What a meal can re­veal about a woman’s life

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY JEN­NIFER REESE Jen­nifer Reese, the au­thor of “Make the Bread, Buy the But­ter,” writes the Tipsy Baker food blog.

That this re­viewer, a food writer and life­long cook­book col­lec­tor, opened a book ti­tled “What She Ate: Six Re­mark­able Women and the Food That Tells Their Sto­ries” with a slightly weary sigh sug­gests that our ap­petite for food nar­ra­tives might be close to sated. That af­ter read­ing food his­to­rian Laura Shapiro’s brac­ing first es­say I de­voured the rest of her book in one sit­ting sug­gests that there’s plenty of room left for work like Shapiro’s.

Food writ­ing is of­ten un­rig­or­ous, more emo­tional than cere­bral. But Shapiro ap­proaches her sub­ject like a sur­geon, an­a­lytic tools sharp­ened. The re­sult is a col­lec­tion of es­says that are tough, el­e­gant and fresh.

Shapiro starts from the premise that “ev­ery­day meals con­sti­tute a guide to hu­man char­ac­ter” and com­poses her por­traits by por­ing over gro­cery lists, di­aries and third-per­son ac­counts of some­times abysmal din­ner par­ties. Of the fig­ures she chose to pro­file, only two had com­pletely healthy re­la­tion­ships with food. Rosa Lewis, the Ed­war­dian-era caterer whose life in­spired the BBC se­ries “The Duchess of Duke Street,” rose from Cock­ney scullery maid to fix­ture of the Bri­tish aris­toc­racy on the strength of her tur­tle soup and truf­fles boiled in cham­pagne. Shapiro’s sketch of this salty char­ac­ter dou­bles as a con­cise so­cial-culi­nary his­tory of early-20th-cen­tury Lon­don.

The Bri­tish novelist Bar­bara Pym also used food to ad­vance her ca­reer. Pym en­joyed teas­ing out the con­nec­tions be­tween ta­ble and char­ac­ter, as does Shapiro, who traces the jot­tings in Pym’s di­aries to the meals of roast duck­ling and blanc­mange that viv­ify her sly, un­der­sung tales of vic­ars and spin­sters.

But many of the pos­si­ble uses and mean­ings of food are less whole­some. The other women in this book var­i­ously gorged on, weaponized, dis­dained and feared food. What did these dys­func­tions say about their lives? Shapiro’s open­ing es­say on the poet and di­arist Dorothy Wordsworth is a daz­zler, a work of in­spired lit­er­ary sleuthing. Shapiro re­con­structs Wordsworth’s youth via the re­peated, off­hand ref­er­ences to food in her early di­aries (“I made bread & A wee Rhubarb Tart & bat­ter pud­ding”), TOP RIGHT: First lady Eleanor Roo­sevelt, right, re­fused to fire a White House chef whose cook­ing was ter­ri­ble. It might have been a way to ex­act re­venge against her cheat­ing hus­band. ABOVE RIGHT: Cos­mopoli­tan edi­tor He­len Gur­ley Brown used her mag­a­zine to pro­mote her ob­ses­sion with thin­ness. which she likens to “the gen­tly re­cur­ring rhymes in a son­net.” Wordsworth be­gan her adult life cook­ing sim­ple, de­li­cious meals for her brother, the Ro­man­tic poet Wil­liam, with whom she was ex­tremely (some have said in­ces­tu­ously) close. But af­ter Wil­liam’s mar­riage, Word­worth grad­u­ally set­tled into the of­ten thank­less role of the fam­ily’s “all-pur­pose spin­ster.” The cheerful food al­lu­sions grew scanter and grim­mer un­til they stopped al­to­gether. Wordsworth found a way to rebel, though. Shapiro’s ac­count of the fi­nal chap­ter of Word­worth’s eat­ing life is too chill­ing to spoil here.

