‘Every life has a food story’ 

  • Viking Books

  • Laura Shapiro Ellen Warner

  • Dorothy Wordsworth, sister to William, ate black pudding in her later years. Artist unknown. Photo by Hugh Thomas. This image has been reproduced by kind permission of the Wordsworth family, direct descendants of William Wordsworth and owners of Rydal Mount.

  • Rosa Lewis (1867-1952). Photographed (at right) with pets, friends, and some of the staff of her Cavendish Hotel in Jermyn Street, London, 1919. Lewis’ career inspired the 1970s television series ‘The Duchess of Duke Street.’ Granger, NYC. All rights reserved.

  • Eleanor Roosevelt was a lousy cook. From the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library.

  • Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun loved champagne. Heinrich Hoffman, Bavarian State Library Munich/ Hoffman collection

  • Barbara Pym’s novels were full of food. Mark Gerson

  • Helen Gurley Brown was a serial dieter. John Bottega, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Collection, Library of Congress

For the Gazette
Thursday, August 10, 2017

The author of several food-themed books including “Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century,” Laura Shapiro is a celebrated food historian, but she might be better described as a food detective with a feminist core. In her new book, “What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories,” Shapiro examines her subjects — Dorothy Wordsworth (sister to famous poet William); Cockney cook Rosa Lewis, a favorite of King Edward VII; First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (a lousy cook); Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun; beloved British author Barbara Pym, whose mid-20th-century novels included descriptions of countless mundane meals, and Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown — through the meals they consumed. And, in some cases, consumed them.

Take, for instance, Wordsworth, who went from baking pies and tarts for her beloved brother at their cozy Dove Cottage in England’s Lake District to eating black pudding, traditionally made from pig’s blood thickened with oatmeal, during her later years, which grew ever bleaker. “I thought, ‘Okay, if I can understand the relationship between Dorothy and this meal of black pudding — what it means to her, why it was happening, how did it get there, how did she get there —  then maybe I can really use food to tell the story of a life that isn’t professionally about food,” Shapiro says. 

We checked in with the author, who lives in New York, for this slightly edited conversation about her connection to the Pioneer Valley, her own food history and her idea of a perfect dinner guest. 

I really enjoyed the chapter on Wordsworth. I’d known nothing about her before. 

“Oh, good, I am so glad to hear that. She’s a more remote figure, you know, she’s sort of an outlier in some ways. And I was afraid that it would just be old English majors like me who would get it.”

I’m surprised to hear that, considering she was the impetus for the whole book.

“She really was, and then after that, I kind of looked around. You know, some of it was just in my filing cabinet: I had notes, for instance, on Barbara Pym, because I loved her books so much over the years, and, of course, they’re full of food. And Helen Gurley Brown, I had written an obituary about her.”

And later, you visited her archives at Smith College. 

“Helen Gurley Brown was kind of bouncing around in my consciousness. And the first time I went and looked at those archives… that Helen Gurley we saw early on, she really changed. She became another person. I was interested in that. When food kicked in, it kicked in for all the wrong reasons and did all the wrong things.”

You quote a philosopher: “Tell me what you eat and I shall tell you who you are.” When you now go out to lunch with friends, are they worried about you gleaning something personal about them based on what they’re ordering because of your book?

“A lot of my friends haven’t read it yet. But I’ll tell you who is very aware of this is my husband. Since early on when I was thinking about this, I would say my mantra, ‘Every life has a food story,’ and he’d say, ‘Well, I don’t.’ And I’d say, ‘Are you kidding?’ I’d start talking about his mother and how he grew up, and he’d much rather toss it back to me and say, ‘Well, what’s yours?’ So yes, I think the people around me are becoming much more aware that I’ve got all eyes on them, on their past.”

You talk about your own food story in the afterword, where you describe moving to India in the 1970s and grappling with your identity as an American wife trying to make dinner in a foreign place. [Shapiro’s husband, Jack, was a graduate student studying there.]

“He’s busy all day running around doing his research, meeting people, studying Hindi; that’s what he was there to do. I am at home trying to figure out what on earth I’m doing there and who I am and what brought me to India. I woke up each day with question marks hanging over my head: Who am I? What is this life? 

This was 1974, so right in the heart of the women’s movement in America.

“Yes. The women’s movement is blazing around me, and I had been writing for The Real Paper, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I had a column on the women’s movement, so I was writing about it all the time. It’s what I thought about and lived. So to find myself in this situation — and to be kind of projected unwillingly into the world of the 1950s via food — was so astonishing to me.”

I was curious to hear more about your connection to Northampton and Smith College.

“I started using that wonderful Sophia Smith collection years ago, on my first book, ‘Perfection Salad.’ I was just looking for women who cooked in the 19th century, and there were not so many places… That library is fantastic. You go there, and the whole world opens up. The person who loved to go out with me to that area was my husband, because many years ago he went to Amherst. So he spent a huge amount of his social life at Smith. He knew all roads back and forth, and he had many tales of the pizza places in between and all that.”

