What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women & The Food That Tells Their Stories by Laura Shapiro has been described by critics as “tough, elegant and fresh,” “unique and delectable,” and “redeeming” all of food writing. It’s a fascinating book about six historical women, and their relationship to food. Structured in a linear fashion, the book begins with Dorothy Wordsworth in the early 19th century, and finishes with Helen Gurley Brown in the late 20th century, giving insight into how women’s relationship with food has changed, and how it has stayed the same. The book details the lives of prominent women like Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Lewis, and Eva Braun, through the surprisingly perceptive lens of food, telling the story not just of these particular women, but larger society, and the social and emotional impact food has on our lives.
We’re delighted to talk to Laura Shapiro about her new book.
Kelly Sarabyn: What She Ate was structured so that each woman had one chapter, and each subsequent profile was of a woman who lived later in time than the prior woman, implicitly highlighting how our culture’s relationship with food has evolved. How did you settle on starting in the early 19th century rather than, say, an earlier point in time? Did you have any key takeaways from how, on a social and emotional level, women’s relationship with food has changed over those two hundred years?
Laura Shapiro: I kept thinking I was going to find exactly that — big, important changes in the way women relate to food. After all, in the time that separates Dorothy Wordsworth from Helen Gurley Brown, just about everything to do with food changed and became modern — the science, the cooking, the transmission of recipes, and most of all the food itself. But when it came to actual changes in how we relate to food, I found much less than I thought I would. The meals these women shared with men, for instance, were inordinately powerful, they always stood out from other meals, despite the way notions of love, sex and marriage have evolved in 200 years. The definition of an ideal female body size changed again and again over time, but women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies has been a constant. I think there is something so intimate, so fundamental about our relationship with food that at some levels it’s eternal.
KS: It seems like a tough decision behind this book would be choosing which women to profile. Out of all the prominent women who lived during the two hundred years you covered, how did you select these particular women over other compelling options? Were there any women who almost made the cut?
LS: My choices were somewhat limited simply because of the nature of the research. I had to be able to find out what they ate — which means there had to be some kind of paper trail documenting the meals. Most women, even the educated, well-known women who might be expected to write diaries, letters and memoirs, don’t say a word about food. They take note of the weather, they write about what they’re reading and who proposed to them, but not a syllable about what they had for lunch. So I looked for women whose lives were open to my particular set of food questions.
I found I was also drawn to women who were a little bit unknowable — they had a mystery somewhere, a mystery I thought maybe I could reach with food.
And yes, I auditioned a few who didn’t make it. Fannie Hurst, one of the most successful fiction writers of the first half of the 20th century, had a fascinating life and a hilarious relationship with food, but her issue was dieting, and I already had two dieters in the book. So out she went, alas.
KS: An interesting theme that runs through the book is using food as a form of social power. This mostly occurred in the context of personal relationships, but Rosa Lewis used her cooking skills to rise from a lowly servant to a chef sought after by the English aristocracy. She was essentially a celebrity chef of her time, which was particularly remarkable, given the widespread sexism in the early 20th century. Today, there are popular celebrity chefs who are women, but the majority of acclaimed chefs are men. Why do you think that is, especially given women’s historical role as overseers of the kitchen? I felt like it was ultimately a bit obscure how exactly Rosa Lewis rose from a domestic servant to orbiting high society — whether Edward VII becoming smitten with her cooking (and perhaps her) was crucial, or whether she was simply so charming and capable, she was able to convince people she was the chef to have — if you had to pick a particular theory, what do you think accounted for Rosa Lewis’s ability to so decisively break down class and gender barriers that even today many people find unbreakable?
LS: It was quite a feat, on Rosa’s part, to rise as high as she did, and the historical record is a little fuzzy on how she did it, but a key point was the food. This was a time when London was food-mad — just the way New York and a lot of other cities are today — and a cook who could turn out the incredibly fine-tuned, elaborate and expensive cuisine that was in-demand at the top of society was certainly going to find success and wealth. But Rosa wanted to be accepted as a person, too; she wanted the lords and ladies to treat her as an equal. The closest she could get was to treat the lords and ladies as equals — to talk to them, and about them, as if they were her dearest friends. It was a precarious balancing act, and her Cockney accent kept it going — it told the world that she wasn’t really trying to fool anyone. Then, when she stopped cooking, the whole charade fell apart. So Rosa’s story is very distinctively about food as an agent of class identity.
KS: Eleanor Roosevelt, in your interesting interpretation, had horrible food served in the White House as a form of payback for her husband’s neglect of their marriage, specifically his love affairs. Eleanor served dishes such as “’Shrimp Wiggle,’ consisting of shrimp and canned peas heated in white sauce, on toast” and “cold and dried out” meats, and any number of kidneys on toast. When Ernest Hemingway visited the White House, he said it was the worst meal he had ever had.
