Saturday, July 15, 2017
Review: What She Ate by Laura Shapiro
Laura Shapiro delves into lives of six famous women, many of whom are known to history even here in the 21st century. Beginning with Dorothy Wordsworth, the sister of the poet Wordsworth and their early lives together. Dorothy thinks more of her brother than of herself, reminding her brother when to eat and providing nutritious simple meals and then accompanying her brother on walks in the English countryside. There was a close relationship between Dorothy and William, almost as close as a married couple until William met and fell in love with his bride to be.
The narrative changes considerably when Dorothy no longer takes care of her brother and his wife takes over. Dorothy does her best to fit into their lives and take care of her nieces and nephews, but loses all interest in taking good care of her own needs. Her modest food needs become more important and take a larger focus in her thoughts and actions until Dorothy ends her life on the sidelines, luxuriating in food and the growing expanse of her waistline. William and his wife do their duty toward Dorothy as she declines into dementia and fractious old age, bending to Dorothy's extraordinary tantrums and needs. The food she carefully prepared when she took care of her brother changed as he moved on with his life into marriage and children and the popularity of his poetry and Dorothy slipped into the oblivion of forgotten old age.
Rosa Lewis, the Cockney caterer who climbed the social ladder in Edwardian society, was the most famous English cook of the era, buying and operating her own restaurant in the heart of London. She pioneered the spread for weekend shooting parties at the landed estates all throughout England and Scotland, making her shooting parties unique, rustic, and essential to the post Victorian age when shooting parties were all the rage. From a poor serving family to the pinnacle to social success, Rosa was copied by other servants anxious to make their way out of the garrets and servants' quarters all over Great Britain, becoming a caricature of herself and a model of upward mobility that increased after World War I when the world was in chaos and on into the changing face of Europe and America as World War II began heating up. Rosa Lewis never lost her Cockney accent or hid her humble origins.
Eleanor Roosevelt was born of privilege and may even have known and met Rosa Lewis, or at least enjoyed her food at British weekend parties when she and Franklin dined with friends and relations across the pond, but Eleanor was a very different sort of woman. She was born of privilege, married to her cousin, and promptly pushed to the sidelines as Franklin's mother took charge and set the tone for the marriage. Eleanor was not the kind of woman to be shoved aside without a single thought. Instead, she took the reins in her own hands, left her mother-in-law to deal with her family bailiwick, and struck out on her own, traveling to the colleges and universities in America, learning all about the new home economics and the needed economies in the wake of World War I and the financial crash that heralded the Great Depression of the middle 20th century. She chose and hired a housekeeper, branded the worst cook in White House history, who cooked plain food that showcased the sacrifices Eleanor felt necessary for the White House as well as the beleaguered American housewife.
In a way, Eleanor fed Franklin the same, cheap food that wives throughout America could afford during the Depression, using a passive-aggressive approach as First Lady when dealing with Franklin and his staff while living in the White House for three terms. I imagine her approach was not only frugality but personal payback for Franklin's extramarital affairs and her mother-in-law pushing her to the fringe of her own family. Eleanor was a proud and industrious woman who took her position seriously and used everything at her disposal not to take advantage of her elevated position at FDR's side and to show the world that she was more interested in good works than good food, although she took center stage at dinners where she used the chafing dish to prepare her favorite and increasingly laudable dinners that were far removed from the inexpensive meals her cook managed in the White House kitchens. Eleanor was fond of good food, she said, but preferred her meals in company with friends and colleagues far from her mother-in-law and FDR and his cronies.
On the other side of the pond, Eva Braun, Hitler's young and beautiful mistress, used her position to make everyone welcome at Hitler's table, selecting favorite dishes and pouring rivers of champagne at table. Unlike her generosity to guests and dignitaries, Eva kept a strict diet and exercise regimen that maintain her slim, trim, and youthful figure. She played the solicitous hostess to guests and catered to Hitler's eccentricities. Unlike what has been reported, Hitler was vegetarian . . . to a point. He had a sweet tooth and indulged in cakes and sweets while drinking wine and champagne. It seems, according to Hitler, champagne was the sparkling symbol of aristocratic success and he was lavish with gifts and pouring the champagne. Eva took no interest in the Reich or Hitler's political doings, but she was the hostess with the mostest among Hitler's friends and visiting dignitaries, knowing just how to make guests feel welcome, well fed, and sated. All the men regarded her as the most charming and vivacious. Eva was often the best feature of dining with Hitler.
Back in Great Britain after World War II when the British were still dealing with postwar rationing, Barbara Pym ignored the bleak times and featured the best cuisine in spite of the privations. Witty heroines shone brightly in spite of the lean times and offered readers and beleaguered British maneuvering the bombed out streets and buildings to enjoy high old times that encouraged the people to put the bad times behind them and celebrate the moment with excellent food and drink. Better times were coming and Barbara Pym's heroines greeted the future with open arms, laughter, and no sign that they had ever been down and out. Food and drink were the feature of every book's optimism and good times heralding the future. Barbara knew whereof she wrote since she ignored the tough times to enjoy the indulgence of good food and good company.
Laura Shapiro ends her tour of women who eat with a woman who created herself as a woman who cooked for her man, making his life as comfortable as a wife could, while denying herself a seat at the table. Helen Gurley Brown, who remade Cosmopolitan into the must read magazine of the 1960s and 1970s, ushering in the feminist era, wrote everything from the perspective of a woman whose whole world and whole attention are her husband. Writers and columnists got the HGB touch as Helen sifted their words through her fine-meshed strainer so that everything came out as Helen would have written it, the central theme the same she began when she became the doting wife catering to her husband. What Mike ate for breakfast was more important than what she cooked for herself, ending with super-sized sugar-free gelatin as a well earned treat. Helen preferred to binge on crafting words and scenes that had nothing to do with food. At all costs, she must remain as thin as a toothpick, denying guilty pleasure as if being force fed poison instead of nutritious food. As a busy and successful anorectic, Helen was happiest when the scales went down and her body was reed thin.
Throughout Laura Shapiro's book about What She Ate I kept asking myself what did they eat and where was the food. Except for Barbara Pym's books centered around romance and food and the sad, corpulent end for Dorothy Wordsworth, there was little about what these women ate. I often wondered if the title shouldn't be changed to What She Never Ate since that was more prevalent than menus of what each of these women ate. Eleanor Roosevelt used food as a weapon against FDR to demonstrate her anger, saving the real food for dinners with friends and colleagues. Eleanor's work meant more to her since she used the work to find her own place and power in the world since her family, FDR and his mother, pushed her aside. Eva was a teenager who caught Hitler's eye and seemed determined to remain the coquettish girl catering to all the men while watching her figure, though not nearly as closely as Helen Gurley Brown.
I would have liked to know what any of these women ate instead of what they avoided and how they fed the men in their lives, or at least some of the food served at Rosa's table when she wasn't busy catering to the aristocrats and King Edward during the richest time in British modern history. Books are fine, but what did Barbara Pym herself eat and enjoy and why did Dorothy Wordsworth end up fat and demented after a more active and healthier beginning. It might have been helpful to know the forces that shaped each woman, other than Eleanor Roosevelt and Helen Gurley Brown, whose psychology was so very clear and apparent, but maybe that is because Americans are easier to understand since so much psychology is bred in the bone. All in all, Laura Shapiro deserves a C+ for the book since she at least brushed the surface of these women's meals and what they ate.