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What She Ate

August 9, 2017

I won a copy of What She Ate, by Laura Shapiro, from Jasmine at How Useful It Is, and really enjoyed it. It arrived at my house just about the time my appetite was coming back after surgery, so I’d read a chapter and then be ready for one of the delicious meals that Ron, Eleanor, and my friend Brian were cooking. The most memorable were Brian’s pasta salad with the olive oil we brought back from Spain, Eleanor’s chicken with turmeric rice, and Ron’s pico de gallo, made with tomatoes and peppers from the farmer’s market.

What She Ate focuses on what we know about the eating habits of six women—Dorothy Wordsworth, Rosa Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Barbara Pym, and Helen Gurley Brown. Like me, you may not have heard of Rosa Lewis before, but she is important in the context of this look at feminism and food. Shapiro uses first-hand accounts of what these women cooked, ate, and enjoyed to show the kind of role food played in their lives, whether acknowledged or unconscious.

Dorothy Wordsworth, the subject of the first chapter, wrote about the details of her life with William in Dove Cottage in the Grasmere Journal. Shapiro points out that
“cooking…was wifely. Far more than a chore, in Dorothy’s world it was an aspect of identity. Even if a married woman didn’t do the cooking herself, she was judged on her ability to manage the food of the household. Dorothy was no amateur: she had kneaded and chopped and stirred in many kitchens before she began preparing meals in Dove Cottage. But only now did she seem intent on keeping a written record of how she fed William and their guests, as if to shore up her right to a role she wouldn’t dream of claiming openly.”
Less well-known is that towards the end of her life, Dorothy
“entered a realm of greed without guilt, insisting on more heat than anyone else could bear, more attention than her weary caregivers could muster, more gestures of love than she had ever received before. And, incessantly, more food. In all the any pages of her diaries and letters over the years, she rarely mentioned an instance of feeling hungry. Now she was never satisfied.”

The chapter on Rose Lewis shows that she turned her talent for cooking into a way to climb the social ladder, during a time when “only the cognoscenti could hope to make their way through a fashionable meal flawlessly. When Rose chose high-class cookery as her future, she was gaining access not only to a cuisine, but to all the social behaviors associated with it. She was learning the secret handshake.”

Shapiro delineates how Eleanor Roosevelt’s and Eva Braun’s lack of interest in food demonstrated their lack of control over aspects of their lives.

The chapter on Barbara Pym is less about her own relationship with food than about how she characterized others by how they confronted a meal. Her “favorite place to watch human behavior was a restaurant” and “it’s no wonder that Excellent Women, her best-loved novel and the one fans and critics inevitably conjure when they’re trying to describe the world of Barbara Pym, took shape in her mind around images of food.”

The final chapter, on Helen Gurley Brown, a famous dieter, shows the extreme relationship she had with food. “A reporter who treated her to a champagne cocktail one afternoon described what it was like for Helen to confront an article of food that threatened to make her fat. ‘She carefully fished out the calorie-laden brandy-soaked sugar lump, took a couple of polite sips, praised it extravagantly as the most delicious thing she’d ever had, and went back to Perrier water.’”

There’s a brief afterword, in which Shapiro discusses her own relationship with food. The book is well-researched, readable, and makes some good points about how revealing it is to examine what a woman says about what she eats, what nourishes her, and what she will let herself be seen or described eating.

What will you let yourself been seen eating? I often make chili and cornbread for guests, sometimes accompanied by raw vegetables and dip and followed by chocolate brownies. Do you have a favorite “company” meal?

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. August 9, 2017 1:13 pm

    Excellent review! I’m glad the book arrived and you get to read it 🙂 I don’t recognize many of those ladies except for Eleanor Roosevelt but too bad she’s not very savvy with food. I usually buy food for my guests because then they can’t complaint about my cooking skills hahaha..

    • August 9, 2017 9:42 pm

      I summed up the chapter about Eleanor Roosevelt too briefly, so I’ll try again, almost as briefly. Her “lack of interest” in food was partly about economizing during the Great Depression, partly about giving the woman she hired as cook in the White House too much free rein, and partly her way of disengaging from her marriage after FDR had an affair.

      • August 10, 2017 10:38 am

        Oh! His affair would explains why she doesn’t have interest in cooking 🙂

  2. Alice Couvillon permalink
    August 9, 2017 11:46 pm

    BBQ shrimp and fettuccini, oyster Mosca and gumbo.

    • August 10, 2017 8:25 am

      Wow, sounds regional and delicious. I’m coming over next time I get to your neck of the woods!

  3. magpiemusing permalink
    August 10, 2017 1:52 pm

    Ooh, I love Laura Shapiro. We read “Perfection Salad” in a library book club, and she came to visit. That’s a fascinating book.

    About your query”What will you let yourself been seen eating?” – I can’t think of anything I wouldn’t let myself be seen eating. I suppose if I were a fan of, say, Twinkies, I would have to eat them in secret because of the stigma – but I’ve never had a Twinkie so that’s a moot point.

    • August 10, 2017 1:53 pm

      never had a twinkie?!!! Whoa. You’re not from the midwest, are you?

  4. August 10, 2017 8:06 pm

    What an interesting topic for a book. I would like to know more about Rose Lewis, I think. I really enjoy all aspects of food from going to farmer’s markets, finding new foods or ingredients, eating out with friends and cooking. I don’t really cook for guests. I would rather go out!

    • August 10, 2017 9:10 pm

      Interesting. In small towns we cook for each other a lot, especially in the winter, when the threat of snow keeps us close to home.

  5. PAJ permalink
    August 11, 2017 10:42 am

    I hate the idea of “hidden eating.” Lo those many years ago, when I read Gone With the Wind, I didn’t understand why Scarlett didn’t just eat whatever she wanted, when she wanted. If I’m going to eat something, I’ll eat it in front of anyone. On more than one occasion, I’ve dined with a group of women, most of whom had “just a…[whatever]” while I ate an entire meal. Meal times are for eating meals, not snacks. That said, in the past couple of years, I’ve made a real effort to eat healthier, which includes smarter choices and smaller portions. So I may have a salad instead of a decadent appetizer, but you won’t find me skipping dessert too often. Life is full of tradeoffs, but I don’t want to live in a world that doesn’t include dessert!
    As for your original question (what do I feed guests), it depends. We sometimes make a large roast (beef or pork) or cook a turkey on the grill for guests. (People seem to love having turkey at times other than Thanksgiving. And a risotto with spring vegetables is an entirely different taste experience than stuffing.) The menu varies based on the guest list. Some friends are more adventurous diners than others. But I usually start menu planning with dessert. Friends know if they’re coming to my house to eat, there will be at least one homemade dessert (but usually two).

    • August 11, 2017 10:58 am

      Is there anyone who doesn’t hate the idea of hidden eating? But since you are a normal-sized person, you can eat in front of anyone without fear of comment.
      My mother didn’t believe that fat people could be (or deserved to be?) hungry. She would urge my brother to eat, and caution me not to eat so much. I don’t think this is unusual; she also denied herself, as most women of her generation did.
      I love it that you start your meal planning with dessert! The most important part!

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