Whether or not you see yourself as particularly interested in food, your relationship with what you eat and drink tells a story. This is the premise of Laura Shapiro’s new book, What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories.
The celebrated culinary historian looks at the lives of six women through the lens of what they consumed (or didn’t, in some cases). Only one of the six was involved with food professionally.
Shapiro’s inspiration came in the form of Dorothy Wordsworth, sister to William Wordsworth, the poet. One evening, while flipping through a biography, expecting pleasant reflections on an idyllic life largely lived in England’s Lake District, she found something unexpected.
“There she is, making these adorable gooseberry tarts for her beloved brother. Suddenly, I'm way ahead. He's married and she's living far from the Lake District. She sits down to dinner and says that the meal is black pudding. It's basically a splotch of blood and oatmeal — it’s a traditional British favorite, they've been eating it for hundreds and hundreds of years — but it just had nothing to do with the sprite of the Lake District that I had in mind. I thought, what brought this woman into contact with this meal? There had to be a reason, and if I could figure it out, maybe it would be a way into that life that you wouldn't have gotten another way. Maybe food would carry me into a life in a way that other tools of biography do.”
Shapiro’s hunch turned out to be correct, and about more than just Dorothy Wordsworth.
“My idea is that you don't have to be a food professional, you don't have to have written a cookbook in order to have a relationship with food — we all do,” she says. “It strikes me as crazy that biography traditionally and conventionally just kind of ignores this about people.”
She began to select women for the project, all of them dead. “I wanted to see a whole life in perspective,” she says. Although she was curious about the food stories of regular people, it proved to be impossible to discover them, since most people don't leave behind a paper trail. Although her plan was not to include anyone from the food world, Shapiro couldn’t resist Rosa Lewis, a famous London caterer (perhaps best known as the subject of the BBC series The Duchess of Duke Street), who famously cooked for royalty.
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Along the way, Shapiro added Eleanor Roosevelt, whose food journey was complicated by her marriage and political life; Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan, who waxed poetic about her daily diet Jello; Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress (and wife of only hours) who ate little, her veins running with Champagne; and British novelist Barbara Pym, whose characters are always eating something, much of it maligned British cuisine (a judgement she seems to disagree with). The result is a sumptuous banquet of history, a way of looking at these women, both well-known and less so, that lends a different perspective. Readers have a familiar way in to these stories that isn’t always the case with other histories: After all, everyone eats.
“I have always felt that if you can ask somebody what they eat or what they grew up eating everything else will fall away, all of their greatness, if they are some incredibly important politician or a movie star or something,” says Shapiro. “If you're lucky, everything else will fall away and they will zero in on the rice pudding — or their mother scrambled the egg just this way and they loved it, or maybe they never ate at home, they always had to go next door. You're going to get something that is very direct and very true.”
Shapiro hopes that, beyond gaining new insights into the fascinating women she profiles, readers will also give some consideration to their own food stories. “We all have a food story. I would love it if people would take a look at their own lives and see what their food story is and put it into shape, write it down, make sure you hold on to those recipes or the things in your food life that mean something to you. It's such a part of ourselves. I think if we have that aspect of the life of somebody that we love we have something very precious and something that will speak to us forever,” she says. “That's in a personal sense, but in a larger sense, I think as Americans we owe it to ourselves to understand that we have a food history in our own families that is not dictated by the food industry, that is ours, it's personal. It's how we related to that the people who came before us. We were not just a nation that is defined by TV dinners and Coke — there’s a lively, still proliferating, still exciting culinary tradition — that is to say hundreds of them — all over the country, constantly enriched by the newcomers to this country. That is American cooking, and we are all part of it in our personal stories and in our daily lives. I would love it if people would look around them and see that.”