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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Mary Astor’s Purple Diary – The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936

9781631490248_p0_v4_s192x300Whenever I watch old movies, I cannot resist looking up the background of the players, wondering what their lives were really like.  Edward Sorel’s Mary Astor’s Purple Diary was satisfyingly short and funny – with pictures – and  Woody Allen’s review in the New York Times piqued my interest.  Maybe he’ll turn the book into a movie?

Edward Sorel’s Mary Astor’s Purple Diary focuses on a long forgotten scandal involving the movie star well known to old movie fans for playing the deceiving foil to Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon and the wise mother in Meet Me in Saint Louis and Little Women. At a time when movie moguls used the casting couch for plum roles but concealed their movie stars’ indiscretions to gain approval from the “legion of decency,” Mary Astor’s love life was front page news when her diary was discovered.  Her descriptions of her many lovers became fodder for a real-life courtroom drama that could have been right out of the movies.

Sorel is well known for his political caricatures and his “unauthorized portraits”  of the famous.  No modern president or president-elect has escaped his fervor to “attack hypocrisy in high places.”  His style is easily recognized on covers for The New Yorker.

Sorel punctuates this book with a few hilarious scenes of Mary Astor as she negotiates her scandal. unknown-3 In a sideways tale of Astor’s life, Sorel includes facts about her family and background, but in his imaginary interview with the dead actress, he manages to include a funny perspective on her lovers – names old movie fans will recognize, including John Barrymore and George S. Kauffman.  At times, Sorel’s irreverent style and his tangents into his own marriages reflect a Woody Allen style with wry observations and self-deprecating humor.

I cannot imagine why Mary Astor kept an incendiary diary about her lovers; somehow written secrets always find their way out. But thanks to Sorel, it made for fun reading – like flipping through that Entertainment Weekly or People magazine in the doctor’s office.

Related Article: Woody Allen Reviews a Graphic Tale of a Scandalous Starlet

A Welcoming Life – The M.F.K. Fisher Scrapbook

Before reading Ashley Warlick’s new biographical novel of M.F.K. Fisher in The Arrangement, I needed to know more about Fisher – more than a quick google search.  51c96z1df6l-_sx258_bo1204203200_  Dominique Gioia’s combination of prose and pictures in A Welcoming Life: The M.F.K. Fisher Scrapbook provided an easy entree to the author’s complicated life and prolific work.

Composed as though it were a family album, the one hundred ten pages offer captioned photographs of Fisher, marking her life from a young beauty to the old woman who died in her “Last House” in California.  Gioia inserts pages of prose, transitioning Fisher from young girl to bride and mother, to author and finally grande dame among the elite of food writers.

It’s impossible to think of Fisher without associating her with France, and Gioia dedicates a number of pages to Fisher’s epiphany when she moved from the United States to Dijon, France as a young bride with her first husband, Al, and in Aix-en-Provence where she relocated with her two daughters. Later she was a guest at the Provence home of Julia Child.

Although not as comprehensive as Joan Reardon’s biography of M.F.K. Fisher – Poet of the Appetites: The Lives and Loves of M.F.K. Fisher, the Fisher Scrapbook condenses Fisher’s complicated life into a quick overview, leaving the reader wanting more.  Laura Shapiro in reviewing Reardon’s biography for the New York Times called  Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher “a lifelong series of contradictions.”

To capture a moment in Fisher’s life in The Arrangement, Warlick admittedly read all she could find about the author.  Pictures in The Scrapbook document Mary Frances’s life with Al and her love affair with Dillwyn Parrish (Tim) – the focus of Warlick’s The Arrangement.

Discovering more about Fisher can be contagious and satisfying.  I found Fisher’s The Art of Eating in an electronic version from my local library, and delightedly scanned through pages of many of the books mentioned in The ScrapbookAn Alphabet for Gourmets (A is for dining Alone; G is for Gluttony…), Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf, and of course her 1943 memoir, The Gastronomical Me:

“People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking?..They ask it accusingly…The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry…It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.  So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it…”

I have Reardon’s Celebrating the Pleasure of the Table yet to read, with her combination of Mary Frances, Julia Child, and Alice Waters waiting for me in France.  And Gioia’s The Measure of Her Powers: An M.F.K. Fisher Reader is on my stack of books; Ruth Reichl’s introduction promises to be entertaining and Gioia has included many of Fisher’s journal articles published between books.

