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Review: Laura Shapiro's 'What She Ate' illuminates diets from Eleanor Roosevelt to Eva Braun

Published Jul. 17, 2017

Dorothy Wordsworth believed that feeding her poet brother, William, was her part to play in a literary movement. Cockney chef Rosa Lewis became a favorite of King Edward VII, who loved her signature dish of whole truffles boiled in Champagne. Eleanor Roosevelt dished up some of the most dismal meals ever seen in the White House. Eva Braun served Champagne and cake in the bunker before joining Adolf Hitler in suicide. Barbara Pym's novels overflow with enjoyment of everyday meals in midcentury England. Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown's idea of a delicious dessert was sugar-free Jell-O made with so little water it had the texture of rubber.

Laura Shapiro's fascinating new book, What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories, takes a "you are what you eat" approach to biography. Shapiro is a food journalist and historian who has written for the New Yorker, the New York Times and other publications and published three earlier books of food history, including the biography Julia Child.

What She Ate looks at the lives of six well-known women through the lens of their attitudes toward and relationships with food. Delving into written records — diaries, newspaper articles, cookbooks and more — Shapiro finds meaning in every morsel.

"It's like standing in line at the supermarket and peering into the other carts," she writes, "but with the rare privilege of complete freedom to pry."

Organized chronologically, the book begins with Dorothy Wordsworth, who kept the diary that came to be known as the Grasmere Journal during the 2 ½ years (1799-1802) she and William, one of the great poets of the Romantic movement, lived together at Dove Cottage in England's Lake District.

Dorothy saw herself as helpmeet to her brother's talent, and he wrote much of his best poetry during those years. Other great English poets were visitors, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, mentioned in this homely journal entry: "Coleridge obliged to go to bed after tea. John & I followed Wm up the hill & then returned to go to Mr Simpsons — we borrowed some bottles for bottling rum. The evening somewhat frosty & grey but very pleasant. I broiled Coleridge a mutton chop which he ate in bed."

Dorothy writes in detail about preparing vegetables fresh from their garden, fish caught from the lake, bacon bought from a neighbor. Her meals with William are highlights of her day; she treasures him so that when she finds an apple he has taken a bite of, she can hardly bear to throw it away.

Paradise was short-lived. William married, and Dorothy passed out cold just before the wedding. Shapiro follows the food to recount the rest of Dorothy's life; she writes that after a serious illness in middle age, Dorothy "wanted to eat, she demanded to eat; her pleas became incessant. For the first time in her life she grew fat, then very fat: it took two people to hold her up."

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Rosa Lewis might not be a familiar name now, but around the turn of the 20th century she became a celebrity because of her food. Born in 1867, the fifth of nine children in a Cockney family, Lewis went "into service" as a scullery maid at the age of 12. A few years later, she learned to cook using French techniques in the house of the Comte de Paris.

That led to her next big break, working for Lady Randolph Churchill (Winston's mother): "The most important of her dinner guests was the Prince of Wales, who would become King Edward VII after Victoria's death in 1901. ... Rosa's cooking pleased him, and from the moment he first complimented one of her dinners, her future was assured."

Lewis started her own successful catering business, making a point of staffing her kitchens entirely with women. They prepared the sort of food that the British upper class considered essential to social status: four or five "massive meals" a day, each with seven or more courses.

Some said she was the inspiration for George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, but Shapiro argues she would never have remade herself as Eliza Doolittle does. "It was as Rosa herself, Cockney born and kitchen raised, that she demanded to be made welcome in the highest ranks of society — defiantly flaunting her Cockney accent the whole way."

Daughter and wife of privilege, Eleanor Roosevelt was never expected to cook for her family. But she was expected to manage the household staff that did so — yet, despite her reputation for a warm and caring nature, her tenure as the longest-serving first lady was a bleak culinary era for the White House.

