July 25, 2017

Laura Shapiro

A hidden history, served up on a platter
Interview by
In What She Ate, food historian Laura Shapiro reveals the surprising stories behind six fascinating women's appetites. We asked Shapiro a few questions about the secrets food reveals, the questions that still linger and her own appetites and cooking habits.&nbsp
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In What She Ate, food historian Laura Shapiro reveals the surprising stories behind six fascinating women’s appetites. Her subjects include author, poet and diarist Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of William; British chef Rosa Lewis, known as the “Queen of Cooks,” whose champions included King Edward VII; first lady Eleanor Roosevelt; Hitler’s mistress and eventual wife, Eva Braun; British novelist Barbara Pym; and writer and publisher Helen Gurley Brown. 

We asked Shapiro a few questions about the secrets food can reveal, the questions that still linger and her own appetites and cooking habits. 

You wrote that digging deeply into the stories of these women sometimes felt like probing into "the underside" of a Norman Rockwell painting. What surprised you the most? Do any unknowns still nag you?

There’s an image I just can’t shake; it’s been hovering over me ever since I started reading about Eleanor Roosevelt and the food at the FDR White House. It's an image of Eleanor herself, one of the most generous and warm-hearted First Ladies in history, gazing pleasantly around the luncheon table as the main course is served. Her guests try a bite or two of some dreary, lifeless dish; they push the food around, and as soon as they can politely do so, they put down their forks. I think about this scene so often, I feel as though I must have been there, but I still can’t figure out what Eleanor was thinking. She loved these people! They were friends, colleagues, people she admired, people working hard for FDR and the New Deal. And she was watching them get up from the table hungry. What’s unknowable here, at least to me, is the nature of the disconnect between Eleanor-the-empathetic and Eleanor-the-oblivious. In the book I write about the various reasons why she tolerated and/or promoted terrible food at the White House, yet enjoyed food in other times and places. But this disconnect runs even deeper, and it’s a mystery to me. I suspect it was a mystery to her, too.

“Everyday meals," you write, "constitute a guide to human character and a prime player in history." In addition to the Last Supper, what other famous meals come to mind, and what questions do you have about that meal?
One day in Paris, probably around 1913, Gertrude Stein invited the writer Carl Van Vechten to dinner. Van Vechten was a cultural entrepreneur and activist—he was involved in dance, music, the Harlem Renaissance and pretty much everything else going on in the arts before World War II. He wanted to cultivate Gertrude Stein, and she was very willing to be cultivated, hence the invitation. Stein, of course, lived with Alice B. Toklas, a great cook and very discerning food-lover. In other words, everything was in place for a noteworthy meal. Toklas herself didn’t make dinner—they had a cook, Hélène—but as Stein’s devoted lover and most fanatic admirer, Toklas surely would have overseen the menu. Or did she? That night, Hélène served them "an extraordinarily bad dinner," Stein wrote in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. "For some reason best known to herself she gave us course after course of hors d’oeuvres finishing up with a sweet omelet." Actually that sounds good to me, but then, I always like the hors d’oeuvres best.

At any rate, I’m dying to know more. Years later, when Toklas wrote The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, she described Hélène as "that rare thing, an invariably perfect cook. She knew all the niceties of making menus. If you wished to honour a guest you offered him an omelette soufflé with an elaborate sauce, if you were indifferent to this an omelette with mushrooms or fines herbes, but if you wished to be insulting you made fried eggs." I have a feeling insult was on the menu that night—but why? Why?

When you visit people’s homes, do you yearn to peek inside their cupboards and fridge? How and why did you turn into a culinary historian?
Yes, it was exactly that impulse to sneak a look inside other people’s refrigerators that propelled me into writing about food. Growing up I was wildly curious about what everyone else was eating—I remember looking at other kids’ lunch trays at Broadmeadow School, and trying to guess why they skipped the Jell-O but didn’t mind eating those horribly flabby mashed potatoes doled out with an ice-cream scoop. When I discovered that this obsessive curiosity was perfectly respectable as long as I called it being a culinary historian, I was delighted.

