In 1969, Helen Gurley Brown was still riding the wave of her blockbuster debut, Sex and the Single Girl, as well as her stunningly successful transformation of a dowdy, 80-year-old general interest magazine into the insouciantly racy Cosmopolitan. Her publisher was convinced that a “lulu of a cookbook” full of “sexy innuendos” would hit the mark, so a professional was brought in to produce the recipes, and Brown rewrote everything in her trademark Cosmo style, that gush of encouragement, italics, and girlish exclamation points. What difference did it make that Brown herself seldom ate anything that could be called real food? She subsisted for decades on a strict high-protein, low-calorie regimen augmented by lashings of vitamin pills and the occasional restaurant meal of plain broiled fish. She was known to breakfast on protein powder stirred into diet orange soda.
According to Laura Shapiro, author of the new book What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories, the result, Helen Gurley Brown’s Single Girl’s Cookbook, is a conceptual mess, a confused hodgepodge of cooking styles. For example, Brown advises readers who have gone to the trouble of making their own savory pastry for hors d’oeuvres to stuff them with canned deviled ham. “Helen was too nervous around food to develop a coherent gustatory approach,” Shapiro writes. Brown boasted of cooking up hearty meals for her adored husband, movie producer David Brown, but “she felt most comfortable with this image when she was keeping as far away as possible from any actual food.” Brown’s contradictory approach to the pleasures of the table was emblematic of a woman whose attitude toward female power was always complicated. She advocated self-sufficiency as long as it didn’t interfere with the prime directive of man-pleasing.
Shapiro believes that “every life has a food story, and every food story is unique.” How a person relates to food tells you a lot about that person, particularly when she’s a woman. Women, in addition to needing to eat like everybody else (unless, apparently, they are Helen Gurley Brown), have put the vast majority of humanity’s meals on the table. Food and cooking are deeply entangled with traditional notions of what a woman is and should be. Shapiro herself felt the undertow of these notions in the 1970s when, as an early devotee of the women’s movement, she married the man with whom she’d been comfortably and equitably cohabiting. As soon as the ring was on her finger, however, she became obsessed with cooking with the kinds of ingredients (cake mix, bouillon cubes) she’d once disdained. A “wildly irrelevant vision of domesticity … was clawing its way out of my subconscious,” she writes. This felt all the crazier because at the time Shapiro and her grad-student husband were living on a shoestring budget in India.
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Besides Brown, the five other women whose food stories Shapiro investigates are Dorothy Wordsworth (sister to the poet William and handmaiden to the birth of Romantic poetry in England), Rosa Lewis (a cockney scullery maid who became the most fashionable professional caterer of Edwardian London), Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, and the novelist Barbara Pym. A culinary historian whose previous books include a biography of Julia Child and two popular studies of the rise of processed and packaged foods, Shapiro is not a foodie writer—that is, she does not ladle out tureens of language to evoke the perfect marine tang of those oysters she ate one afternoon in Antibes. There is no accounting for taste, and I’ll be frank about my own: I find the vast majority of food writing, with its sentimentality, fatuous rhapsodies, and delusions of self-importance, silly.
What She Ate, however, is really a collection of deft portraits in which food supplies an added facet to the whole. Sometimes it strains to do so. With Dorothy Wordsworth in particular, Shapiro is forced to read a great deal into a single line from a 1829 diary entry—“Dined on black pudding”—as a clue to what went wrong in Wordsworth’s life. Wordsworth had once kept house for her brother in an idyllically situated cottage while he and his friends, using her as a sounding board, remade British poetry. Then he married, and Dorothy was eventually reduced to what Shapiro pithily calls “the all-purpose spinster in the Wordsworth family.” We don’t need the black pudding to tell us that taking care of her nephew—a poor bachelor curate stationed in a sodden, depressing village—felt like a huge come-down from preparing simple but pristine meals for a genius in the Lake District. That is the overt text of Wordsworth’s life, and Shapiro bends over backward to interpret it as the subtext of the black pudding line. But Shapiro is such a shrewd, sprightly writer that it’s hard to fault her for reading more into Wordsworth’s “food story” than the record warrants. Each of her subjects fascinates in a different way, and Shapiro has a wizardly epigrammatic knack for summing up paradoxes. Her chapter on Eva Braun describes the impenetrable moral bubble formed by the domestic social rituals Braun presided over and Hitler reveled in as creating “a miraculous aura so true to itself and nothing else.”
