Categories: Arts Literature

Secret lives revealed in delectable ‘What She Ate’

Promotion for Laura Shapiro’s “What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women & The Food That Tells Their Stories” touts it as a witty, entertaining and scholarly collection of intimate portraits of Dorothy Wordsworth, Rosa Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Barbara Pym and Helen Gurley Brown — and indeed it is.

Shapiro, a food writer and James Beard journalism award-winning “culinary historian,” dissects the everyday lives of these varied 19th and 20th century characters by looking closely at what they cooked and ate.

Though it may seem like an odd idea and selection of subjects, it’s a riveting read from start to finish.

I gobbled up first five chronologically arranged chapters, and purposely put the book down in an attempt to savor the last part, about the most contemporary, most familiar, woman. Yet Shapiro offers new analysis and fascinating facts about the eternally thin “Sex and the Single Girl” writer and exclamation-point happy Cosmopolitan magazine editor (Helen Gurley Brown, 1922-2012) whose dessert staple was a whole package of sugar-free diet Jell-O — and also about the times in which she lived.

Even though the chapters aren’t linked, together they make up a fun, unconventional, insightful compendium of history lessons of sorts, from a feminist perspective.

The volume starts with Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855), spinster sister of poet William, whose letters and diaries are what sparked Shapiro to write “What She Ate.” In a lengthy examination of Dorothy’s use of the simple phrase “dined on black puddings,” seemingly a stretch, Shapiro convincingly reveals a turning point for the worse for Wordsworth, whose peaceful, contented life changed dramatically when her brother married, and ended after years of decline and illness.

In the chapter on Rosa Lewis (1867-1952), a British caterer whose clients included King Edward, Shapiro fascinatingly describes how a worker from the servant class, striving for success in high-society, became a successful cook, businesswoman and hotel owner (whose fortune ultimately faded).

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) and her “bleak culinary reputation” come to the fore in a chapter about how, as First Lady, she presided over the worst White House food in the history of the presidency (with “sick-looking” meals that included dry, overcooked lamb, cold mutton slices or wilted salad) and insisted on keeping an amateur housekeeper in charge of the cooking staff. Perhaps these realities were connected to the fact that Eleanor and Franklin, for the most part, led separate lives.

Shapiro provides interesting, little-known background about Hitler’s young mistress Eva Braun (1912-1945), who was suicidal until she was installed into his residence. There, she had no stake in politics but in domestic life, as she oversaw pleasant, easygoing meals of fresh food for Nazi guests; Hitler was a vegetarian and had a sweet tooth.

In a chapter that details the up-and-down publishing career of charming British novelist Barbara Pym (1913-1980), Shapiro shows how the writer’s ordinary heroines reflect real life: sometimes they’re accomplished home cooks roasting lamb and making Yorkshire pudding, but sometimes, as with the reputation of their country’s dreary cuisine, they open up tins and heat up frozen peas.

Shapiro, who was in The City in October to launch the book, said she likes to use food to put a focus on lives “that could be any of ours,” and added, “It all comes out in the food – race, class, social issues, politics.”

What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women & The Food That Tells Their Stories
Written by: Laura Shapiro
Published by: Viking
Pages: 307
Price: $30

Leslie Katz

San Francisco Examiner’s arts and entertainment editor Leslie Katz has been assigning, editing and/or writing news stories about the Bay Area’s rich cultural scene since 1997. Reach her at (415) 359-2727 or

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