Current events at the moment seem specifically designed to fill me with rage, so at this point I am generally looking for escape in the books I read. I thought that What She Ate by Laura Shapiro–described as a look inside the lives of six famous women by examining the food they ate–would be a fun discussion of snacks and baking. In fact, what Shapiro actually did was highlight how the patriarchy has devalued the experience of women throughout history. So reading this did not help with my rage! But it was a completely absorbing, fascinating book.
Shapiro writes a chapter each on six famous women, using their own writings and primary historical sources to tell both their individual story and highlight some element of the time they lived in:
- Dorothy Wordsworth, the sister of poet William, kept house for her brother in the Lake District until he married and struggled to find her place in 17th century English society as an unmarried woman.
- Rosa Lewis, a famous caterer in Edwardian England used food to, if not defeat the English class system, then at least to make herself a good life within it.
- Eleanor Roosevelt apparently pretty actively supported terrible food in the White House for a variety of reasons, but at least part of it being because she had (and wanted everyone to know she had) bigger things to worry about.
- Eva Braun’s insane relationship to food and illustrated a tiny corner of the Nazis’ insanity and hypocrisy.
- Barbara Pym was a brilliant author whose stories of domestic life offered a window into the world of middle-class post-war England.
- Helen Gurley Brown, the famously skinny editor of Cosmopolitan who was trying to navigate the ever-changing role of women in the workplace and mostly just seems to have ended up torturing and denying herself at every turn.
Each woman’s story was interesting, but Shapiro also uses the book to make a larger point about how what is considered “important history” has long been determined by men. Food is enormously important to everyone–we all think about food all day!–but because food was traditionally women’s business, history rarely takes it into account. Literature, as well. Shapiro describes how the journal that Dorothy Wordsworth kept in the Lake District has long been considered only in terms of the insight it could offer into her brother’s poetry, but is actually a significant historical and literary document in and of itself. Apparently the fact the she talks about what she plans to make for dinner somehow negates it’s worth. This book is a huge step towards insisting that food be seen as an important element of history itself, as well as a tool for examining larger cultural forces.
I should also say that although each of these stories was engaging to read, most of them were not particularly happy. Perhaps that is just the fate of being a smart woman in most any period in recent history, but quite a number of these stories ended sadly. The only two women that I might consider swapping places with would have been Rosa Lewis and Barbara Pym–maybe because they were women least interested in fitting themselves into traditional roles and most willing to follow their own paths, regardless what anyone thought.
Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review: Sneakily-radical history via food
You might also like: Each of the stories here made me want to track down more info on the person profiled (except for Helen Gurley Brown, she seems awful) and Barbara Pym is a goddamn genius so I obviously recommend that everyone go read her work. But if you’d just like to read something about fun that revolves around food, the novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest is lovely. And while I know it isn’t universally beloved, I really adore Julie and Julia by Julie Powell and I think she does a good job of discussing how Julia Child thought about food and how it impacted her life.