What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories
Viking, 2017, 320 pp., $27
Unable to sleep one night, food impresario extraordinaire Laura Shapiro pulled out a biography of diarist Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855), sister of the more famous William. She sought to lull herself back to sleep with the sweet, calm tale of young Dorothy keeping house for her brother at their home in Dove Cottage, enshrined in the glory of England’s Lake District. It might have worked; listen to how Shapiro puts it: “William devoting himself to poetry, Dorothy devoting herself to William, both of them aloft in reveries inspired by the mountains, the clouds, the birds and, of course, the daffodils.”
But after wearily skipping through a few chapters, Shapiro was suddenly wide awake again. Dorothy is at one point in the biography described as dining on black pudding— “that stodgy mess of blood and oatmeal”— served by a desultory cook in a dreary village remote from the beauty of the Lake District and the imagery of Dorothy’s own, well-known Grasmere Journal (1802) in which she recorded her time with her brother there.
Shapiro became intensely curious about whatever had happened to “daffodil girl,” as Shapiro calls her —eventually tracking the trail of clues from Dorothy’s own “food story.” That, in turn, led to Shapiro’s book about the lives of six famous women from different centuries and continents with “food right up front”—where she believes it belongs.
That’s because, according to Shapiro, “food always talks.” So opening a window on just what these six women—Rosa Lewis, Barbara Pym, Dorothy Wordsworth, Eva Braun, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Helen Gurley Brown—cooked and ate casts a very different light, she argues, on the usual narrative of their lives.
In the era of a global cultural bingeing on food, cookbooks, and celebrity chefs—a form of escapism, one suspects, from truly important but inedible political realities—that perspective might not seem so odd. But, as Shapiro points out, this gastromania we now behold is relatively recent, as well as focused on the now-fashionable intricacies of exploring food and cooking as ends in themselves. She has an entirely different way to use food in mind:
Biography as it is traditionally practised still tends to honor the old fashioned custom of keeping a polite distance from food. We’re meant to read the lives of important people as if they never bothered with breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or took a coffee break, or stopped for a hot dog on the street, or wandered downstairs for a few spoonfuls of chocolate pudding in the middle of the night. History respects the food stories of chefs and cookbook writers and perhaps takes note when a painter or a politician happens to be a gastronome as well; but in the published account of most other lives, the food has been lost.
Shapiro has long been fascinated by what prompts people to cook and eat the way they do, marveling at the emotional and psychological baggage they bring to the table, often without even noticing how it helps to define them. She is the author of books with such titles as Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century (2008), Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America (2005), and a (inevitable?) 2007 biography of Julia Child to boot.
Her latest offering seeks to elevate what is usually treated as insignificant domestic “trivia”—food habits—into a central mode of interpretation. What She Ate emerged out of a revelation: “What struck me as I followed the paper trail through each life was that while extraordinary circumstances produce extraordinary women, food makes them recognizable. If the emotional substance of these food stories rings familiar, it’s because they tend to be as messy and discomfiting as our own.”
Shapiro accepts that the women she chose to write about have already attracted enough scholarship, gossip, and anecdotes over the years to win a secure place in history. She still insists that digging deeper into each woman’s food story takes author and reader alike to a “more tenuous emotional realm’’ in understanding them. What she means by that she makes explicit: “It turns out our food stories don’t always honor what’s smartest and most dignified about us. More often they go straight to what’s neediest.”
This sort of orthogonal para-Freudian analysis risks becoming more an exploration of the author’s own tenuous intellectual realm than of her subjects. In determinedly linking the limited facts and records of food eaten—liked and disliked, picked at and gorged upon—with Shapiro’s own interpretation of their emotions and experiences at and beyond the table, she makes many leaps of faith between table and her subjects’ more well-known qualities. Sometimes she lands on her feet; other times she seems to land smack in the mashed potatoes, splashing gravy hither and yon. But she is still able to track enough of a culinary record to help justify her version of what was really going on underneath those very public lives.
It’s a diverse group Shapiro has chosen, to be sure. As she concedes, she can hear the objections of all the women to her choice of introducing each of them with the meal the author thinks sums her up. So just as Dorothy’s chapter begins with the mystery of the black pudding dinner, the Rosa Lewis chapter opens with Lewis whispering to Shapiro the secret of King Edward’s favorite meal: boiled bacon and broad beans. This for a former Cockney scullery maid who went on to become one of the most famous cooks in pre-World War I England, helped by the approbation of that same King Edward, and who was welcomed into all the great houses of London. “Rosa is demanding a rewrite: she wants an elegant French entrée that will assure her the place she deserves in gastronomic history,” Shapiro mocks gently.
