Summer Reading List: Laura Shapiro’s “What She Ate”

LONDON–I first heard about journalist and food writer Laura Shapiro’s new book “What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and Food That Tells Their Stories” two years ago at a wedding in northern Michigan. I was seated next to Ms. Shapiro–whose niece is a friend–who I knew had left Newsweek in New York almost right after I started at Newsweek in London, and we talked about journalism and writing. That led me to ask her what she was working on. She told me about her research for a book on several women, Eleanor Roosevelt being one of them; the premise was that traditional biographies never use food as a way to look into a person’s life. “And yet food is the thing that tells us everything, or so I devoutly believe,” she wrote to me earlier this year when I asked how the book was progressing. The book came out July 25th.

Ms. Shapiro has not only worked as a journalist–she also has written for publications including the New York Times Book Review, Gourmet and The Atlantic–but she is also a culinary historian, having written books on Julia Child, the food industry’s takeover of the American kitchen and, in her first book “Perfection Salad” the U.S.’s, ” transformation from a nation of honest appetites into an obedient market for instant mashed potatoes.”

Unfortunately, we were not able to meet up in person this summer in northern Michigan (where we both like to vacation), but we communicated over a series of emails. When I asked her to explain what her new book was about she wrote:  “I’ve rounded up six women who interest me — no other connection, really — and told their lives with the food right up front. They’re Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of course of the poet; Rosa Lewis, who was an Edwardian-era caterer — she’s the only one in the book who was a culinary professional; Eleanor Roosevelt; Eva Braun, the novelist Barbara Pym, and Helen Gurley Brown. A true grab-bag, and a huge towering mass of research.” And certainly well worth a read to get some intriguing insights not only into these women but about how food shapes who we are, both figuratively and literally. Here’s an excerpt of our email interview. Bon reading!

BROWNELL MITIC: What was the motivation behind this book? I know that you have been working on it for a number of years (10 I think?) but how did you come up with the overall idea and how did you choose each of the women? What were the criteria? 

SHAPIRO: I was a journalist covering the women’s movement when I started to get interested in writing about food, so it was just natural that I always looked at food and cooking through the lens of women’s lives. But most often I was writing about well-known culinary figures (Fannie Farmer, Julia Child) or else generic “home cooks.” Then one day it struck me that you don’t have to have written a cookbook to have a relationship with food. We all do — whether or not we cook or even what we eat, we have a relationship with food. So that notion gradually became the book.

As for criteria, I chose women who had something unknowable about them — some mystery at the core that I hoped I could reach by looking at their lives through food: Dorothy Wordsworth’s powerful devotion to her brother… Eleanor Roosevelt’s commitment to serving White House meals so terrible they made a name for themselves in the press … Eva Braun’s fixation on appearances, especially her own.  All these women were good at shielding themselves, and I had to keep asking myself, will food help me break through her defenses?

How did you go about doing research on each of the women? Was it a similar process for all six or did it depend on what direction you knew you might want to take with each woman?

 I was careful to choose women for whom there was some kind of paper trail that would allow me to gather information about her eating habits. Way too many people writing letters and memoirs leave out their meals, for some reason — don’t they know historians like me are going to be dying of curiosity about what they had for breakfast? It turned out that the paper trails were either direct or indirect. Barbara Pym, for instance, was a dream to research: her diaries, as well as her novels, are full of food, and all her papers were left to the Bodleian Library at Oxford, so they’re easy to get to. Rosa Lewis, on the other, left relatively little by way of a record of her cooking — even though cooking was her profession — so I had to read the social, cultural and culinary history around her to get a clear sense of it.

A Slate review of your book talked about how people’s relation to food can tell you a lot about a person. Was that intriguing to you? And also that food and cooking are so entrenched in traditional notions about women even today? 

I chose women who were notable in their time, and for the most part didn’t lead ordinary lives as homemakers, the traditional issues around women and kitchens — which are still relevant today — didn’t apply in any obvious fashion. But several of the women did grapple with them, despite leading high-level professional lives. Eleanor Roosevelt, for instance, was very aware that she was a misfit in terms of traditional femininity; she felt she had failed as a wife and mother. That was the impetus that sent her to the home economics movement — at the time, a seemingly progressive reform movement for women that would professionalize the role of homemaker. She loved that idea — that management principles, not sentiment and tradition, would rule the domestic sphere. Similarly, Helen Gurley Brown always claimed that being David’s wife was the most important job she had, and that cooking was a big part of that job. Whether she believed it, whether she really cooked very much — all that is unclear. But it was a strong element in her message to the world.

In an interview with “Eater” the writer says that this book was a watershed for you in that, “After spending much of her life devoted to the idea that everyday food and the women who prepare and serve it are worthy of interest, the world is finally catching up to her way of thinking.” Do you agree with her assessment and, if so, what has taken people so long to come to terms with what you have been noting for a number of years? 

It was bound to happen. The women’s movement spurred enormous changes in the scholarly world, starting back in the 1970s, and then more recently we’ve seen the study of food expand and flourish to an astonishing degree. So these two perspectives were certainly going to join forces in people’s thinking. My first book, “Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century”, was somewhat ahead of its time–I started the research in the late 1970s–and it came about simply because I didn’t know any better. It never occurred to me that my topic might be considered irrelevant in academic circles because I wasn’t an academic. Meanwhile, I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home of the Schlesinger Library, which is the institution that in a sense has made all my books possible. The Schlesinger is one of the foremost women’s history libraries in the world, and even back then it also housed a wonderful culinary collection. So I was using both the cookbooks and the regular history collection side by side, which seemed to me exactly how they should be used. By the time the book was published, in 1986, it was still early, but a flood of terrific work way beyond mine started pouring out in about five minutes.


Why is it that we, as you have written, are not really meant to think much about what “important” people eat? 

In terms of pop culture we now know a lot about what famous people eat, because they’re talking about it all the time — on TV cooking shows, in their blogs, all over the media. They’re flacking their new diet book, or telling some interviewer their recipe for green smoothies — it’s all out there. But biography, meaning nice big books about non-pop-culture people, may be slower to catch on, and that’s because you need a document trail for food, just the way you need one for somebody’s education or love life or criminal past or brilliant achievements in chemistry. If some Nobel prize winner didn’t happen to jot down last night’s dinner, or reminisce about Grandma’s ravioli, or tell a New York Times interviewer about gorging on marshmallows before walking into the Army recruitment office … that food story will never be told.


Were there other women you had thought of looking into but for whatever reason decided not to? And why just Western women?

Of course, women in other parts of the world would have very different food stories, but unless I had been very, very familiar with their cultures before starting this project, I wouldn’t have been able to say anything significant about their relationships with food. The last thing non-Western women need is some American researcher going at them full force in total ignorance. So that narrowed my scope right there. Also, as I’ve noted above, I had to choose women who left some kind of paper trail, which meant they were likely to have been noteworthy in their own time, and educated enough to leave a written archive. In other words, not ordinary women. That’s not to say I couldn’t have moved outside that class and done a more in-depth search for different kinds of women, but it took years just to assemble these six and do enough preliminary research to be certain they would work out.


Does it feel like the timing for this book and the conversations and topics that come out of it fits really well for the world right now? 

We’re definitely on a culinary binge right now, and women are definitely closer to the center of public talk and thought than they often are, so maybe yes, this is the right time. But for me, it’s always the right time.

Ginanne Brownell Mitic

Photos courtesy Viking/Penguin 1) book cover and 2) Ms. Shapiro


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