Food as biography

Laura Shapiro’s book What She Ate demonstrates a fact: food provides a window into our lives. Indeed, food can shed light on issues of identity, longing, fear, and need. While biography may traditionally treat what’s on the plate as incidental, Shapiro’s work does not. “Food happens every day,” she argues. “It’s intimately associated with all our appetites and thoroughly entangled with the myriad social and economic conditions that press upon a life. Whether or not we spend time in a kitchen, whether or not we even care what’s on the plate, we have a relationship with food that’s launched when we’re born and lasts until we die.”

With this in mind, Shapiro introduces us to six women, each from a different time and place: Dorothy Wordsworth, devoted sister to William, the English poet of the late eighteenth century; Rosa Lewis, celebrity caterer to London society at the turn of the twentieth century; Eleanor Roosevelt, wife to the American president of the 1930 and 40s; Eva Braun, mistress to Adolf Hitler in the same era; Barbara Pym, the English novelist of the mid twentieth century; and the American publisher Helen Gurley Brown who shot to fame in 1960s New York. While their stories have been told before, Shapiro’s lens of food provides insights that are as fascinating as they are revealing. “It turns out that our food stories don’t always honor what’s smartest and most dignified about us,” she concludes, “more often they go straight to what’s neediest.” These accounts prove that to be the case.

Dorothy Wordsworth is best known to us through the journal she kept for three of the years she spent in devoted, live-in service to her brother. Though today she is a cherished figure in the history of Romantic poetry, Dorothy surrendered personal ambition to the domesticity of household management. Indeed, as she pressed into this role, especially in the kitchen, she found purpose. Through close attention to the meals they shared day after day and writing about them, Dorothy affirmed that life mattered — her life mattered in all its mundanity. Tragically, once deprived of what mattered most to her, usurped by William’s bride, food became her obsession and a significant factor in her psychological decline.

Rosa Lewis was a working-class woman who used food as a passport into the upper echelons of British society. By infiltrating the dining rooms of the rich and pedigreed as a celebrity caterer, Rosa learned the “secret handshake” that gave her entree into the world she longed for. The truth is, celebrity is a fickle thing as are the fashions of the table. As culinary tastes changed, so Rosa learned that her cherished sense of belonging was a fragile as lettuce wilting on a plate. In reality, the demarcations of class would never give way for such as her.

Eleanor Roosevelt, resident of the White House for eight years and one of the most formidable and capable First Ladies that nation has known, had a relationship with food that mirrored her conflicted roles of wife and mother. Notorious for the provision of food that was as sparing and bland as it was frugal, she appeared to care little for bodily appetites. Her later confession that she was, during these years, “lost somewhere deep down inside myself,” is a telling revelation of her thirst for love, a thirst that had to hidden or redirected for most of her life.

It was in April of 1945 as the Russians invaded Berlin, Hitler’s devoted mistress Eva Braun took her own life by biting down on a cyanide capsule in the bunker of the Reich Chancellory. By her side, her beloved Adolf shot himself. Eva lived her entire adult life in a fantasy world fuelled by champagne, romantic longing and vanity. Day after day, with a great sea of humanity struggling for survival on her doorstep, Eva feasted and fasted her way to the most ignorant and tragic end.

As a novelist, Barbara Pym made an art form of observation in the most immediate details of life. In Shapiro’s words, “she used the food she knew to tell the stories she knew.” Her spare but evocative descriptions of food amidst the domesticity of rural English life was a reminder that life’s richness was not reserved for the gourmets sitting in French cafes, but was present in the simplicity of every meal and every life no matter how ordinary.

As a publisher and socialite, Helen Gurley Brown carefully curated a 1960s persona infatuated with sex, food and herself. Through her bestselling autobiography Sex and the Single Girl, her phenomenally successful editorship of Cosmopolitan and her much publicised foray into recipe books, Helen betrayed a relationship with food that was as publicly celebrated as it was personally loaded. A life-long obsession with dieting underlay it all. Indeed, Shapiro writes, “For Helen, dieting was a mission that went well beyond weight loss. It was a crusade against every enemy she had ever imagined in her future, from poverty to spinsterhood to a pitiable old age.”

There is so much more to these stories than this. Shapiro’s book is a delightful and fascinating read beginning to end. Her gift to readers is to illustrate the layered, complex and telling relationships we all have to food and the worth of allowing those relationships to be explored.

Laura Shapiro, What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories, New York, Viking, 2017.

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