The chapter about Eva Braun is fascinating, including her fondness for daily champagne and her penchant for new clothes and preserving her figure. You note that historians have reconstructed Hitler and Braun’s last hours in minute detail, yet there is "remarkably little documentation of the last meal." What might those details reveal?
It’s fascinating that Third Reich historians have described practically everything about the final hours in the bunker, except the last lunch. Or rather, they've noted it, but the accounts differ; and it’s impossible to say for sure exactly what was on the table. I made what I hope is a reasonable guess, based on the most consistent information; but I hate not having all the facts. I think what I’d see, if I knew the food more precisely, would have to do with the nature of appetite and the symbolic power of the act of eating. They were under siege; horror and destruction were just outside, and they had created that horror and destruction, so the chaos was inside them as well. How do you feed yourself, what does sustenance mean, when you’ve brought about so much death and are now looking straight at your own?

Of the women you profile, Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Browns food story seems particularly surprising. Famed for being on the forefront of feminism, she was constantly dieting with protein, pills and Lean Cuisines while still trying to cook for her husband. Why do you think she was unable to escape this self-imposed trap?
I was fascinated by the young Helen I discovered in the Helen Gurley Brown papers at Smith College—a smart, ambitious woman determined to make her way in Los Angeles. She had such a lively mind, and I think she could have gone in all sorts of interesting directions if she hadn’t decided to focus practically exclusively on men and sex. The moment she hit the big time with Sex and the Single Girl it was all over. She didn’t dare let go of the formula. So for the rest of her life, she worked like crazy on maintaining the same body, the same skin, the same hair and the same single-minded focus on men. It really was her prison, and by the end of her life, under the wig and the plastic surgery, there just wasn’t much left.

What were your favorite meals as a child? And now?
My mother was a wonderful cook, and in fact she worked as a caterer during the ’50s and ’60s, so there was often a lot of cooking going on in our kitchen that wasn’t for the family, it was for one of her clients. She would pack it all up, put it in the car, and drive off to the event. Late that night she’d return home, unpack the car, and put the leftovers in the refrigerator. The leftovers! I used to get up very early, go right down to the kitchen in my pajamas, and forage in the refrigerator for breakfast—the most glorious breakfasts you can imagine. There were cream-cheese-and-mushroom rolls; there were slices of "party rye" with onion, mayonnaise and parmesan cheese; there were cream puffs filled with crabmeat; there was liptauer cheese dip; and I suppose there were things like meat and vegetables, but those didn't interest me. Then I would check the cookie tin for desserts—brownies, rugelach, and what we called "edges." My mother made excellent lemon squares, and she always cut off the messy edges so each square would look tidy. The edges— lemony, buttery and crisp—were saved for us.

Alas, I’ve never again lived with a refrigerator that held such treasures, but to this day, leftovers are my favorite meal.

Once you got married, "the prospect of making dinner hovered over each day like a thundercloud that refused to break." To further complicate matters, you and your husband had moved to India.
It’s a good thing I got married back in the 1970s and not last week, because I’d be losing my mind even more definitively in today’s culinary environment than I did all those years ago. Back then I had cooked lots of meals as a woman but none as a wife, and I was frantically trying to figure out the difference between those two female identities. Yes, there was a male partner in my life, but it was the same male partner who had been there before the wedding, so why was I suddenly a different person? Or was I the same person, albeit wearing a ring and writing thank-you notes? In pursuit of some kind of answer, I focused on the act of making dinner, which I knew to be a special preoccupation of wives—at least, that was the message I had absorbed from all the women’s magazines that came to our house while I was growing up.

But suppose I were launching my domestic life today, and focusing on dinner as the prime signifier of wifedom. I’d be assailed on all sides by images of glamorous, perfect meals—they’d be on TV and social media, they'd be in newspapers and magazines, they'd be in every cookbook. The stakes would be impossibly high. I'd have wife-anxiety and also competitive-cookery anxiety. I’d be worrying about spending a fortune on flawless organic ingredients just to make my mother’s recipe for chicken tetrazzini, and I’d be worrying that I shouldn’t make it at all because it's so embarrassingly old fashioned, and I'd be worrying about whether to make some splendidly simple dinner instead, like grilled salmon, and then I'd realize I had no grill and that the good salmon cost $35 a pound—well, you get the picture. Mania in all directions simultaneously.

I think if I have any advice on starting to cook, it’s this—just cook. Regularly. Use fresh ingredients, and for heaven’s sake buy them in the supermarket if you want to. Follow some incredibly simple recipe, and cultivate a respect for the ordinary. The rest is commentary.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of What She Ate.

(Author photo by Ellen Warner.)

Get the Book

What She Ate

What She Ate

By Laura Shapiro
Viking
ISBN 9780525427643

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