Mrs. Roosevelt, too, talks directly to Shapiro, acting again as appetite medium: “Eleanor is lecturing me, patiently, on the progressive rationale behind her luncheon menu.” That’s because the White House menu in the Roosevelt era is generally regarded as the worst in the history of the presidency. Ernest Hemingway, invited to dine there in 1937, told his mother-in-law that it was the worst meal he had ever eaten. He belatedly realized he should have followed the example of his fellow invitee and Eleanor’s good friend, Martha Gelhorn, whom he was surprised to see devouring three sandwiches while waiting in New York for the flight to Washington. Apparently everyone who was anyone in DC knew the rule for eating with the Roosevelts: “When you are invited to a meal at the White house, eat before you go.”
But while most historians blame Eleanor and her indifference to food for the deterioration in the quality of culinary experience in the White House, Shapiro posits a different theory: “In truth, what was happening at the White house table didn’t reflect Eleanor’s disdain for food, it reflected a welter of complicated feelings about being First Lady at all—a job she had never wanted and the public face of a marriage that tormented her.”
Eva Braun’s epigraph is a cheery invitation to Albert Speer to join her in a farewell bottle of champagne and some sweets. The catch is that the farewell was in Hitler’s bunker at the end of World War II, where Hitler and his mistress had been hiding out for several days just before they planned to kill themselves.
For Barbara Pym, the opening of the chapter is a description from one of her books of a meal of pale macaroni and cheese—lacking both sufficient salt and cheese. Pym’s books were often dismissed as tales of drab English spinsters pouring tea for the clergy. But Shapiro points out that Pym drew inspiration and passion from recording daily English life around her, including the details of how and what food was consumed, in order to describe personal character, social class, and sense of place with delicate but discerning irony. “Her favorite place to watch human behaviour was a restaurant, for there she could sit quietly in the background while people interacted with food. Each glimpse of the intimate relationship between the personal and the plate cried out to her.”
Helen Gurley Brown had an entirely different relationship with food, and with men. Her life-long quest was to be sexually attractive to the “male gaze,” in particular to that of her husband David Brown. Her means of doing so was by remaining thin, thanks to her vigilant self-discipline about food. So Shapiro’s chapter about her opens with Brown recounting that she would never eat with her husband at home, merely bringing him a “simple little repast” on a tray—perhaps Lean Cuisine or spaghetti and meatballs. Sometimes, she might have muesli with chopped prunes and milk before midnight if her weight was in check. If not, it was back to tuna salad. Her dessert every night was an individual serving of sugar-free diet Jello with a dollop of Dannon light yogurt. “Fifty cals—heaven!”
Shapiro cannot resist extending such snatched glimpses of domestic habits into a more fulsome explanation of what drove these women’s emotional lives. So a young Dorothy Wordworth, for example, was ecstatic about the prospect of daily, ardent service to her massively talented brother, “so ardent she came to resemble one of those present day political wives whose gaze is permanently fixed on a god-like husband.” That included recording in her journal the details of quotidian living, what she fed him and what he liked to eat or even ignore, as he wrote poetry. Thus, for example: “While we were at Breakfast that is (for I had Breakfasted) he, with his Basin of Broth before him untouched & a little plate of Bread & butter, he wrote the Poem to a Butterfly.”
But William Wordsworth eventually married, creating a much more complicated domestic story that began with Dorothy fainting in bed on the wedding day. Shapiro raises but doesn’t answer historians’ questions about whether this reflected Dorothy’s incestuous love for her brother. She does, however, acknowledge that William’s marriage shifted the domestic center of gravity in Dove Cottage toward wife and mother Mary, and away from sister Dorothy, even as Dorothy remained with them for another quarter-century. Eventually, she went forth to be a “fireside companion” to her curate nephew in the unprepossessing village of Whitwick, and to the equally unprepossessing routine of more black pudding dinners.
What is beyond dispute is that Dorothy became increasingly ill and was treated with laudanum, an opiate, mixed with wine or brandy. By the time she did return to William’s home, she was suffering from the dementia that accompanied addiction. What came to matter most to her at that point in her life was food. She grew ever more demanding of ever more of it and steadily became more obese. Daffodil girl had completely disappeared from view, psychologically as well as physically.
By contrast, Rosa Lewis made her name and her unlikely career from a devotion to the preparation of food as a way of gaining entry into the drawing rooms as well as the kitchens of the most exclusive homes in London. She took a job in the home of the Compte de Paris, an heir to the French throne exiled to England when the French made a second attempt at republicanism. But while the count lived in London, a French chef naturally accompanied him and Rosa was soon assisting in serving dinner to royalty from all over Europe while learning culinary skills in high demand in this “obsessively social era.” She later worked in the kitchen of one of the most social hostesses of the lot, Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of Winston. When Lady Randolph’s royal guest, the future King Edward VII, made it known that he admired Rosa and her cooking, her social and culinary futures were assured. This was despite the social strictures of the time and the educational disadvantage of being a woman born to the lower classes when most English cooking was indeed terrible—though one would like to think still a cut above black pudding.
