Jennifer Reese the author of “Make the Bread, Buy the Butter,” writes the food blog the Tipsy Baker.
That this reviewer, a food writer and lifelong cookbook collector, opened a book titled “What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories” with a slightly weary sigh suggests that our appetite for food narratives might be close to sated. That after reading food historian Laura Shapiro’s bracing first essay I devoured the rest of her book in one sitting suggests that there’s plenty of room left for work like Shapiro’s.
Food writing is often unrigorous, more emotional than cerebral. But Shapiro approaches her subject like a surgeon, analytical tools sharpened. The result is a collection of essays that are tough, elegant and fresh.
Shapiro starts from the premise that “everyday meals constitute a guide to human character” and composes her portraits by poring over grocery lists, diaries and third-person accounts of sometimes abysmal dinner parties. Of the figures she chose to profile, only two had completely healthy relationships with food. Rosa Lewis, the Edwardian-era caterer whose life inspired the BBC series “The Duchess of Duke Street,” rose from Cockney scullery maid to fixture of the British aristocracy on the strength of her turtle soup and truffles boiled in champagne. Shapiro’s sketch of this salty character doubles as a concise social-culinary history of early-20th-century London.
The British novelist Barbara Pym also used food to advance her career. Pym enjoyed teasing out the connections between table and character, as does Shapiro, who traces the jottings in Pym’s diaries to the meals of roast duckling and blancmange that vivify her sly, undersung tales of vicars and spinsters.
But many of the possible uses and meanings of food are less wholesome. The other women in this book variously gorged on, weaponized, disdained and feared food. What did these dysfunctions say about their lives? Shapiro’s opening essay on the poet and diarist Dorothy Wordsworth is a dazzler, a work of inspired literary sleuthing. Shapiro reconstructs Wordsworth’s youth via the repeated, offhand references to food in her early diaries (“I made bread & A wee Rhubarb Tart & batter pudding”), which she likens to “the gently recurring rhymes in a sonnet.” Wordsworth began her adult life cooking simple, delicious meals for her brother, the Romantic poet William, with whom she was extremely (some have said incestuously) close. But after William’s marriage, Wordworth gradually settled into the often thankless role of the family’s “all-purpose spinster.” The cheerful food allusions grew scanter and grimmer until they stopped altogether. Wordsworth found a way to rebel, though. Shapiro’s account of the final chapter of Wordworth’s eating life is too chilling to spoil here.
Shapiro has less success getting inside the pretty head of Eva Braun, Adolf Hitler’s mistress, but we probably aren’t missing much: Braun’s head appears to have been empty. Shapiro shows us a vapid, childlike woman who ate very little in order to stay slender. She appears as a decorative charmer, champagne flute in hand, fluttering around Hitler at his banquets, softening the face of the Third Reich straight to the end. Shortly before her death, holed up in the Berlin bunker with Hitler and his henchmen, she was still keeping up appearances, and brightly offered cake and Moët et Chandon to an astonished visitor.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Eleanor Roosevelt was ensuring that everyone who dined at the White House endured an epically dreadful meal. If all you ever read about the former first lady is this essay, the strongest in the book, you’ll understand her strengths and vulnerabilities, as well as the possibly subconscious ways she used food to channel her resentments. Upon arriving at the White House, Roosevelt installed “the most reviled cook in presidential history” and refused ever to fire her. For the next 12 years, the Roosevelts sat down daily to leathery roasts, watery vegetables and atrocities such as “Eggs Mexican,” a melange of fried eggs, bananas and rice. Shapiro builds a strong case that Roosevelt hired and kept this incompetent cook to spite and punish her husband for his inattention and affairs.
Indeed, the only dish in this book that sounds as revolting as Eggs Mexican is Helen Gurley Brown’s version of hot buttered rum. It called for Butter Buds, a packet of Equal, rum and hot water. Cheers?
For Brown, the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine from 1965 to 1997, fat was disgraceful and calories a diabolical force to be resisted at all costs. Shapiro didn’t have to dig deep to uncover Brown’s pathology as Brown, a self-described “grown-up anorectic,” crowed about it constantly: “I have dumped champagne (which I adore) into other people’s glasses when they weren’t looking or, in a real emergency, into a split-leaf philodendron, wrapped eclairs in a hanky and put them in my purse, once in an emergency, sequestered one behind the cushion of an upholstered chair — in a napkin of course.”
Napkin or no, that was a rotten thing to do to someone’s chair. But for Brown, thinness trumped etiquette. She emerges as both formidably accomplished and, literally, stunted. Shapiro doesn’t delve into the ways that Brown, unlike the other women in the book, inflicted her food obsessions on the culture at large. This might have been worth a few pages. For decades, Cosmo was displayed at supermarket checkout stands to be studied by waiting children and adults alike. Brown’s nearly naked models and lurid coverlines juxtaposing sex and slenderness helped shape — or perhaps the right word is warp — a generation’s attitude toward food and the female body.
Indeed, Brown would be a sorry figure with which to end this splendid book if the very existence of this book were not evidence that the values she touted have shifted. While thinness is still prized, more forgiving standards of beauty have been embraced since Brown’s heyday. And a vibrant food culture has burgeoned, one that has spawned a rich body of literature to which “What She Ate” is just the latest addition.
By Laura Shapiro
Viking. 320 pp. $27