Books

This Book Explores the Eating Habits of Famous Female Historical Figures

Food historian Laura Shapiro’s new book examines the relationships notable women including Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, and Helen Gurley Brown had with food.

by Marta Bausells
23 January 2018, 2:23pm

What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food that Tells Their Stories cover art (left) and Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown. Images courtesy HarperCollins.

Women have been feeding humanity for literally ever, but until recently, no one other than the advertising industry cared. The “serious” academics, biographers, and historians were preoccupied by “serious” matters—namely, men’s matters. “The great minds were staunchly committed to the same great topics they had been mulling for centuries, invariably politics, economics, justice, and power,” writes Laura Shapiro in her new book, What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food that Tells Their Stories , which is published in the UK this week.

Home cooking was considered frivolous and associated not just with women but with housework, “which was fatal,” she writes. But Shapiro knew that everyday meals have always constituted “a guide to human character and a prime player in history," and she wasn’t about to sit and wait for anyone’s permission to investigate. In the 1970s, immersed in the women’s rights movements, Shapiro was a journalist working for the alternative press, which welcomed her historical foray into documenting women’s everyday meals what they mean.

“Surely women spent more time in the kitchen than they did in the bedroom, yet everybody was studying women and sex, and nobody was studying women and cooking except the companies selling cake mix,” she adds.

Eleanor Roosevelt. Image courtesy HarperCollins.

What Shapiro does isn’t food memoir. She goes back to the lives of fascinating women about whom many biographies have been written, and she excavates the histories of what they ate, cooked, or even thought about food. Her culinary detective method, she writes, is like “standing in line at the supermarket and peering into the other carts.”

Among the six women whose lives she portrays are Eleanor Roosevelt, who famously served the worst meals in the history of the White House (which, we discover, was not out of disinterest in food but out of deep unhappiness); Helen Gurley Brown, legendary Cosmo editor, whose relationship with food, or lack thereof, was tied to her relationships with men and the male gaze; and Eva Braun, whose devotion to Hitler was mirrored by the meals she served, including the last one in the bunker.

Decades later, pop culture “is on a culinary binge,” and everyone is fascinated, obsessed, or transfixed by food. MUNCHIES talked to Shapiro, one of the first to open the floodgates of this curiosity, about what we eat and what it means.

MUNCHIES: I love how you wrote that food isn’t just about cosy family memories, but that digging deep into these six women’s food stories changed the narratives they had presented of their lives.

Laura Shapiro: I have been writing about food for years, and one of the stories I’ve read and written a million times is the one where the last line is: “And so my grandmother’s ravioli saved my marriage.” Food is always the thing that brings us together. Food is about connectedness, food is about love, food is instantly associated with all these warm, happy emotions. And that is true. But I started to think that a lot else is going on at that table. If you really look at what’s going on on the underside of the platter, you’re going to find other things in people’s lives.

You document the social and economic factors tangled in what we eat and cook—in famous Edwardian cook Rosa Lewis’s case, food was a way to climb the class ladder. But you also tell of the immense psychological baggage we bring to the table.

Yes. I thought if I could look at the lives of these women and put the food upfront and get beneath the happy talk, the complications of character that we all have would show up. Because when we choose food, everything in our lives comes into play. We’re choosing on the basis of class, our economic standing, our politics, our family history, how we feel about the person feeding us.

I’m very intrigued about why you started writing about food, and women. How did you see that this gap was missing?

I was a journalist in the 1970s, during the flowering of the women’s movement at the US—discovering, identifying with, and reporting on it all at the same time. It was a huge part of my life. And I found that as I reported about the legal issues and the protests, everything we were doing went back to the 19th century. I started reading history just for fun, and I realised that at the turn of the 20th century, there had been an interesting turning point in the history of American cooking: a decline of traditional cooking and “do it the way your mother did it” and “pay attention to the season and ingredients.” Women started cooking according to recipes and science and the principles of nutrition. In other words, this kind of barrier grew between the woman and the actual food at hand. And I’ve been writing about food and women ever since.

Food writing is everywhere now. How has your job changed since the 1970s—has there been a shift in how it’s received by readers and by the culture?

Yes, food is now a major category in our cultural life, literary life, journalism, television, and every media. The Western world is in a real food binge. What’s good about that is that we’re now going beyond “what should I eat?” and “what is it about me and my cooking?” and we’re starting to see it on a much wider social and political scale, and we’re starting to see that food is the big business in the world, and agriculture and sustainability are major issues that are going to affect every generation after us. Now we’re seeing a lot more food writing from the point of view of equality, and that’s a really key new direction.

If you really look at what’s going on on the underside of the platter, you’re going to find other things in people’s lives.

Now there’s a whole public dimension to what we eat—a lot of people carefully show some of their food off, which also has class implications, of course. What does that mean to you as a food historian?

To me, words count more than pictures. I know that’s heresy in the realm of food, because it’s supposed to be all photography now! But to me if you can read about it, then you can learn about it. What’s interesting to me is people who have blogs or food memoirs, who record and explain what they eat and why—even why they decorated their fabulous cake to look like the Taj Mahal.

What is women’s relationship with food now, in America. What era are we on?

I think what we’re seeing now is what has always been the case in America, which is we are a nation of niche markets: we have women who are very astute about nutrition and who are eating very carefully, and women who are eating junk food all day long because they don’t know, or care, or because they think this is what they can afford. We have women who spend six hours making dinner, and women who have kitchens they only use to heat up food they bring in.

One of the most discouraging trends we’re seeing at the moment are these meal kits, where people—of a certain class—get delivered the recipe and measured ingredients. I don’t know what that’s about, but it’s not cooking.

Really?

It gives me the creeps. It seems a step back from handling food and understanding food. There’s a big difference between picking up a whole bunch of broccoli in the supermarket, and bringing it home and doing something to it, than getting delivered a box that has three little chunks of broccoli. You’re making a recipe, but you’re not learning anything about broccoli. Americans have, historically, a fear of handling food.

Tagged:
Genre Lifestyle
Munchies
Food
women
Gender
history
Eva Braun
food history
Helen Gurley Brown
What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food that Tells Their Stories
Laura Shapiro
Eleanor Roosevelt