One of NPR Fresh Air's "Books to Close Out a Chaotic 2017"
NPR's Book Concierge Guide To the Year’s Great Reads
“How lucky for us readers that Shapiro has been listening so perceptively for decades to the language of food.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR Fresh Air
Six “mouthwatering” (Eater.com) short takes on six famous women through the lens of food and cooking, probing how their attitudes toward food can offer surprising new insights into their lives, and our own.
Everyone eats, and food touches on every aspect of our lives—social and cultural, personal and political. Yet most biographers pay little attention to people’s attitudes toward food, as if the great and notable never bothered to think about what was on the plate in front of them. Once we ask how somebody relates to food, we find a whole world of different and provocative ways to understand her. Food stories can be as intimate and revealing as stories of love, work, or coming-of-age. Each of the six women in this entertaining group portrait was famous in her time, and most are still famous in ours; but until now, nobody has told their lives from the point of view of the kitchen and the table.
What She Ate is a lively and unpredictable array of women; what they have in common with one another (and us) is a powerful relationship with food. They include Dorothy Wordsworth, whose food story transforms our picture of the life she shared with her famous poet brother; Rosa Lewis, the Edwardian-era Cockney caterer who cooked her way up the social ladder; Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady and rigorous protector of the worst cook in White House history; Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, who challenges our warm associations of food, family, and table; Barbara Pym, whose witty books upend a host of stereotypes about postwar British cuisine; and Helen Gurley Brown, the editor of Cosmopolitan, whose commitment to “having it all” meant having almost nothing on the plate except a supersized portion of diet gelatin.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Eleanor had never wanted to be First Lady. She hated the idea of surrendering her independence and pulling back from hands- on political work just to become a hostess. For the sake of the country she was glad FDR had been elected, but she knew exactly what First Ladies did: they got dressed up, they shook hands, and they made small talk, day after endless day. How could she submit to such a role? When FDR was nominated, she was the only person in the room who was stone- faced; and when he won, she wrote later, “The turmoil in my heart and mind was rather great that night, and the next few months were not to make any clearer what the road ahead would be.” As she was organizing the household for the move to Washington, she made a tentative suggestion to FDR: Wasn’t there “a real job” she could do in the White House? Perhaps answer some of his mail? “He looked at me quizzically and said he did not think that would do, that Missy, who had been handling his mail for a long time, would feel I was interfering. I knew he was right and that it would not work, but it was a last effort to keep in close touch and to feel that I had a real job to do.” Eventually, of course, she created that job. She had seen how home economics operated: it was a woman’s profession in a man’s world. No lines were crossed, no fiefdoms challenged, but the women gave heart and soul to work they cared about. Now she, too, set out to find a professional place for herself, even while confined to FDR’s sphere. She couldn’t set policy, but she could travel, meet people, listen to them, investigate, pull myriad strings in Washington, make brilliant use of symbolic gestures, and give speeches that heartened the poor, the exploited, and the powerless. As Blanche Wiesen Cook put it, “Her vision shaped the best of his presidency”—an assessment that would have been supported overwhelmingly by the millions of Americans whose lives she touched, though Eleanor herself would have briskly turned away any such compliment.
Excerpted from "What She Ate"
Copyright © 2017 Laura Shapiro.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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Table of Contents
Dorothy Wordsworth 15
Rosa Lewis 46
Eleanor Roosevelt 91
Eva Broun 131
Barbara Pym 173
Helen Gurley Brown 213