What She Ate by Laura Shapiro

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Reviewed by Hayley Anderton

What She Ate by Laura Shapiro

What She Ate looks at ‘six remarkable women and the food that tells their stories’. It comes at a time when food centred biographies, or food books that frame themselves around biography are common, but as Shapiro points out in her introduction this is a relatively recent development. She began writing about women and food over thirty years ago, full of questions that no one seemed to be asking, but which she felt could reveal so much about women’s lives. A particular eureka moment was reading a biography of Dorothy Wordsworth and trying to reconcile the image she had of her, with the black pudding. ‘Black pudding, that stodgy mess of blood and oatmeal, plunked down in front of Dorothy Wordsworth, the daffodil girl?’

Shapiro is of course right when she points out that we all eat, all have a relationship with food, and all bring some emotional and psychological baggage to the table. Looking at lives through the food people ate is an intimate and revealing view, but there’s also a lot of story telling here. As she notes in the introduction she always works with the facts, but ‘facts alone are just scaffolding. It’s the writer who comes up with the story’.

I can’t help but wonder what this book would have been like if Laura Shapiro thought of black pudding as something more appetising than a ‘stodgy mess of blood and oatmeal’. It’s hard to say, but there’s a lot of Shapiro in this book, she shares her questions with us in the way she might well share a meal and conversation. The strength of this approach is in the way it encourages the reader to ask their own questions, but there are weaknesses to it as well, and one of those is that if food speaks, it doesn’t necessarily say the same thing to everybody. 

The six chosen women are Dorothy Wordsworth, the Edwardian chef Rosa Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Barbara Pym, and Helen Gurley Brown who edited ‘Cosmopolitan’. It’s a fascinating book, the food approach reveals all sorts of unexpected details about the women under the spotlight (or should that be grill?), some that you can even taste, but the clearest voice remains Shapiro’s. 

It seems there’s nowhere that I’m more aware of the differences between the U.K and America than when reading about food, and that’s true here as well, especially when Barbara Pym is under discussion. Pym’s food world will be familiar to any British reader old enough to remember what we ate before we took hummus for granted. We know there were some awful things around, but there has always been good food in Britain too. Shapiro’s view of the British diet has been filtered through Julia Child and Elizabeth David, neither of who were fans.

Pym talks lovingly about food, she enjoyed cooking, and clearly took pleasure in eating the good things that came her way. She also wrote a lot about food which makes her the perfect subject for a book like this, and I was greedy to know more about Pym, rather than settling the debate about how good or bad food in fifties Britain really was. It’s an outsider’s view, and put me unexpectedly at odds with her.

The chapter on Eva Braun presents a different problem. Eva seems to have been very conscious of her figure and appearance, so she dieted a lot, and what we actually get is a chapter about what Hitler ate. There’s even a slightly queasy moment when Shapiro refers to Eva’s complaints that Hitler more or less ignored her birthday, sending only flowers, not jewellery or a puppy, before going on to explain to us how busy he was at the time. Nor does Shapiro question Braun’s parents version of events, although there are serious holes in that story. There’s more supposition here about Eva’s character and motivation than I’m comfortable with either, the real Eva remains elusive, nothing more than a young woman who liked champagne and pretty clothes.

Despite these quibbles What She Ate is an entertaining, gossipy book with some provocative points to make and insights to give. It’s well worth a look. 

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.

Laura Shapiro, What She Ate, (4th Estate 2018), 9-780008281076, 307pp., Hardback.

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