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Author Laura Shapiro examines food as a valuable lens for biographical research.

July 20, 2017

When the Roosevelts hosted Ernest Hemingway for a White House dinner, they delivered a meal which the author later described as the worst of his life: “We had a rainwater soup followed by rubber squab, a nice wilted salad and a cake some admirer had sent in. An enthusiastic but unskilled admirer.” 

These are the tidbits that thrill Laura Shapiro, a journalist and food writer, who found Hemingway’s delightful review in a letter to his mother-in-law. Shapiro’s latest book, What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories, serves up details like this from Eleanor Roosevelt’s food biography and those of five other women: Dorothy Wordsworth, the poet and diarist who spent much of her life with her famous brother; Rosa Lewis, the owner of London’s Cavendish Hotel and favorite chef of King Edward VII; Eva Braun, known for being the enigmatic partner of a genocidal dictator; Barbara Pym, the prolific novelist who peeled back the layers of ordinary English life; and Helen Gurley Brown, the groundbreaking Editor in Chief of Cosmopolitan

Food & Wine talked to Shapiro about her inspiration for the project, the intersection between women’s history and food history, and the value of culinary biographies: 

Food & Wine: How did you get started on What She Ate? Did you always intend to write a book like this, or did the project emerge over the years? 

Laura Shapiro: In my past books—which are about culinary history, mostly American—there had always been portraits of women moving through them. I had a section on Fannie Farmer in my first book, and my second book had little chunks on people like Betty Friedan and Julia Child. So I had had the fun of writing about particular women’s lives as I was doing women’s and culinary history. It as always kind of floating around in my mind that it would be fun to do more with biography. Then, I did a short biography in the Penguin Lives Series on Julia Child. She was such a phenomenally interesting character, somebody that you just lived with in the library going through those archives day after day. That’s what catapulted me into this book.

FW: For the most part, these women are not “food people.” What led you to research notable figures outside the realm of food?

LS: The Julia book was such a great experience, I thought, “I’ll do another one. I’ll find some other terrifically interesting woman who wrote cookbooks and was also important in American food.” Well, there weren’t so many. I started to think, “You know what, you don’t have to have written a cookbook. You don’t have to be a culinary professional.” We all have relationships with food, and the thing that fascinates me about food is the way it touches every aspect of our lives. That happens to everyone—even if they don’t know it, even if they don’t care about it, even if they forget about the meal the moment they stand up from the table. It still affects them. And that got me very interested in the way food operates in a life when you aren’t even paying attention to it. 

These women, they are well known—that’s one reason I chose them, because they stood out from history in one way or another. Except for Rosa Lewis, the last thing in the world you’d think of is to even bring up the word food. But yes, it’s there! And it shows you something.  

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FW: You write a lot about paying attention to the “trivial” and the role of those details in writing social history. Why is food so important for you?

LS: Well the real answer, which isn’t very impressive, is that I really want to know what people eat—I’m fascinated by it! The reasons why we choose to eat what we eat, all the forces that flow through your mind that you’re not even aware of. I feel that all our reactions to the state of being alive can be traced in the things that we choose to eat. I wish there were a way to know it and track it and monitor it, every moment of someone’s life—then you’d really know something. 

FW: Did you encounter any challenges in your research?

LS: The kind of people who wrote a diary, or who wrote a million letters—and maybe their children collect them and edit them into a nice volume—not that many wrote about food. They just didn’t think it was important. They took it for granted. I knew these women had a food life, I knew there was a paper trail, but it still had to be extracted—there will be a thousand-page biography about somebody, and just a paragraph or a sentence somewhere that says, “Oh, and she loved to make cornbread.” 

You have to jump on that. You have to really want to know this stuff to go in search of it. Traditional biographers didn’t talk about food, and they should have, but you know what? They couldn’t see it. It either wasn’t there, or it was well hidden, or they weren’t looking...If I edit anybody’s letters, believe me, you are getting every scrap of butter and drop of milk they ever consumed.

FW: You’re covering a pretty dynamic swath of time in terms of women’s history—from the mid-19th century all the way up to the turn of the 21st. Did you notice any commonalities or trends over time in women’s relationship with food?

LS: Yes—it was kind of astonishing, actually. For example, Dorothy Wordsworth and Helen Gurley Brown—now here, you have two people who do not have a lot in common. They would be very surprised to see themselves in the same book. But the fact is, their domestic lives and their culinary lives, in different ways, very much revolved around the main male in their lives...the presence or absence of that male in the room, in the house, in the life, had a tremendous effect on their feelings about food. Those connections and those commonalities were very much in my mind as I did these stories. The person that stood out in a million ways was Barbara Pym—there’s a time in her life when she decides to turn herself directly towards writing fiction, and she turned away from a life that a man could step into. All the others experienced a kind of male gaze.

FW: So much in these stories has to do with the role of women, literally the rooms in the home that they were relegated to but also what occupied their time; the food history is giving us a lens on women’s history.

LS: Oh, completely. That’s really what got me into food history. You know, I started as a journalist. I was writing for The Real Paper, which was an alternative paper in Cambridge a thousand years ago, at the start of the women’s movement. I was so much part of that, and it was so much part of me—it was my start as a writer and a person. Women were really my preoccupation. As I wrote about the women’s movement, I used to do background on it by reading up on the earlier women’s movements, in the 19th century, and that’s where I found the material for [my first book] Perfection Salad

I realized that what happened to women in their kitchens mattered. They spent a lot of time in those kitchens. It mattered. That was a history. Back then, people weren’t really writing about it as history. But I thought, “Don’t throw this out, this is important!”

Courtesy of Viking Books

What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories by Laura Shapiro will be available in bookstores and online July 25th ($19 amazon.com)