Fisher’s first novel – The Theoretical Foot written in 1939 – was recently discovered and published.  In his comparison of Fisher’s novel to Warlick’s recent novel The Arrangement, Corby Kummer in the New York Times  called The Arrangement, “a proficient, earnest and livelier book than Fisher’s.”  I may have to place my exploration of M.F.K. Fisher’s real life on hold and divert back to historical fiction in Warlick’s novel.

But first, I plan to follow Fisher’s advice and bake some bread…images-1

“…there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation…that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread…” from The Art of Eating

 

Pretending and Believing

Unknown   The Muppets and Sesame Street saved me as a young mother.  If I nodded off from exhaustion with a toddler in my grasp, I knew friendly Grover would always be there to demand and get her undivided attention.   Although their creator, Jim Henson, died suddenly in 1990, he seems to be still around.  Miss Piggy still shakes her curls, the Count still guffaws,  Cookie Monster still devours – even Kermit, who was voiced and operated by Henson himself, still philosphizes.  In his biography – Jim Henson –  Brian Jay Jones reintroduces Jim Henson with all his quirks and weaknesses, as well as his extraordinary talent and playful way of looking at life that changed the world for many of us.

Being a little preoccupied with death lately, I started with the last chapter titled “Just One Person, 1990,” addressing Henson’s short illness, and including a memorial service he had outlined in a letter to his children four years earlier.  His trademark whimsy permeated the grief.

Backtracking to  Chapter One, I followed Jones’s easy conversational writing about Henson’s childhood and the beginning of his career in his college days at the University of Maryland, the Muppets’ big break on Steve Allen’s Tonight Show,  and the first Muppet commercial – for coffee.  Henson’s “ridiculous optimism” was catching; it was impossible not to like him.

Henson was more than Sesame Street, yet educational television eventually defined his art, as he eschewed commercials  to focus on the show that would make his Muppets household names.  Jones follows the family brood – Henson had five children – as they moved into bigger houses and followed the patriarch’s dream, but he follows the Muppet family more closely, outlining in detail how each puppet was created and evolved.  Each success and failure is carefully documented, from Fraggle Rock to Labyrinth.   Only the two sets of pictures inserted in the narrative give some relief from the exhausting details, but the few personal glimpses behind Henson’s calm demeanor were worthwhile.  When his success allowed him to wear bespoke suits so his pants would be long enough to hide his calves when he crossed his legs in a television interview, he became even more endearing.

Jones focuses on Henson’s creative life more than his personal; his separation from his wife has only a paragraph in the book, and his later relationship with Mary Ann Cleary was given scant attention.  Jones affirms his view of Henson as a family man – with five children and dogs, even after his marriage fell apart – and his family of Muppets.

Kermit’s words from The Muppet Movie reflected Jim Henson’s life:

“…I’ve got a dream, too.  But it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy.  That’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with. And, well…I’ve found a whole bunch of friends who have the same dream.  And it kind of makes us like a family.”

A wonderful testament to the Kermit inside the man, Jones’ biography includes a picture of Henson as he manipulates Ernie.  Even then, it’s hard to believe Ernie is only an extension of Henson’s arm.  The muppets always seem so real.

Unknown-3   Life’s like a movie, write your own ending.

Keep believing, keep pretending.

On the Road with Mark Twain and Others

9780385536448_p0_v2_s192x300  If real travel is not possible, vicariously circling the globe with Mark Twain might be the next best thing.  In Richard Zacks’ Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the World Comedy Tour, I found a way to improve my humor and satisfy my yearning to visit new places.

At fifty-nine years old, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) had a magnificent mansion in Connecticut he could not afford to live in, was renowned as a humorist and author, and had made so many bad investments in quick rich schemes he had lost his heiress wife’s fortune and was seriously in debt.  The typesetting machine he had hoped would revolutionize publishing and secure his fortune was having problems, so he decided to go on tour to recoup his losses.

Through letters, diaries, journals, newspaper articles, and quotes from Twain himself,  Zacks captures the three year tour of the soft-spoken white-haired author in an evening suit, who travelled in luxury at the expense of his sponsors and never cracked a smile as he entertained the world.  Fans of Mark Twain will appreciate learning more about the author and enjoy his perspective on the world and life.  Samuel Clemens lived life large.

I am reading the book slowly and savoring… 

Also Reading:  The Life of the World to Come

9781511371186_p0_v2_s192x300   When someone you’ve known for a while dies unexpectedly, the tendency may be to ponder your own mortality or perhaps broaden your thinking into the universe at large. Dan Cluchey’s The Life of the World to Come is feeding my mind’s meanderings as I think about a friend who died recently. Sometimes a book comes to you – a love story mingled with thoughts about the afterlife

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