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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What to Read (Listen to) Next

51M04zBndRL._SL150_  After reading Sam Anderson’s teaser in the New York Times Sunday magazine – New Sentences from Dan Brown’s Origin: A Novel – I ordered the book on line from my library, but I am number 297 on the waiting list.  Although I read Brown’s The Da Vinci Code years ago, I steered away from his other books when Tom Hanks became the image of Robert Langdon – I had imagined Pierce Brosnan as the professor/adventurer.

Origin is number five in the series with Robert Langdon,  and this one promises the secrets of the universe with predictions for the future.  Anderson actually makes the case for not reading the book, but Peter Conrad for The Observer says it may the antidote to the real world –  ” a specimen of phoney fiction, expertly designed to confuse the credulous…{Dan Brown’s} deranged fantasy increasingly looks like our daily reality…”

Sounds like fun and I have too many credits on Audible – maybe I’ll just listen to the abridged version, or maybe instead –

download Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied Sing.51C0X7VufEL._SL150_

What are you listening to?

 

Escaping into Yourself – Lions

Unknown   A small town on the Colorado Plains, with a sign off the interstate directing passersby to the “ghost town,” frames Bonnie Nadzam’s Lions, a complicated allegory of the conflict between being true to your roots while yearning for a better life.  Nancy Pearl of National Public Radio (NPR) compared Nadzam’s story to books by Kent Haruf, but its mysterious message, ambiguous hero, and haunting setting reminded me of the Man Booker 2016 longlisted book, The Many by Wyl Menmuir .

Nearly deserted but for the one bar across from the one restaurant, a dive serving strange combinations of sandwiches and hearty stews, both on the one short street, the town has housed the Walker family for generations.  The latest in the long line of talented welders, Jim, declines offers for more money in the city, sometimes trading for food or other items when the  locals cannot pay.  His reputation brings in enough work to keep him busy; when it does not, he spends his off-time leisurely reading paperback Westerns and eating canned peaches and sardines in his shop,  Life is good for Jim; he doesn’t seem to need or want much.

Although he has trained his son, Gordon, to follow in his trade, Gordon’s girlfriend, Lizzie   wants to escape.  The two are the only young people in town, and Lizzie yearns to go to college, and never come back.

After descriptions of the stark landscape and the despondence lingering in the air, Nadzam begins her story with a stranger and a dog coming into town.  The mystery of his background is never solved, but his death triggers a series of events leading to a confrontation.

When Jim suddenly dies of a heart attack, his dying wish imprisons his teenage son to a life of welding and a mysterious bondage to care for someone living in the hills.  For years, Jim has carried supplies to a site miles out of town, staying for days, and then returning to his welding.  The local gossip created mythology around these trips, delegating Jim as a savior for a long-lost Native, possibly now a ghost, who lives in a hut in the hills.  Later, Jim’s wife laughs off the lore by saying she always thought Jim’s out of town excursions were merely his way of escaping for awhile, but Nadzam nurtures the possibility of someone dependent on Jim’s visits, and mysteriously never offers an answer.

Determined to leave, Lizzie convinces Gordon to enroll in college, leaving his mother in the care of the neighboring bartender and eatery owner.  After a quick trip to Walmart on the way, Gordon helps Lizzie move into her dorm room, and goes to his own dorm, unpacking his father’s favorite chair and paperbacks, but never attending classes.  Within weeks, Jim is ready to return, stealing off in the middle of the night, leaving Lizzie behind.

From here the story becomes even more obscure.  Gordon returns only briefly to unload his father’s chair, then drives off into the hills with the familiar supplies his father often brought.  When his truck is found deserted on the road, Lizzie returns to help with the search, convinced he is hiding somewhere.

What happens to the town? to Lizzie? to Gordon?  Let me know if you read the book, and we can discuss it.

Lions is not for everyone, and it is not as good as the promised Kent Haruf clone, but the story did hold onto me, and still does.  While some still can ignore modern technology, refusing to have a computer or participate in social media, how long will it be before they are swept away into history – unless, of course, they choose privacy, secluding themselves from it all.  Nadzam offers a few phrases worth remembering, as she deftly underscores Lizzie’s struggle and the determination of those who would remain in the dying town – perhaps more the point than the story line:

“Deserve has nothing to do with what we get.”

“You didn’t always get – you almost never got- the whole story of every man, woman, or child who asked something of you in this world.  What  you got was the moment they stood before you.  You’d have to take your chances, make your best judgment, and do whatever you were going to do.  There was a sort of resolve you had to consult that went deeper than the fact of a man’s personal history…”

 

 

 

What Would You Do for Love? The Ninth Hour

51ZwhNBTHvL._AC_UL160_   The first time I saw Sister Mary Kathleen without her veil and starched cowl, my thoughts sacrilegiously went to her weight, no longer hidden behind her flowing robes.  Nuns were my second mothers from first grade through high school from Sister Anita in second grade who hid me in the coat closet to read the upper level books while my classmates struggled through beginning readers, to Sister Marie Gabriel, who inspired all girls in her Latin class to don the habit to look like her – rumor had it she was once a Rockette.  Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour has nuns living through the early twentieth century, but Sisters Jeanne and Lucy had many of the same blithe goodness and no nonsense attitudes of the nuns I remember.

