Everyone’s got a food story, writes culinary historian Laura Shapiro, but most will never be told. Shaprio believes that one’s relationship with food typically defines who we are, and What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories profiles six vastly different women and their appetites: 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. Each of these women is fascinating, and Shapiro’s carefully researched, astute writing sheds light on their unique places in history, as well as the culinary trends of their time.
Take, for example, Roosevelt, who proclaimed herself “incapable of enjoying food.” Shapiro asserts that instead, Roosevelt had “an intense relationship with food” all of her life, bringing the home economics movement to the White House while insisting on hiring “the most reviled cook in presidential history,” who served dishes like Shrimp Wiggle—shrimp and canned peas heated in white sauce, on toast.
Meanwhile, in Europe, Hitler’s consort, Braun, regularly sipped champagne while the rest of Europe suffered complete devastation. She adored treats but considered keeping her figure of utmost importance, eventually choosing to kill herself with cyanide rather than by gunshot so she could be a “beautiful corpse.”
British novelist Pym “was not a food writer, but she saw the world as if she were,” leaving behind diaries and 88 notebooks that proved to be a culinary historian’s dream, often including shopping lists and recipes. And while her literary characters sipped vast quantities of Ovaltine and tea, Pym showed in both her books and in her life that “good food can be found anywhere.”
Each of the six essays in Shapiro’s What She Ate is a culinary and historical delight. Feast on them slowly so as not to miss a crumb.