Learning About Women’s Lives Through the Food They Consumed

Learning About Women’s Lives Through the Food They Consumed


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Helen Gurley Brown

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Metropolitan Photo Service

WHAT SHE ATE
Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories
By Laura Shapiro
Illustrated. 307 pp. Viking. $27.

The idea behind the culinary historian Laura Shapiro’s new book, “What She Ate,” which purports to tell the “food stories” of six notable women, is summarized neatly in the chapter she devotes to the British novelist Barbara Pym. “Barbara,” Shapiro notes, “was not a food writer, but she saw the world as if she was — as if every piece of cake or even just the crumbs on the plate offered the most enticing clues imaginable to time, place, class and character.” Shapiro does a fine job of showing just how Pym put this lens to work — excerpting a scene, for example, from Pym’s “Excellent Women,” in which we learn a lot about the protagonist, Mildred, from the way she carefully assembles a meal for a man she has a crush on: a simple salad, some Camembert, a fresh loaf of bread and greengage plums. “It seemed an idyllic sort of meal that ought to have been eaten in open air, with a bottle of wine and what is known as ‘good’ conversation,” Mildred thinks to herself, full of hope.

But where Shapiro attempts to do what Pym does, working backward by examining any mention of food that appears in the historical records of the real-life characters she has chosen, she is less successful. It’s hard to tell someone else’s “food story,” and harder still when that someone is Eva Braun, the long-term mistress of Hitler, who ate very little, so concerned was she with her figure. What we get instead, really, is Hitler’s food story (including a stretch of nine pages with no mention of Braun), which isn’t particularly scintillating, all things considered, and feels incongruous in the company of Eleanor Roosevelt and Dorothy Wordsworth, the devoted spinster sister of William.

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The historical record of Wordsworth’s relationship with food also seems to yield thin gruel, much as Shapiro has painstakingly prepared it, devoting several pages to the briefest mention of black pudding in one of Wordsworth’s journals. With Roosevelt, Shapiro has more to work with, stitching together a plausible narrative that questions the long-held perception of the first lady as someone who disdained food to a fault and offers instead a nuanced portrait of a woman struggling to seize control of her complicated life — and a woman who saw home economics as a serious and empowering science and did, eventually, find joy in culinary pleasures. Either way, it’s great fun to read about the notoriously abysmal dishes served in the Roosevelt White House, including, Shapiro writes, “‘Stuffed Prune Salad,’ ‘Ashville Salad’ (canned tomato soup in a gelatin ring mold), and ‘Pear Salad,’ a hot-weather specialty featuring canned pears covered in cream cheese, mayonnaise, chives and candied ginger.”

Of all the women, the writer and Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown perhaps best lends herself to Shapiro’s task. Brown’s relationship with food was fascinatingly tortured: She was an obsessive dieter who subsisted largely on sugar-free Jell-O but also was dramatically dedicated to the adage that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. It’s especially interesting to read about her various attempts to cover cooking in Cosmopolitan, and to learn that she spent years working on “Helen Gurley Brown’s Single Girl’s Cookbook,” which included lines like “Let other girls broil him a steak and slice a few tomatoes; he can do that himself. You’re out to rapture him with golden Chicken Paprikash gurgling in its pot and maybe even capture him by the time he’s through the Lemon Chiffon Crème” — as well as a chapter on, in Shapiro’s words, “what to serve the man you don’t want around anymore (liver, kidneys and sweetbreads).” The book never took off in the way Brown had hoped, and Shapiro’s assessment of why shows how Brown’s “food story” illuminates her powerful cultural influence and legacy. “All her teaching thus far had been aimed at helping women refashion their bodies and tune their emotions according to fantasies she herself provided,” Shapiro writes. “Now she had to help them focus outside themselves, directing their minds and hands toward a goal that couldn’t be reached by charm alone. For once, she had to work in the real world.”



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