When I start in to read a book that I plan to review, I have a few tools I like to use. A notepad and pencil, of course, and a set of colored sticky signals, to mark the pages with the juicy or illustrative quotes that liven up a review. More than just aides-mémoire, these devices provide the necessary critical distance for thoughtful consideration of each book. I duly gathered them when I began reading What She Ate.
And then I forgot about them, and surrendered to the pleasure of her prose. From the opening pages of the Introduction, Shapiro captured me and kept me enthralled until I had finished the entire book. (And it was a surprise to me to discover, by looking through the back matter, that there are footnotes! No obtrusive numbers to interrupt the flow, no, she referenced the text in the notes by quoting phrases. So thoughtful.)
The six women profiled in these pages couldn’t be more different, in their lives, accomplishments, and most of all, their attitudes towards food. The intersections of life with their appetites are explored for insights into character and motivation. Some of those insights are surprising.
In researching these lives, Shapiro aims to resurrect that which has been lost by (male) historians’ erstwhile attitude that food preparation and consumption is irrelevant to history. By asking what each woman ate and why, by going “food first” into biography, she casts a new light on every prospect. Consider her original inspiration for the book: a reference to a supper of black pudding from Dorothy Wordsworth’s diary, a signal of the start of her decline from a useful life as facilitator of brother Williams’ poetic profession to her later years as an addled, obese invalid.
The chapter on Rosa Lewis’ career as caterer and hotelier in Edwardian London is the only one focusing on a food professional. Shapiro uses it to explore the attitudes of society towards working women and culinary fashions of the time. And she debunks Eleanor Roosevelt’s reputation for being indifferent to what she ate – the White House was infamous for its bad food during her reign as First Lady, not because she didn’t care, but because, perhaps, it was Eleanor’s revenge on Franklin for his unfaithfulness.
Shapiro’s most surprising choice must be Eva Braun. Hitler’s mistress – what could be creepier? But even the descriptions of meals in the orbit of the Fuhrer become a source of eerie fascination. It does seem as if this was the least fruitful research subject of the lot, however – the distance between Eva and us is never breached, not least because she never ate much, seeking to maintain her slimness to please the man in her life.
By contrast, Barbara Pym, the British writer, can be cozied right up to. Her novels were full of food descriptions, and her career spanned the years from post-WWII rationing through the 1970’s. Shapiro gives us a survey of the British food scene in real life and as reflected in Pym’s work.
Lastly, Helen Gurley Brown. Her relationship towards food was complicated by a desire to be forever thin. Eternally dieting, she was consumed by one goal, which she articulated in every issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine: to have fun, you must attract men; to attract men, you must be skinny. It was a twisted, pre-feminist attitude which she held all her life.
And as if the stories of these women were not enough to send you searching for this book, Shapiro wraps up with a little autobiographical sketch of her own adventures in cooking as a new bride in India. I can identify with her initial desperation, and then her eventual coping. She writes with equal grace about all of it.
What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories, by Laura Shapiro, Viking, NY, 2017; available July 25.