The connection between food and biography feels firmest in the chapter on Eleanor Roosevelt, who presided over the most infamously bad meals in White House history. Roosevelt insisted on hiring a hardworking but completely inexperienced and ill-suited housewife from upstate New York, Henrietta Nesbitt, to run the West Wing kitchen, chiefly because she trusted the woman, but also because Nesbitt’s family was in bad straits. During the Depression and World War II, Nesbitt produced ostentatiously frugal dishes like chipped beef on toast, jellied bouillon salad, “Eggs Mexican” (rice topped with bananas and fried eggs), and something called “Shrimp Wiggle.” The president hated her cooking, but Roosevelt never considered replacing her. This has been blamed on Roosevelt’s famous indifference to food, but Shapiro finds that “what’s striking about her culinary asceticism is that she practiced it chiefly in the context of being wife to FDR.” She finds diary entries written after his death, or while Eleanor Roosevelt was among the progressive female activists whose company she found much more congenial, in which the first lady praises delicious crabs’ legs and Arab cuisine. But around her husband, whose sybaritic impulses forever reminded her of his infidelities, food lost its savor.
Helen Gurley Brown isn’t the only dieter Shapiro includes in What She Ate. Braun, too, was single-minded in pursuit of the slenderness that she believed would keep her attractive to men, particularly the man around whom she’d organized her entire life. There isn’t, in fact, much material out of which to spin a food story for Eva Braun, especially compared with her wardrobe; she changed outfits as often as seven times per day and kept detailed, illustrated records of every item of apparel she owned. But that hardly matters, because Braun provides Shapiro with the pretext to explore the role of Champagne, particularly high-end bubbly commandeered from the conquered French, in Nazi society. Everyone drank it, constantly, with the exception of the rather abstemious Hitler himself. “It was the social fuel of the Reich,” Shapiro writes, guzzled by bullies relishing their conquest with a symbol of the high life from which they were excluded before the war.
For Shapiro the food writer, the dieting of both Braun and Brown represents denial, not just of the self but of the truth. Braun lived in a snow globe of largely imaginary glamor, inflated by her movie-fueled fantasy life. (The only thing that really annoyed her about Hitler was that his politically motivated reluctance to be seen in public with her curtailed her opportunities to be photographed in evening gowns.) Brown, on the other hand, was hell-bent on fending off age and postponing the segue from “girl” into woman. But Shapiro inexplicably omits the formative conditions of Brown’s early life in Depression-era Little Rock, Arkansas, raised by a mother who fell into near-poverty after her prominent husband died when Brown was 10. Brown’s work ethic and single-minded determination to hold onto her man, in this light, look like baked-in survival instincts rather than willed obliviousness.
Only one of Shapiro’s subjects, Barbara Pym, intentionally deployed food as a symbol. After some early success in the 1950s, Pym had a precarious career. In the 1960s and early 1970s, an era that prized splashy, confrontational (and mostly male) authors, her exquisite comic novels about the intricate social lives of cardiganed middle-class ladies were hopelessly unfashionable—in fact, most went unpublished. But when two prominent critics responding to a newspaper survey listed her as the most underrated British novelist alive, she enjoyed a revival and a Booker Prize nomination before her death in 1980. Her novels—filled with vicars, church jumble (rummage) sales, cups of tea, narcissistic men, and anthropologists—are sometimes compared to those of Jane Austen for their delicate irony, but Pym was less sanguine about romantic love. As a result, her following is much smaller, but perhaps even more fanatical.
“People blame one for dwelling on trivialities,” one of Pym’s heroines thinks, “but life is made up of them.” What her characters eat reflects their fledging dreams and chastened realities, but Shapiro makes the case that they also tell an alternate version of the history of British cuisine in the postwar years. In one of Pym’s novels, a woman serves the man she’s crushing on a lunch of fresh lettuce dressed in a bit of olive oil and salt, with crusty bread, camembert, and greengage plums for dessert. The repast, which first appeared in one of Pym’s many notebooks in 1948, isn’t fancy, but it puts the lie to the widespread notion that all English people subsisted on boiled meat and vegetables followed by suet pudding. Her diaries and fiction, which include plenty of bad meals but also many appetizing ones, constitute what Shapiro describes as “a revisionist history of midcentury British cooking.” And it wasn’t just Pym who breaks the stereotype. Shapiro also unearthed a newsletter composed of reader-contributed reports on good local restaurants that specialized in dishes like “roast woodcock with herbs and white wine.” A mimeographed precursor to Yelp, it proves that plenty of Pym’s countrymen both prepared and sought out good food.
Brown’s dieting reflects the self-denial and fear concealed behind her ostensibly hedonistic façade of success. Nesbitt’s terrible cooking shows how Roosevelt, whose early married years were dominated by her socialite mother-in-law, came to insist on her own prerogatives. And British cuisine becomes a metaphor or counterpart to Pym’s fiction, and perhaps (I’m obliged to admit) food writing itself, at least the way Shapiro does it: underestimated by those who judge too quickly and by appearances, but full of hidden glories.
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What She Ate by Laura Shapiro. Viking.