Shapiro writes, "Ernest Hemingway, invited to dinner in 1937, told his mother-in-law it was the worst meal he had ever eaten. 'We had a rainwater soup followed by a rubber squab, a nice wilted salad and a cake some admirer had sent in. An enthusiastic but unskilled admirer.' "

Shapiro posits several possible explanations for this. Eleanor had long been dominated by Franklin's ferocious mother, Sara, in household matters. When she had to staff the White House, she inexplicably hired Henrietta Nesbitt, an amateur baker from Hyde Park, N.Y. "The staff loathed her," Shapiro writes, and she became known as "the most reviled cook in White House history."

Eleanor's own passion for the new science of home economics didn't help, creating a focus on thrift and nutrition rather than elegant food. And she was often distracted by her own political activism. Perhaps the most interesting motive for all that bad food, though, is Shapiro's suggestion it might have stemmed in part from Eleanor's resentment of FDR's long-term affair with Lucy Mercer. Franklin loved good food and drink; serving him and his guests "watery prune pudding" might have been a kind of revenge.

Eva Braun's relationship with Adolf Hitler began with food. As a teenager, she had a job in a Berlin photo studio. When a mysterious "Herr Wolf" came in for a portrait, she was sent out for beer and sausage, then served them, Shapiro writes. "She said politely, 'Guten Appetit.' They were the first words she ever spoke to Hitler."

Braun was the dictator's mistress for more than a dozen years, and she chafed at having to hide her status in public. But in their inner circle she was known for hosting extravagant dinners. "Hitler's vegetarian diet was notorious," Shapiro writes. He "received a special tray with his meal on it, and the food that arrived for everyone else was comfortably recognizable."

Shapiro describes a passage from a memoir by architect Albert Speer, who made a farewell visit to the bunker in Berlin where Hitler and Braun would commit suicide a week later as the Soviet army advanced. "Eva had been living in the bunker for nine days, in private quarters adjoining Hitler's, and was planning to die with him. Speer was struck by how untroubled she seemed, in contrast to the grim, nerve-racked state of everyone else in the bunker." Eager to make her guest welcome, she served him "Moet et Chandon, cake, and sweets."

For British novelist Barbara Pym, food was a rich source for her fiction — both what people ate and how they behaved while eating it. "Barbara was a culinary historian's dream," Shapiro writes. "(I)t's now possible to track the eating habits of middle-class, midcentury England filtered through the life and times of a lively, very funny writer who happened to be addicted to the practice of spying and eavesdropping on everyone within reach."

Some of her favorite spots for eavesdropping were restaurants. "Cafeterias, tea shops, cafes, pubs, dining cars, a park at noon — anywhere people were eating was fertile ground." Pym didn't particularly care about fancy food; she found meaning in her character's everyday meals of tea and bread, "some decent cheese and a couple of tomatoes from the garden."

She did have fun with food snobs occasionally. A Few Green Leaves, her last novel, has "Adam Prince, a fussy, self-important food critic whose very name assures us he is first among men." He frets he might be tricked by mayonnaise from a jar and "unwittingly praise" it as homemade.

Helen Gurley Brown's relationship with food was, shall we say, fraught. The author of the bestselling Sex and the Single Girl and longtime editor of Cosmopolitan often wrote about catching a man by cooking for him, but when it came to feeding herself, she was filled with conflict.

Sometimes Brown described herself as an expert cook who prepared hot breakfasts and dinners daily for her husband, going straight to the kitchen after work in her high heels. Other times she claimed she couldn't cook at all. When her publisher pushed her to write a cookbook, Brown, who otherwise wrote with an assured voice, floundered. Shapiro notes Helen Gurley Brown's Single Girl's Cookbook is an inconsistent mess.

But, she writes, "Helen always knew how to find her way home. All she had to do was focus on dieting. It was as if a pile of celery sticks constituted one ruby slipper and a small portion of broiled fish the other. ... 'Skinny to me is sacred,' she proclaimed."

As a result, her weight dropped as she grew older, and "when it reached 95 (pounds) her hair started falling out." Brown wrote when she was 70, "I think you may have to have a tiny touch of anorexia nervosa to maintain an ideal weight ... not a heavy case, just a little one!"

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