Rosa’s marital life was less successful, however. Her husband ran up huge debts while trying to manage the Cavendish hotel she bought with her own income. Rosa fired him from her life and business and based herself in what became the immensely stylish and popular Cavendish—at least until World War I changed English social tastes so much that she was left behind, pickled, as it were, in her reputation. Still, her 1952 funeral at St. James, Picadilly, was all she would have wanted, with piles of flowers sent by a roster of “brilliant names” from the London aristocracy.
In her prime, Rosa Lewis also introduced London to some of the tastes of the southern United States—which proved so popular that the luxury food shop Jacksons of Picadilly began stocking Virginia hams and brandied peaches.
Not that Rosa would ever have condoned the food tastes of Eleanor Roosevelt or comprehended “her bleak culinary reputation.” From early in their marriage, the Roosevelts did continue a Sunday night ritual wherein Eleanor made scrambled eggs for family and friends at the table in what was known as a “chafing dish.” But Eleanor’s interests from the 1920s onward were increasingly focused outside the home, particularly those involving women’s rights and a progressive political agenda.
In the midst of this activism she became interested in the science of home economics, which she defined as the effort to provide proper, utilitarian nourishment at low cost. She brought that effort to the White House in 1933, hiring a former acquaintance from the League of Women voters as housekeeper—Henrietta Nesbitt, who became the most reviled cook in presidential history.
By 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt was saying the main reason he wanted to win a fourth term was for the pleasure of firing Mrs. Nesbitt. Bess Truman finally did fire her, in exasperation. But why hadn’t Eleanor Roosevelt, given her husband’s antipathy to the food he was served?
Shapiro sounds sympathetic to the explanation of another biographer of the Roosevelts, Blanche Wiesen Cook, that this Eleanor’s way of seeking “revenge”—thrice daily—for her husband’s infidelity, which she first discovered back in 1918. In the White House, husband and wife almost always ate separately, with Franklin usually having meals in his study with his secretary, Missy LeHand, often after having a few friends over for cocktails.
But Shapiro’s main explanation is that Eleanor’s apathy about what was on her plate reflected her apathy about her marriage. Outside the confines of the White House, and later after Franklin’s death, Eleanor Roosevelt was very different, Shapiro argues. She was able to discover the delights of appetite and to learn “what food could mean when love did the cookin.”
Eva Braun was certainly in love with Hitler but did not go out in public with him, given the Führer’s constructed image of a man who had given himself wholly to the nation. He met Eva while she was still a teenager, and by the 1930s she was ensconced as the queen of Berghof, his mountain home.
Shapiro says that it was only at meals at Berghof that Eva was allowed to show herself off as Hitler’s beloved consort and “bask in the role for which she had trained by studying movie and fashion magazines.” That Hitler was a vegetarian apparently didn’t limit the appetites of his trusted inner circle of guests; he was served on a special tray while the guests feasted around him. His particular passion was sweets while hers was champagne. Shapiro still says that Eva treated food as a servant whose most important role was to keep her thin and looking beautiful in the many outfit she paraded in every day. Hitler believed women should be kept as far as possible from talk of politics, war, and world events; this suited Eva’s hollow-headed indifference to such issues perfectly.
But it is still remarkable, as demonstrated by her invitation to Speers, how sanguine she remained until the end. Hitler planned to shoot himself. Eva preferred taking cyanide. As she remarked to others: “I want to be a beautiful corpse.” Aged only 33 when she died, she probably was.
It seems that Helen Gurley Brown—very different from Eva Braun, and yet eerily similar in her joyful acceptance of the role of dieting sex object—was equally determined to maintain a similar fairy-tale quality in her own life. “David is a motion picture producer, forty-four, brainy, charming and sexy… And I got him,” she declared on the first page of what became her most famous book, Sex and the Single Woman, published in 1962. That Helen was no longer a single girl merely allowed her to give advice to those who were on how to also find and snare the men of their dreams. Such advice on sex was the basis of all her books as well as a constant theme of Cosmopolitan, of which she became editor in 1965.
But despite persistently declaring her passion for food, reciting recipes, and professing her delight in cooking for her husband (even if just heating up Lean Cuisine packages), the sort of sexual appeal for which Cosmopolitan and the persona of Helen Gurley Brown became famous was still based on the need for strict dieting: “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.” Be thin forever, she advised readers. Be thin at any price. And stay a “girl.” “Whatever your age you can stay cute and petite and sexually attractive,” she insisted to an interviewer years later, though this was hardly the message that dominated the alternative zeitgeist of the second half of the 1960s.
Not that Helen Gurley didn’t support feminist demands for equal pay and rights and abortion and affordable childcare. But to her, all that had no connection to staying a girl, or the reasons for it. “Perhaps that’s where we and Women’s Lib part company,” she wrote in 1970. “We are pleasing men not because they demand it or to get anything material from them but because we adore them, love to sleep with them, want one of our own and there aren’t enough to go around.”
In her subconscious is she really talking not about men but about that enormous hot fudge sundae she knows she’ll never eat? Is that food talking? Well, no one can really know—not Laura Shapiro and certainly not me.