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What She Ate

512EKwsnRSL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_   Every day we make decisions about what food we will put into our mouths; Laura Shapiro’s What She Ate promised a glimpse into how five famous women in history survived.  From Dorothy Wordsworth, the frequent muse to her brother poet William, to Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan, Shapiro offers her research on how circumstances reflected these women’s choices in food.  More an historical perspective than a prospectus of menus, Shapiro outlines portions of each woman’s life, offering delectable information but not always detailing the daily regimen of food items the title promised.

If you know the history of William Wordsworth’s long suffering spinster sister who loyally lived and cooked for him in Dove Cottage in the beautiful Lake Country until he married the capable Mary Hutchinson, you may remember her as the inspiration for the poem Daffodils.   Sadly, Dorothy’s energetic role declined into overweight chronic illness and dementia, reflected in Shapiro’s notes of Dorothy’s food choices changing from the thick gingerbread and delicate gooseberry pies to the awful blood pudding and finally porridge with more butter than grain.

The story of Rosa Lewis is more about how this self-educated Cockney woman became the most famous caterer in Edwardian England.  Shapiro’s references to Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion playing in the theater at the time grounded the timeline for me, but I couldn’t help comparing Rosa to the Downton Abbey cook who would have lived at the same time and also cooked for the Prince of Wales, later King.   With famous French Chef Escoffier as her model, Lewis cooked exquisite French food for the English aristocracy, preparing  elaborate ten course meals, including her local versions of quail pie and Yorkshire pudding.  After World War I, she too declined, as did her famous restaurant/hotel the Cavendish, going from roast duck to plover, but Shapiro concentrates more on what Lewis cooked and who she cooked it for – we can only guess she ate some of her own food.

Since Eleanor Roosevelt “didn’t care what she ate {and} had no palate for food,” she seems an unlikely target for this list of women; however, the promise of food affecting the brain had me reading on.  Supposedly, formal dinners at the White House had terrible food (a nod to the Depression) and expecting the worst, diners often ate before they arrived.  A typical menu might be breaded fish with marsmallow pudding, but privately and separately (they usually did not dine together) FDR dined on roast beef and cocktails, and Eleanor’s expertise with the chafing dish often delivered coddled eggs.   More pages are devoted to her relationship to her mother-in-law and Lucy Mercer and later to her devotion to causes than to the food in her life.

Despite her advocacy for the new home economics major at Cornell University, Eleanor was more devoted to politics than nutrition.  Foods produced in the university laboratory kitchens inspired her to cooking cheap and simple foods – prune pudding is mentioned.  Later, on her own with women friends at Val-Kill Cottage, she would make salads and a pancake dessert, a layer cake with maple syrup.  As with the first two women in the book, Eleanor Roosevelt’s tastes changes as she aged; for her, life and food became better when she was away from her husband.

Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, is another unlikely candidate for this group of women, yet Shapiro focuses on the champagne and cake behind the scenes.  To sustain Hitler’s image, Braun gave interviews with magazines (Life, The Saturday Evening Post) and noted her expertise with potato dumplings and apple strudel.  Privately, she preferred salads.  Hitler was a vegetarian and had special meals prepared only for him, while others at the table dined on food no longer available in the Europe he held hostage.

Shapiro focuses more clearly on food when she writes about British novelist Barbara Pym.  By reviewing Pym’s extensive notebooks, Shapiro was able to connect the author’s observations to her fiction. Her diaries reflected her attention to the details of food often repeated in her fiction, for example, a note about “lettuce dressed with oil and salt, gruyere cheese and greengages – crusty bread” she had eaten in a restaurant found its way into her famous novel Excellent Women.   Shapiro describes Pym’s decline into obscurity and her resurrection years later through an article in the Times Literary Supplement, naming her as most underrated author of the century; soon after her Quartet in Autumn “where most of the food reflects the narrow, often lonely circumstance of the four main characters,” was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  Shapiro says Pym would eat anything – fine food or frozen dinners.  When at publisher’s luncheons or dining out with friends she noted having lobster, smoked salmon, profiteroles but at home she cooked fish fingers and apple tart, often adding spices from India when she had them.

Finally, Helen Gurley Brown rounds out this small group.  A woman notoriously thin and always on a diet, she created her own cookbook – The Single Girls’s Cookbook (I once had a copy).  I could not connect how Brown who often had jello for dinner and considered a plate of poached fish a treat, could create a cookbook full of beef stews and decadent desserts.  But the book was meant for the single girl trying to catch a man through his stomach, and Shapiro spends a number of pages detailing how Helen chased her eventual husband David Brown.  Brown’s eating habits were miserable with only staying thin as the goal; Shapiro notes Brown must have always been hungry.

Styling herself as s culinary historian, Shapiro did extensive research for the book, but the result seems more like short biographies of each woman, with a nod to food.  Although the descriptions of well-known historical events sometimes seemed overdone, I did learn more about each woman than I had known before.  The theme has possibilities – perhaps Shapiro will write a sequel – how did food influence other women in history?  Florence Nightingale, Beatrix Potter, Alice Waters, and M.F.K Fisher would be good candidates.  Whose meals would you like to know better?

 

 

 

 

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