McDermott frames her story around a young girl, Sally, from before her birth to after her death.  The book opens with Sally’s father, Jim, committing suicide, an act with consequences throughout the story for unborn Sally, her pregnant mother Annie, and their interactions with the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor who come to their rescue.  The nuns give Annie a job in their laundry, where Sally plays as an infant and later entertains the nuns with her antics.

Sally spends all her free time with the nuns, and eventually, as many good Catholics girls do, she entertains the idea of becoming one of them.  Her shadowing of Sister Lucy ministering to the needy families, elderly shut-ins, disabled invalids, and sickly poor quickly removes her aspirations to be a nurse.  Changing sheets, diapers, and bedpans does not appeal to her.

Thinking she might still have the calling to be a nun, Sally takes the train to the motherhouse in Chicago.  Having been sheltered from the real world, Sally quickly discovers she does not have the patience or the virtue to deal with the low life she encounters on the ride.  Unlike the saintly nuns she admires, Sally realizes she is more likely to punch someone than meekly hand over her money.  When she arrives in Chicago, she immediately takes the returning train home to New York.

Ignorant of her mother’s new love affair with the milkman who is married to an invalid, Sally finds the bed she shared with her mother now taken when she returns.  Mrs. Tierney, a friend of her mother’s, offers her a room in her family’s big house, and Mr. Tierney finds her a job at his hotel’s tea room.

The story bounces around in time frames, teasing with information (Patrick, Sally’s future husband, is one of Mrs. Teirney’s sons), and flows back and forth through the years.  Most of the story is told in flashback with Sally now dead and Patrick in assisted living.  Although the narrator seems to be one or more of their grandchildren, McDermott achieves the effect of reminiscing about the old days, with jumps to narration by the principals in real time.

The one constant vein throughout is the presence of the good nuns.  Each nun in the story follows a familiar stereotype but with an underlying note of human weakness: the take charge Sister Lucy who orders the emptying of chamber pots and deftly bandages sore limbs but uses her influence to punish a bully; the rulebreaker  Sister St. Saviour who rescues the widow and child but who would defy church doctrine by burying a suicide in the church’s consecrated plot; the hard working Sister Illuminata who labors in the damp basement never complaining about her arthritic knees but dances through her ironing; and Sister Jeanne, who finds good everywhere but facilitates the final murder in the story.   They are distinct individuals and despite their vision-blocking headgear, they see everything and know more about what’s happening around them than they let you know.

Like most stories with Irish characters at the core, death in The Ninth Hour is prominent, along with misery and despair.  Nevertheless, the love stories – about Sally and Patrick, about the nuns for those in their care, about Red Whelan who takes Patrick’s grandfather’s place in the Civil War – all conspire to create an uplifting message and remind the reader of a time when self-sacrifice meant more than self-serving.

 

Calvin Trillin

Calvin Trillin, one of my favorite authors, has a witty view of life to simultaneously lift my spirits while connecting me to his cynical view.  Having related to Tepper in Tepper Isn’t Going Out and laughed through his Travels with Alice as well as innumerable articles in The New Yorker, I had avoided his love letter to his dead wife, Alice, until one of my book clubs picked “About Alice” for a discussion. Unknown-2  The shorter version appeared in The New Yorker, published in 2006 – Alice, Off the Page.

In an interview for the New York Times  By the Book Trillan cites “About Alice,” the book he wrote about his wife who died in 2001, waiting for a heart transplant, as his most personally meaningful.  He also listed books that have “broken through {his} resistance to the magical,” with, not surprisingly, another famous humorist’s book in the collection of his favorites (mine too) – Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader.

The New York Times offered a review of “About Alice” in 2007 – Scenes from a Marriage.

Peter Stevenson writes: 

“This book can be seen as a worthy companion piece to other powerful accounts of spousal grief published in the last decade: Joan Didion’s tale of John Gregory Dunne’s fatal heart attack, John Bayley’s memoir of Iris Murdoch’s decline from Alzheimer’s and Donald Hall’s narration of Jane Kenyon’s death from leukemia.”

Since Alice’s death on September 11, 2001, Trillin has continued to write books and articles.  The last one I laughed over was his candidate for the scariest word in the English language – upgrade.  I could relate – maybe you can too?

“As the upgrades increase in frequency, I can imagine a future when, with the latest upgrade, I can’t find anything at all…With the upgrade to my smartphone, the podcasts I used to listen to are lost somewhere in the ether around West Virginia.”

Related Review:

Tepper Isn’t Going Out