readable style that makes her stories engaging, without any of the unnecessary flourishes or melodramatic descriptions of some overly serious foodoirs.

She also writes an afterword explaining her interest in women and their relationships to food and cooking, and how her own interest in these topics was sparked. She had been a newlywed living with her husband in India, and admits that the “pleasures of cooking” were lost on her. “Cooking for fun? Why not gravedigging for fun?” she quips.

This exposure to a vastly different culture, the connections she developed to it and simultaneous disconnection from home, all while exploring her new role as a “wife” (and whatever that should mean) in the 1970s sparked curiosity about other women and how food defined them or they it, whatever role it played in their lives.

This peek into her personal story was completely tantalizing, I would read a memoir about that so fast. Write that one next, please!

What She Ate:
Six Remarkable Women & the Food That Tells Their Stories
by Laura Shapiro
published July 25, 2017 by Viking

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.

Amazon / Book Depository

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