I think most of us are familiar with the idea that serving or giving food can be an expression of love, but it’s not as common, culturally, to think of using food as a form of revenge or displeasure. There’s been a dialogue recently about the long-term costs of serving lousy in food in many of our institutions — public schools, hospitals, and prisons — but those conversations have focused on the physical effects of poor nutrition, and less so about the emotional effects. Do you think, implicitly, those eating in these institutions understand the poor quality of food as an expression of emotional disregard?
LS: Prison food is a special case, because notions of punishment are so intertwined with it, but something else is operating when we’re served terrible food in schools or hospitals. The institutional food system tells us that food is a commodity, that we should value it chiefly on the basis of how cheap it is, and that it doesn’t merit any more attention than the plastic tray it’s served on. As Americans, we’re accustomed to this way of thinking, not just about institutional food but about supermarket food and our own daily meals. There’s a peculiarly American feeling that only special-occasion food has to be good — everything else can be merely tolerable. Worst of all, as far as I’m concerned, is the fact that so many of us have handed our children over to the food industry to be raised. We’re letting manufacturers and fast-food places decide what our children are going to eat. So children grow up with a palate and a taste memory born of artificial flavors and sweeteners, which is awful, and a relationship with food that isn’t about either food or relationships.
KS: Eva Braun’s relationship with food was less consumptive — she was always worried about her figure — than social and festive. She loved playing host to Hitler’s prominent guests, and celebrating with Champagne. Throughout the war, as millions starved, Braun never lacked for quality food to serve at her and Hitler’s social gatherings. She purposely shielded herself from knowledge about the tragedy and destruction unfolding outside her doors, silencing people when they tried to discuss politics with her. The contrast between Braun’s view of food as a vehicle to host fun parties, and the vast starvation her romantic partner was inflicting on humanity could not be starker. It reminded me of Hannah Arendt’s claim that Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust, was an example of the “banality of evil” since Eichmann convinced himself he was just following other people’s orders, with no choice in the matter. While Eva Braun wasn’t issuing orders, similar to Arendt’s interpretation of Eichmann’s mindset, she also seemed to ensconce herself so deeply in her limited social sphere, she, in her own mind, freed herself from any responsibility for the hell that was propping up her life. How was Eva Braun able to maintain such a bubble of delusion? Was there any sign this bubbled cracked, even for a few moments? Would you say Eva Braun was evil?
LS: It’s impossible to know whether that bubble ever broke, since we have so little first-hand information about Eva’s life. We do know that she was living under a lot of stress during the last year of the war, watching Hitler’s health disintegrate and hearing whatever she heard about how badly the war was going; so if she were ever going to face reality, it would have been then. And I don’t believe she ever did face reality. In fact, moving in to the bunker seems to have made that bubble even stronger. When I read her last letters and her last conversation with Speer — where she says she just doesn’t understand how everything could have gone wrong, and she can’t figure out why innocent people, meaning themselves, are being put through such hard times and suffering — it’s quite clear that she has never, ever opened her eyes. As to whether she’s “evil” — I’d say that she was a knowing and willing supporter of evil, so yes, she is fully implicated.
KS: Barbara Pym was a novelist who carefully depicted food and its preparation in her books. Both in her own food life, and in her fiction, Pym was focused on what we might call the ordinary, detailing what middle-class, mid-century Englanders ate in their everyday lives. Her novels — described as quiet for their focus on regular people, and their relationships — fell out of favor for almost two decades, before her career was resurrected, late in her life, by two male writers’ identifying her as one of the most underrated writers of the last 75 years. To what degree does the publishing industry’s long rejection of Pym’s work exemplify a judgment about the importance of women and the domestic sphere? Have we moved past that, or is the combination of a woman author and a domestic subject still unlikely to find critical acclaim due to cultural judgments about its seriousness and importance in human life?
LS: I think fiction by women, and even fiction oriented towards domesticity, does have a chance nowadays that it didn’t in Pym’s time. It’s at least possible for a woman to get good reviews for a novel set within home life, or a seemingly humble personal world. I still wonder whether our definition of important fiction is big enough to encompass subjects like Pym’s. When somebody decides that the “great American novel” isn’t necessarily Moby-Dick, maybe it’s The Awakening, or My Antonia — okay, then we’ve gotten somewhere.
KS: After all your research, was there one meal in these women’s lives that you would love to be able to try, or one meal that seemed the most egregiously terrible or depressing? Helen Gurley Brown’s description of her nightly dessert of “sugar-free diet Jell-O” with a spoonful of light yogurt on top struck me as particularly unappealing, sounding more like a mix of artificial flavors and textures than the “heaven!” she described it as.
LS: I would happily have joined Prudence, in Pym’s Jane and Prudence, for her comfort lunch after Fabian breaks up with her. Smoked salmon, a bit of chicken, a ripe peach, good coffee — perfect!
KS: Thank you for joining us!
Laura Shapiro has written on every food topic from champagne to Jell-O for The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, Gourmet, and many other publications. She is also the author of three classic books of culinary history. You can buy the bestselling What She Ate here.