Who are some of the women on your list who didn’t make the final cut?

“One of them was this very interesting fiction writer, popular in the 1920s-40s: Fanny Hurst. Her very famous novel was ‘Imitation of Life.’ She was one of the best-paid fiction writers of that time; she made a fortune, and she had this kind of fabulous life. She was friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, and everybody else who was interesting, so she was kind of right up my alley, except that her food connection was that she was a major dieter, and I already had Helen Gurley Brown as the dieter. So ultimately I had to put her aside very regretfully… Then there were a few people I had to eliminate early on because there just wasn’t going to be enough food material. With six women, the research had to be somewhat efficient. The downside of that is that you don’t get ordinary people who don’t leave memoirs, who don’t collect letters. And I missed that. I often think that, 100 years from now, with blogs and things like that, there will be more day-to-day food life there for people to study.”

One thing I wondered while reading the Wordsworth chapter: Was trying the food ever part of your research? The description of the black pudding is so vivid and so revolting.

“I know. I thought that I should do it. I’m in England now and then, and I always think ‘Okay, get a black pudding… You have to get a kind of stodgy, British black pudding.’ First of all, I don’t think they make the stodgy ones anymore. I think they’re all kind of fancy and nice. Secondly, it just didn’t appeal to me. I couldn’t do it.”

You’ve said you’ve never really written about someone you disliked before — until Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, who loved champagne. What was that like, writing about someone you disliked, and did you ever not want to go there?

“Writing about Eva Braun was a huge challenge for me from a million different perspectives. The obvious one is that you’re knee-deep in the Holocaust and the Third Reich, which is very, very difficult. And then trying to come to terms — I’m never going to come to terms with Eva Braun — but trying to get a grip on her as a subject to write about, you have to open yourself up to see everything about her that you can see... I wanted to get past the typical thing that food writers do, that I have done a million times, which is to always make the point that food is love; food brings us together; food is about family and connection. We know that. I wanted to get below that surface. I wanted to see what else food is going to tell us. I look at Eva Braun, I think, ‘You know, if food has something horrible to tell us, it’s going to be on that table.’

There was not a thread of sympathy from me. How could there be? I grew up with Anne Frank. But I do think that she and anybody else connected to the Holocaust... it’s history, it’s all legitimate. I was afraid, and I still am afraid, that people will dismiss or dislike this way of looking at the Third Reich because it seems superficial or like we shouldn’t talk about food in that context, but we can. You can talk about history any way that you can do it.” 

Speaking of history, in your chapter on Eleanor Roosevelt, you focused on her time at the White House, as First Lady. I recently finished Susan Quinn’s “Eleanor and Hick,” all about her steamy love affair with Lorena Hickok. I wonder what she ate with Hick?

“I wonder, too. The thing is that when they were together, they weren’t writing each other letters about food. So, you’re not going to get that... I’m sure they got into the spaghetti together.”

Finally, Rosa Lewis. How did you come up with her?

“At first, I sort of decided that I wouldn’t have any culinary professionals... But Rosa Lewis was a pretty interesting person. Turned out there was a whole lot about her supposed love affair with the king. Not much about the food. So food was her ladder; she climbed the ladder of food to get to the top, yet nobody had really written about that. I thought, ‘Here’s a professional — the opposite end of the spectrum from someone like Eva Braun — but I can use food to tell both of these stories.’ They challenged me in different ways. So for Rosa Lewis, it’s to look at a professional cook, somebody who defined herself very much by food, and look at how that definition took shape, how it fit in her self-image as a person of her class and of her imagined class.” 

Last question. It’s a classic question. If you could have a dinner party and invite anyone past or present, dead or alive, who would you invite and what would you serve? 

“When you get right down to it, I think I do go back to the book, and I think it has to be Barbara Pym... I’m going to cook for Barbara Pym, and I’m not going to cook British. I’m going to make the kinds of things that my mother made. My mother was a cook of the ’50s, and she was a great cook. And Barbara Pym was doing the British version of that. I’m going to make my mother’s American version. My mother made chicken tetrazzini. You see a lot of terrible recipes for it, but my mother’s was delicious.  I am going to make that for Barbara Pym. We are going to drink a lot. I have a feeling she might want something like a gin and French. I have no idea what that is, but the British seem to drink them all the time, so I would make her that if she wanted it… and I would make one of my mother’s wonderful desserts. She had a great cheese pie, like a lighter, better cheesecake than anything I’ve had.

It’s a real menu of my mother’s. I’m going to give that to Barbara Pym, and I’m going to explain how much I love her books, which any writer really likes to hear, right? And then I just want her to talk about growing up in England and eating that food and being who she is and how she survived that 14 years of not being published. Oh, I want this dinner party. Thank you for offering it.”

That sounds really fun. Can I come?

“You’re very, very welcome to come.”