What she ate: food as an insight into the lives of six noteworthy women

Under the plate

Laura Shapiro’s newest book, What She Ate, tells the stories of six vastly different women from what they had on their plates. 

Kate Richards: Can you tell me a little about the premise of the book and how you wrote it?
Laura Shapiro: There are always lots of reasons why the idea for a book starts to take shape, and in this case one of the notions I had early on was that I was tired of all the happy talk in food writing. Everybody – including me – was writing about food and love, food and family, food bringing us together, and I wanted to look at what else there was to say about food. Surely every message emanating from the dinner table wasn’t about how my grandmother’s lasagne recipe saved my marriage. So, I started looking for what else was going on at the table, what else might be hidden under the platters, and that brought me to the idea of using food as a window into people’s lives.

Why did you choose these six women?
Each one appealed to me in a different way. Barbara Pym was included right off the bat, because I’ve loved her books for years and because her whole life was an homage to food. Dorothy Wordsworth, on the other hand, had never particularly interested me until I came across a reference to her sitting down to a dinner of black pudding, and it struck me as so utterly out of character that I couldn’t resist jumping into her life and trying to figure it out. Eva Braun gave me the creeps, she still does, but that was why I couldn’t resist writing about her. Of course there were also logistical reasons why I chose these women and not others. I had to be able to tell their food stories, which meant that in each case there had to be a paper trail documenting her relationship with food. That was quite a limiting factor – after all, most women don’t leave diaries or collections of letters, or write memoirs.

Do you have a soft spot for any of them?
I mentioned Barbara Pym, and she’s always the one who makes me smile, even when I look back at the agony of book writing. Reading her diaries and letters in the Bodleian Library at Oxford was one of the most glorious research experiences I’ve ever had. There I was, turning the pages of those tiny notebooks she used to carry everywhere, looking for mentions of food and then copying everything I found, food or not, because it was all so radiant with her personality and wit. I hated finishing that research. I kept going back to the Bodleian for fact-checking, even when I had nothing left to check except the commas.

What can we learn by examining people through the lens of food?
Food tells us everything. I’m really convinced of that. It touches on every aspect of our lives, including all sorts of miseries and horrors that we would much rather not think about. And it illuminates culture, class, obviously gender – you name it, food is the mirror.

What could we learn about you by looking at what you eat?
Well, you could start by watching me lining up for soft-serve ice cream in the summer. We go to a small town on Lake Michigan during the month of August, and the high point of every evening is a trip to the Dairy Maid, where they are grand masters of this art. There are, of course, innumerable variations and even a ‘flavour of the day’ but I am fervently a purist here; it’s always vanilla. I know the ice cream nobility look down on soft-serve, but to me it’s the supreme ice cream pleasure and has been all my life. I wish I could describe, with the technicolour glory it deserves, the moment when I saw my daughter discovering soft-serve at the age of two. We have a picture of her, utterly enraptured by her cone, that sums up for me everything I feel about being a mother and living my life. Oh dear, here it is, exactly what I said earlier I wanted to avoid in this book – happy talk about food. But I can’t help it. It’s just plain true. Summer and soft-serve and my daughter clutching that cone – it’s all right there, every question of human existence answered.

Why don’t we examine lives through food more often?
We certainly examine food itself these days – in the US, it seems as though there’s no other subject on earth, except of course our current “president”. But we haven’t often used it to look at people’s lives, in part because of the paper trail problem I mentioned earlier. When you look at 19th century diaries, for instance, people write about the weather, they write about family events, they write about travelling here or there, but in general they tend to say very little about food. It’s incredibly frustrating. Here they are at lunch, or dinner, or a neighbour stops by during breakfast, and nobody says a word about what they’re eating. Another reason why food is usually missing from traditional biographies is that traditional scholars and academics couldn’t be bothered with it. Food and cooking were just a couple of those petty female preoccupations that had no business in serious books about important people.

If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life what would it be?
I often think I could eat the food of the Middle East very happily for the rest of my life. The spices, the textures, the fresh herbs everywhere, the lamb, the quantities of salad, the splashes of yogurt, the bread – to me it’s one of the most wholeheartedly satisfying cuisines.

Barbara Pym

Her work concerned women in the post-war kitchen and how disappointing the food of the time could be, with references to dishes of baked beans, blancmange and undressed salad made by 1950s spinsters. 

Helen Gurley Brown

An editor of Cosmopolitan for 32 years, she was fearfully skinny but loved sweet food. Her restrained diet included “85 calorie skinny hot buttered rum” made from “sweeteners, Butter Buds, water and a dash of rum”, which she savoured.

Eleanor Roosevelt

The politician saw food as sustenance rather than pleasure. She had her cook prepare dishes that mirrored the USA’s economic austerity at the time. It wasn’t long before every Washington official knew to eat before dinner at her place.

Rosa Lewis

A British chef who worked her way up the social ladder after starting out as a domestic servant. Her accomplished cooking style – including signature dishes like rich game pies – was a middle finger to the oppressive kitchens of the era. 

Dorothy Wordsworth

Her food story reveals a glimpse into the intimate life she lived with her brother, the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, for whom she cooked lovingly. She died obese, due to a particular liking for butter.







Available from Time Out Bookstore, Unity Books and The Women’s Bookshop