Category Archives: Food & Identity

Food as biography

whatsheate_cover3Laura Shapiro’s book What She Ate demonstrates a fact: food provides a window into life. Indeed, food can open the way into some of the most deeply held 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 celebrated poet of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century England; Rosa Lewis, celebrity caterer to the upper echelons of 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.

Southern Fare II


Another installment from Michael Lee West’s southern memoir Consuming Passions on family, identity and recipes ….

Even when I’m all by myself, I never cook alone. My grandparents are dead, along with my father and some favorite aunts …  but my family lives on in their recipes.

I bring Mimi’s chocolate cake to potlucks and Aunt Tempe’s majestic coconut layer cake to holiday parties. I make Aunt Blanche’s pancakes on Sunday morning. The aunts, living or dead, left me with a legacy of food—and the confidence to cook it.

Whenever I’m making biscuits, cutting them out with a child’s jelly glass, I feel my grandmother hovering. She is somewhere over the pot rack, telling me that biscuits are like cats, they don’t take to handling. ‘Am I doing this right?’ I ask her. ‘You’re doing just fine,’ she says. ‘Don’t let me stop you.’

And later …

This recipe was my grandmother’s grandmother’s recipe. Whenever I bake it all my forebears gather in my kitchen. Elizabeth taught Estelle to make this cake, and Estelle taught Mimi, and Mimi taught Ary Jean, and Ary Jean taught Michael Lee, and Micheal Lee taught Trey and Tyler. Every time I break an egg, their spirits guide me. When I stir the batter, I am stirring up these kitchen ghosts. They bolster me; but most of all, they whisper in my ear a split second before the timer buzzes.

Southern Fare


My beloved is in Texas; returned to the place of family, sweet tea and barbecue. In honour of her travels (without me!) I’ve been re-reading Michael Lee West’s Consuming Passions: A Food Obsessed Life. It’s a wonderful book, an easy-to-read memoir of family and food in the South.

For the most part, the stories centre around the women in West’s life—sisters and mothers, eccentric aunts and grandmas—those who held life and family together at the stove. I love it because it’s well written and funny, but even more because it resonates with my own experience of food and family in rural Texas. It’s a world of its own.

A few quotes over the next week

Why, recipes were like kinfolk. Mimi’s mashed potato salad reminded me of a pale, plump cousin who avoided heat and sunlight, yet she always smelled of wild onions; Tempe’s pecan tassies were sublime and nutty—very much like Tempe’s daughters; and Myrble’s lemon cake was like a flirtatious tart, one the menfolk couldn’t resist.

At one funeral, Aunt Hettie pulled me aside and said, “This is a shame! What a loss!.” I thought she was speaking of the relative we were there to bury, the gorgeous aunt who had left a well nigh perfect husband to run off with a rough-edged millionaire.

“She’s taken her gingerbread recipe to the grave,” Aunt Hettie moaned. Then she turned to me, “Men could not resist that dish. And your own grandmother took her biscuits with her, too.”

“No, she didn’t!” cried Mama. “I know it by heart.” “You better write it down,” warned Aunt Tempe. “Young people don’t know how to make scratch biscuits. They just pop open a can.”

“Food is dying art,” said Tempe. “At least in this family. We’re burying our best recipes.”

Kitchen Table Memoirs

I’m not long back from a few days in Christchurch, New Zealand, with the wonderful communities that make up the church formally known as Spreydon, now Southwest. More of that later. On the way home I passed the transit hours (always too many) reading Nick Richardson’s Kitchen Table Memoirs: Shared Stories from Australian Writers.

169621It’s a gathering of very personal reflections centred around life at the table, most commonly kitchen tables but including a few in restaurants and professional kitchens, even a community table shared deep in the Antarctic. It’s a gentle collection, undemanding and easy to read, sometimes funny, occasionally odd, and often moving. Each chapter provides a small insight into the highly personal worlds of domestic memory, family intimacy, regret, longing or the simple comfort that a table can provide. Contributors include comedians Denise Scott and Jean Kittson, writer Helen Garner, food historian Barbara Santich, chef Stefano de Piere and restaurant critic Gemima Cody.

A collection like this could easily slip into shallow sentimentality. The truth of table memories on public view can be lost in a romantic mist more to do with wishful longing than reality. For the most part, this collection avoids the trap. There’s enough reality here to make this a worthwhile read for anyone wanting to appreciate again just how central the kitchen table is to life, no matter how scarred and fragile it might have turned out to be.

Some words worth repeating:

The table was the centre of the family, touched hundreds of thousands of times. Touched and thumped and leant on and slumped on and very occasionally stood on at moments of joy and grief and relief and revelation. Whoopee has been made around it, and war. A normal bag of life’s emotions, and a family’s. … Everything happened at the table. The table was the tablet on which the stories were written in DNA and scuffs and stains. … the table wasn’t just an open book with footnotes and handwritten jottings and the impress and imprint of everyone whose lives had intersected at the table. It was a whole library. A leatherbound, handsewn, copperplate record, with mug rings and ink stains and spit on the corners and all. (Jean Kittson)

In the glorious clusterfuck of our existence, the table was our sanctuary from the greater insanity of the real world. Two square metres of civilisation. … That scored and battered stretch of wood was classroom, courtroom, parliament and temple. It was theatre and restaurant and sometimes zoo. A place where peace was found in the meditative cutting of carrots. Where we learnt the rewards of trusting the unknown by taking a chance on the liver. And where, over a thousand chicken pies, and many more teas, we’d argue the world down to a size and shape that made some sense. (Gemima Cody)

Nick Richardson ed., Kitchen Table Memoirs: Shared Stories from Australian Writers, ABC Books (HarperCollins): Sydney, 2013