What She Ate by Laura Shapiro

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgWhat She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and The Food That Tells Their Stories by Laura Shapiro.
Viking, 2017.

Genre: Non-Fiction / Biography

Rating: 2.5/5.0

Laura Shapiro is an American food journalist and culinary historian.  In her latest book, What She Ate, Shapiro studies six women and their relationship to food.  Under the notion that how a person relates to food tells you a lot about the individual, she chose six women that span 200 years of history:

Dorothy Wordsworth: The spinster sister to the great poet, William.  Shapiro digs into Dorothy’s diary entries to uncover her obsession with food that began following William’s marriage.  Eating her way through loneliness, becoming obese and well ….. obnoxious.

Rosa Lewis: A former scullery maid who rose through the ranks to become King Edward VII’s favored caterer.  Rosa used food in an attempt to leapfrog her way into society.  Tolerated, but never quite accepted despite her culinary skills.

Eleanor Roosevelt:  The first lady was indifferent to food.  However, she was not beyond using food as revenge for the infidelities of her husband.  After hiring a housekeeper who demonstrated a complete lack of talent in The White House kitchen, she refused to fire her despite Franklin’s protests.

Eva Braun: Hitler’s mistress relished her role of presiding over Hitler’s lunches and dinners. At a time when entire nations were starving, Eva didn’t have a problem with adorning the tables of high-ranking Nazi officials with gourmet delights and ravishing dishes.

Barbara Pym: An English novelist in the 1950s that chronicled food in her own novels. Abundant personal notebooks track Barbara Pym’s obsession with food.

Helen Gurley Brown: The long-time editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine, who used cooking as a device to ‘keep her man’.  In fact she watched her own weight so religiously, that she viewed food as the enemy.

In the wake of the loss of Anthony Bourdain, I am reminded of what a good storyteller he was and how he connected with people via food.  Whether or not you were a Bourdain fan, it was easy to connect with the people in his stories.  Similarly, in What She Ate, I wanted to see a connection between the lives of these six women and how food re-framed their lives.  Or at least I wanted to be able to connect with them at a personal level in some way.   However, while some of the stories were interesting (Eleanor Roosevelt) some of the essays just fell flat for me (Barbara Pym) and I just couldn’t find a connection between them.

But it is probably unfair to compare Shapiro to Bourdain.  If you love food and history, I hope you find these essays engaging. So I encourage you to give it a whirl and let me know what you think of it.

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