‘What She Ate’ offers food for thought on lives of six notable women
In the closing days of the Third Reich, Eva Braun kept drinking Champagne and eating German apple cake, desperate to maintain a semblance of normalcy as bombs fell around the Berlin bunker where she and Adolf Hitler hid.
It may seem glib to discuss the dining habits of Nazi leaders and their companions while that same regime intentionally starved millions, but food played the role of promise and propaganda during World War II. “The Führer repeatedly said, and I repeat after him, if anyone has to go hungry, it shall not be the Germans but other peoples,” Hermann Göring announced in 1942, and indeed, almost half of what Germany consumed during the war came from the countries it occupied.
Culinary historian Laura Shapiro’s new book, “What She Ate,” profiles six women in history, telling their life stories through their relationships with food. Braun is the least empathetic, as she lived “encased in a sphere of make-believe morality” until her death, Shapiro writes. But for Braun, like others, food took on a deeper significance.
The subjects include Rosa Lewis, a British chef known as the “Queen of Cooks,” who used food to climb the social ladder and was rumored to have had an affair with Edward VII before he ascended to the throne in the United Kingdom. There’s also Helen Gurley Brown, the longtime Cosmopolitan editor and the author of “Sex and the Single Girl.” Brown had a complex relationship with food and often turned to dieting, eating celery sticks and sugar-free Jell-O, and proclaiming that “skinny to me is sacred.”
The impetus for “What She Ate” came from a passage Shapiro discovered in a biography of Dorothy Wordsworth, devoted sister to William Wordsworth, the Romantic poet. She kept house for her brother in the quiet and beautiful Lake District of England. Their idyllic country life changed when William married and Dorothy wound up living in a distant village with her nephew. Shapiro was surprised to read that a cook served them a dinner of black pudding, a type of blood sausage.
“It’s kind of a mess of blood and oatmeal. I mean, it’s a beloved British thing and they still eat it with great pleasure, but it sure didn’t sound like Dorothy Wordsworth to me,” Shapiro said in a phone interview.
Dorothy’s journals from her time living with William are filled with references to the gooseberry tarts and gingerbread she baked, the rum she bottled and the apples she picked from the orchard. She would recall visits from friends, the meals they shared and the poetry that was read.
“Cooking, for Dorothy, was inextricable from her life with William: to serve him food was to reinforce all the emotions that bound them,” Shapiro writes. But in her later years, as Dorothy descended into sickness and dementia, the black pudding seemed to symbolize her decline.
Shapiro had the idea to look at other women’s lives through the food they prepared and ate. She avoided culinary professionals, instead choosing women who weren’t necessarily known for what they ate. “You don’t have to have written a cookbook to have a relationship with food,” she said.
The novelist Barbara Pym didn’t write cookbooks; she wrote widely praised works of fiction that featured spinsters, clergy and sessions of afternoon tea. The tea “plays so many symbolic roles that another writer would have had to create a whole slew of walk-on characters to say what Barbara says with a cup,” Shapiro writes.
The novels Pym published from the 1950s through the ’70s are full of food, and Shapiro works like a forensic scientist to figure out how “boiled chicken with white sauce” might have been prepared. Pym’s characters ate well, despite the low opinion foreigners are thought to have of British cooking, and she enjoyed describing their meals in her novels, even if her publishers and editors didn’t see the need for it.
“What is wrong with being obsessed with trivia?” Pym asked in her notebook, and Shapiro could have wondered the same thing.
Food was of minimal importance to Eleanor Roosevelt, or at least that’s what everyone around the first lady believed. “By all accounts, the food in the Roosevelt White House was the worst in the history of the presidency,” Shapiro writes, and most people who were invited for a meal there knew to eat beforehand.
Shapiro offers several explanations for Eleanor’s disdain for homemaking, including her frustration with her overbearing mother-in-law, her husband’s infidelities and a lack of interest in the traditional duties of the first lady.
Eleanor Roosevelt hired an inexperienced housekeeper to oversee the White House kitchen, resulting in barely edible meals like Jellied Bouillon Salad and Eggs Mexican (rice topped with bananas and fried eggs). Roosevelt often was traveling across the country to campaign for minimum-wage laws and equal pay for women, and food was the last of her concerns. She also developed an interest in the burgeoning field of home economics, in which food was utilitarian, and the priority was cost and nourishment, not taste or enjoyment.
Shapiro does find some cases, though, in which Roosevelt did enjoy food, and they all took place outside of the White House. At a weekend in the country with some women friends, she wrote, she enjoyed making salads and setting a pretty table. For an intimate friend and former bodyguard, Earl Miller, she happily baked biscuits and made an applesauce cake. When she wasn’t “the President’s wife,” Shapiro writes, Eleanor Roosevelt “learned what food could mean when love did the cooking.”
The book’s afterword includes Shapiro’s effort to reconcile her own experience with food. She married in the 1970s and moved with her husband to India, where she was surprised to find herself desperate to fill a traditional domestic role of cooking American dishes for her husband.
“It was a wonderful time to be a feminist,” she said. “So there I was, a very happy, hard-working feminist. I found myself married and plummeted back into the 1950s, which was not an image or a world that I ever wanted to be in.”
Soon she learned to master vegetable curries and fried veggie pakoras, based on recipes in the Time-Life book “The Cooking of India.” Like the six women she profiles in “What She Ate,” Shapiro learned that understanding her relationship with food could help untangle other anxieties about career, family and the meaning of home.