Most of the names in this book were unfamiliar to me, but their food stories were still accessible. Laura Shapiro in What She Ate – Six Remarkable Women and the Food that Tells Their Stories, does a thorough job narrating six different women with very different lives, connecting and contrasting those lives with one universal human experience: food. That shared focus makes these pithy biographies quite evocative. Food is enjoyed or tolerated in context, and that context is biographical insight.
First we meet Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of the poet William (I’ve heard of him). Her story is told mostly from her own writings, and yet looking at her meals adds depth. The contrast of her quiet contentment as she recounts making “a wee Rhubarb Tart… for William” and the later, plain statement, “Dined on blood puddings” belies her consistent claims that she spent all her days gratified. I did not recognize the names of Rosa Lewis, cook, and Barbara Pym, novelist. Brash, Cockney Rosa Lewis cooked for the king himself in pre-WWI England, when the most respected food was French and all the respected chefs were French men. Barbara Pym could not keep herself from observing and writing about the “mundane,” always featuring food. Both lived lives of periodic triumph and disappointment. Their stories touch on a broader picture of British food in particular: a bit odd, a bit under-appreciated, sometimes terrible, but still loved.
The chapter on Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, is fascinating and disturbing: everybody eats, even Nazis. Especially bizarre is the juxtaposition of Braun’s life with that of Eleanor Roosevelt. Eva devoured sweets and champagne and gaily hosted Hitler’s associates, while Eleanor indifferently served shrimp and canned peas on toast at the White House formal table.
Eleanor Roosevelt is certainly the name in this book I was most familiar with. What I did not know was the notorious truth about food in the White House during FDR’s presidency: eat before you go. This has resulted in the oft-repeated maxim that Eleanor Roosevelt had no palette and couldn’t care less about what she put in her own mouth, let alone others’. But Shapiro suggests about Eleanor what she stated about Dorothy: our enjoyment of preparing and eating a meal is tied to our feelings about whom we prepare it for and share it with. For Eleanor, unfortunately, the White House and Franklin were not happy places or companions for eating. It is lovely to read that after FDR’s death, Eleanor continued to prosper on her own, eating and cooking enjoyable and enjoyed foods.
Last, we meet Helen Gurley Brown, a name perhaps I should have known: she made Cosmopolitan magazine what it is today. She had a well-documented, complicated relationship with food that echoes the other contradictions of her life. Again, focusing on that food presents her biography in a particularly memorable way.
This book is informative and thought-provoking. Food is just one part of a full life, but Shapiro makes it clear that it is one part that offers valuable perspective on the rest. We all eat, most cook, and women especially are encouraged to do both with a sizeable helping of mixed messages. Sprinkled through the featured lives is the idea that food is tied to a sense of belonging that becomes apparent when one writes a biography focusing on consumed meals. That angle easily highlights where the subject felt the happiest and most comfortable and where they did not. It is suggested in Shapiro’s pages that despite their various successes, some of these women were never quite comfortable. Others, perhaps, were too much so. But most were like most of us: living life’s ups and downs as well as possible, enjoying a meal or accepting sustenance as the opportunities presented themselves.
Top photo: Eleanor Roosevelt and tiered patriotic cake
Library of Congress