What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories
“What She Ate is for foodies, fashionistas, feminists, and for anyone who enjoys reading about meals as much as eating them.”
Laura Shapiro’s book about food and women could easily fit in several different sections of a library or bookstore. Part biography, part extended essay on gender and eating, and part gastronomical history, What She Ate explores the subject of food in the lives of four famous women, one infamous woman, and two largely forgotten women.
Rosa Lewis, a British cook, and Barbara Pym, a British novelist, are the two largely forgotten women. Eva Baun, Hitler’s mistress, is the infamous woman in the group. Dorothy Wordsworth, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Helen Gurley Brown, the decades-long presiding spirit at Cosmopolitan, are the famous, or at least the near-famous women.
From beginning to end, author Laura Shapiro plunges readers into the personal lives of the six remarkable figures she has selected for scrutiny. With a knack for storytelling, she offers capsule portrait of their relationships with husbands, family members, friends, and lovers. At the same time, she provides a series of snapshots of six distinct eras in history, roughly from the birth of the French Revolution, through Edwardian England to the arrival of the Atomic Age.
The author of three highly acclaimed narratives about American cooking and American cooks—Something from the Oven (2004), Perfect Salad (2008), and Julia Child (2009)— Shapiro steeped herself in the material for her new book for a decade. Moreover, she has shaped it in the way a creative pastry chef might shape a wholesome cake: so that it’s pleasing to the eye, tastes good, and is nourishing, too.
Dorothy Wordsworth, who appears at the start of What She Ate, and Helen Gurley Brown, who appears at the finish, serve as bookends. Dorothy seems so natural; Helen so artificial. Rosa Lewis and Barbara Pym, who appear in chapters two and five, look like two English sisters, while Eleanor Roosevelt and Eva Braun, who occupy the center of the book, are opposing figures of the 1930s and 1940s—one of them an apostle for democracy, the other a show-girl for fascism.
In What She Ate, Shapiro’s premise is that if you know what kinds of food and drink people put in their bodies you can tell what makes them tick. Brilliant-Savarin, the 19th century French author of The Physiology of Taste (1825), put it this way: “Tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are.”
More recently, Victor L. Lindlahr echoed Brilliant-Savarin in his book You Are What You Eat (1942). Contemporary cookbook and food writers, along with spiritual gurus and health-minded chefs such as Alice Waters, Annie Somerville, Wendy Johnson, Michael Pollan, and Eric Schlosser, have been saying more or less the same thing for decades, and especially since the food movement took off in 2000.
Dorothy Wordsworth and her famous brother, William, were briefly ardent followers of the French Revolution. They were also the mother and the father, respectively, of English romanticism that reached its apogee in creative works such as “Kubla Khan,” “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” Prometheus Unbound, The Prelude, and in Dorothy’s Journals in which she described in vivid detail how she and William lived while he wrote and she kept him going day in and day out.
Shapiro offers hefty chunks of Dorothy’s Journals that takes readers back to the Lake Country in England and to her “wilderness of dreams.”
Rosa Lewis rose through the ranks of British society and became a great chef, but never lost her Cockney accent and was never accepted by the elite. Eleanor Roosevelt chafed in her role as the First Lady and the wife of FDR. Housekeeping wasn’t for her, not in the White House, but she found her calling after his death in 1945 and learned to enjoy food. Eva Braun created the fascist version of femininity for Hitler’s Germany and enjoyed rich food plundered from occupied European countries. The Fuhrer himself binged on sweets and proudly chose to be a vegetarian, even as he oversaw the extermination of the Jews.
Barbara Pym loved to sit and watch people eat and then included descriptions of food in her many novels. Helen Gurley Brown, the original “sex in the city girl,” insisted on keeping her girlish figure, and, through Cosmopolitan, showed women how to keep their men. “She had no idea how to be a woman,” Shapiro writes.
Yes, Shapiro is judgmental, but she also has a light touch. In the Afterword in which she writes about herself, her husband, and their life in India, she observes, “Moving to a foreign country had undone me; and I don’t mean India. I mean marriage.”
What She Ate offers a useful reminder that food is trendy and that it gets caught up in politics, even when it doesn’t want to, and that some cultures have lagged woefully behind others when it comes to cuisine. Shapiro explains that there were no cookbooks to speak of in England in the 1940s for the simple reason that there was almost no food to eat. She also mentions British journalist and gourmet, Raymond Postgate, who wanted to form a “Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Food.”
Anyone who visited or lived in England, from say 1945 to 1975, will know what he meant. Now, food in England is infinitely better than it was in the post World War II years. London has as many good restaurants as Paris, and Dorothy Wordsworth, who enjoyed porridge with butter, would be surprised to find a generation of young chefs, both men and women, who have turned British cooking into an art form.
What She Ate is for foodies, fashionistas, feminists, and for anyone who enjoys reading about meals as much as eating them.