Shapiro has less suc­cess get­ting in­side the pretty head of Eva Braun, Adolf Hitler’s mis­tress, but we prob­a­bly aren’t miss­ing much: Braun’s head ap­pears to have been empty. Shapiro shows us a va­pid, child­like woman who ate very lit­tle in or­der to stay slen­der. She ap­pears as a dec­o­ra­tive charmer, cham­pagne flute in hand, flut­ter­ing around Hitler at his ban­quets, soft­en­ing the face of the Third Re­ich straight to the end. Shortly be­fore her death, holed up in the Ber­lin bunker with Hitler and his hench­men, she was still keep­ing up ap­pear­ances, and brightly of­fered cake and Moët et Chan­don to an as­ton­ished vis­i­tor.

Mean­while, across the At­lantic, Eleanor Roo­sevelt was en­sur­ing that ev­ery­one who dined at the White House en­dured an epi­cally dread­ful meal. If all you ever read about the for­mer first lady is this es­say, the strong­est in the book, you’ll un­der­stand her strengths and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, as well as the pos­si­bly sub­con­scious ways she used food to chan­nel her re­sent­ments. Upon arriving at the White House, Roo­sevelt in­stalled “the most re­viled cook in pres­i­den­tial his­tory” and re­fused ever to fire her. For the next 12 years, the Roo­sevelts sat down daily to leath­ery roasts, wa­tery veg­eta­bles and atroc­i­ties such as “Eggs Mex­i­can,” a melange of fried eggs, ba­nanas and rice. Shapiro builds a strong case that Roo­sevelt hired and kept this in­com­pe­tent cook to spite and pun­ish her hus­band for his inat­ten­tion and af­fairs.

In­deed, the only dish in this book that sounds as re­volt­ing as Eggs Mex­i­can is He­len Gur­ley Brown’s ver­sion of hot but­tered rum. It called for But­ter Buds, a packet of Equal, rum and hot wa­ter. Cheers?

For Brown, the edi­tor of Cos­mopoli­tan mag­a­zine from 1965 to 1997, fat was dis­grace­ful and calo­ries a di­a­bol­i­cal force to be re­sisted at all costs. Shapiro didn’t have to dig deep to un­cover Brown’s pathol­ogy as Brown, a self-de­scribed “grown-up anorec­tic,” crowed about it con­stantly: “I have dumped cham­pagne (which I adore) into other peo­ple’s glasses when they weren’t look­ing or, in a real emer­gency, into a split-leaf philo­den­dron, wrapped eclairs in a hanky and put them in my purse, once in an emer­gency, se­questered one be­hind the cush­ion of an up­hol­stered chair — in a nap­kin of course.”

Nap­kin or no, that was a rot­ten thing to do to some­one’s chair. But for Brown, thin­ness trumped eti­quette. She emerges as both for­mi­da­bly ac­com­plished and, lit­er­ally, stunted. Shapiro doesn’t delve into the ways that Brown, un­like the other women in the book, in­flicted her food ob­ses­sions on the cul­ture at large. This might have been worth a few pages. For decades, Cosmo was dis­played at su­per­mar­ket check­out stands to be stud­ied by wait­ing chil­dren and adults alike. Brown’s nearly naked mod­els and lurid cov­er­lines jux­ta­pos­ing sex and slen­der­ness helped shape — or per­haps the right word is warp — a gen­er­a­tion’s at­ti­tude to­ward food and the fe­male body.

In­deed, Brown would be a sorry fig­ure with which to end this splen­did book if the very ex­is­tence of this book were not ev­i­dence that the values she touted have shifted. While thin­ness is still prized, more for­giv­ing stan­dards of beauty have been em­braced since Brown’s hey­day. And a vi­brant food cul­ture has bur­geoned, one that has spawned a rich body of literature to which “What She Ate” is just the lat­est ad­di­tion.

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AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

By Laura Shapiro Viking. 320 pp. $27

WHAT SHE ATE Six Re­mark­able Women and the Food That Tells Their Sto­ries

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