By Michelle Zimmer
In What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women & the Food that Tells Their Stories, James Beard award winning author and historian Laura Shapiro examines the eating habits and quirks of six notable women: Dorothy Wordsworth, Eva Braun, Eleanor Roosevelt, Helen Gurley Brown, Barbara Pym, and Rosa Lewis. By analyzing their journals, archives, and letters, Shapiro shows how these women loved, disdained, weaponized, and manipulated with food. To set the mood, guests sampled some of the foods mentioned by these women to illustrate Shapiro’s thesis that, “Food tells us everything!” Among the on-hand (and in–mouth) treats were a ridiculously moist mincemeat pie, savory and herbaceous seed cakes, blood pudding, a gorgeous mosaic of negus-a-port wine punch, whole meal rye, buckwheat bread, brown bread, and Belvoir (gingerbread), devoured with delicious homemade churned butter.
Shapiro, a spirited, clever orator, began by presenting an overview of her process and explained how and why she selected her subjects. By exploring these women’s food traditions, Shapiro believes that one can become personally acquainted with the women as well as the society in which they live. What, when, and with whom these women ate was largely determined by both the larger culture they brought with them and the influence of their immediate environment. As circumstances allowed, these women developed their food preferences and customs, defining a sense of identity and cohesion. Their food choices served as instruments not only for routine nourishment, but for the preservation of memories of the world they they lived in, or had lost. These food choices sometimes expressed unstated conflicts and even neurosis.
This neurosis was poignantly illustrated through the story of Dorothy Wordsworth. She was exceptionally–some might say unnaturally, emotionally incestuously—close to her brother, the poet William Wordsworth, acting as the mistress of his house until he married her best friend in 1802. Thereafter, Dorothy’s relationship with food became fraught, eventually leading to what we would now consider an eating disorder; in her later years, Dorothy became extremely obese. One of the great mysteries in Dorothy’s journals is a terse entry mentioning what appears to be a class-inappropriate meal. By 1828, Dorothy was living with her nephew (William’s son, John, perhaps redirecting her desire to be close to William onto his son). Although she seldom mentioned food in her journal during this period, one of her few entries is a terse mention that one wintry evening they dined on several blood puddings, a dish with decided lower-class connotations. Shapiro posits that Dorothy “would never have eaten such a thing,” yet if she could just “figure out how black pudding got into her life,” she felt she’d “better understand the passion she had for her brother.”
Among her other subjects, Shapiro found former scullery maid, Rosa Lewis “irresistible.” The foul-mouthed cockney caterer “cooked her way up the ladder” to a position of prominence in Edwardian circles (she allegedly was a mistress of Edward VII). Yet although there is substantial reportage on Rosa (five books as well the Masterpiece Theater Series The Duchess of Duke Street, loosely based on Rosa’s life), Shapiro lamented that, surprisingly, “never very much about the food” that must have made her a toast of the town.
At the opposite gastronomic end is Eleanor Roosevelt’s food story, based upon the notorious reputation of the Roosevelts’ housekeeper, Henrietta Nesbitt, who allegedly provided the worst meals in the history of the White House. At the time, some attributed the poor White House cuisine to Eleanor’s apparent lack of interest in food, yet a lengthy paper trail proved that she did not lack a palate. What she did have during her tenure at the White House was apathy and perhaps depression or anger over Franklin’s infidelities–Eleanor infamously tossed her wedding ring into Franklin’s casket “and it was as if she were reborn.” Going forward, she thoroughly enjoyed meals with her lady friends.
Eva Braun did nothing in life but read movie magazines, take amateur photographs, and, of course, live in a delusional bubble with the monster Adolf Hitler. These things got Shapiro thinking about Eva’s fixation on appearances. Through letters written while holed up with the Führer, Shapiro delved into food story of the “first lady of the Reich,” who enjoyed hosting dinner parties for Hitler. Unlike Hitler, Eva was not a vegetarian, and his vegetarianism was his one trait she objected to: according to Shapiro, “she actually made fun of him for eating that way.”
Shapiro’s last subject was Helen Gurley Brown, publishing maven of Cosmopolitan magazine. If she seems an odd choice because the obsessively thin Helen seemed obsessed with not eating, in truth, she “was just as obsessed with eating.” She loved food. She was devoted to cooking breakfast for her husband, but not consuming it. Shapiro characterized her as a walking “war zone of culinary conflict” and a perfect example of her thesis that, “Food [whether consumed or not] tells us everything.” For Shapiro, “while extraordinary circumstances produce extraordinary women,” it is the in-depth study of their food choices that made them “recognizable” as living beings.