Thursday, March 29, 2018

What She Ate - Laura Shapiro

I spent a couple of hours last night knitting with various American crime dramas on in the background for company (I don't much like sitting in silence, even when I'm reading, the downside of  something on in the background is the risk of being distracted at a crucial moment, miscounting a pattern by 3 stitches, and not realising until the idea of ripping it back is to tedious to contemplate). Oddly, on screen, and in the fiction I read, the differences between America and Britain are minimised. It's in recipe books that I suddenly and most often find myself in foreign territory.

When I started 'What She Ate' I hadn't registered that Laura Shapiro was American, but after a couple of pages I had. Does it matter? in the general scheme of things, no it does not, but as far as my relationship with the book goes then yes, a little bit, because I end up noticing the wrong details and it makes me particularly pedantic.

'What She Ate' looks at the lives of 7 women through the food they ate. They are in order Dorothy Wordsworth, Rosa Lewis (an Edwardian chef), Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Barbara Pym, Helen Gurley Brown (who edited Cosmopolitan), and in the afterword Shapiro herself. It is in the chapter about Pym that I'm most aware of Shapiro, because whilst Pym's food world will be familiar to anybody in the U.K. born before Hummus became a supermarket staple, Shapiro's view of British food at the time is filtered through Julia Child and Elizabeth David (neither of whom were fans).

Pym talks lovingly about food, taking pleasure in the good things to eat that came her way, and enjoyed cooking. She's the perfect subject for a book like this and I'm pleased to read more about her so it is pedantic to wish that there was less space taken up trying to decide how good or bad food in England might have been in the 1950's. Not least because however poor the general quality of what's available is, there will always be things you have fond memories of (like caramac bars which seem to be made of condensed milk and grit but take me straight back to childhood summers, or egg sandwiches with salad cream on processed white bread).

The catalyst for the book; Dorothy Wordsworth's black pudding "that stodgy mess of blood and oatmeal" is something else to consider for a moment. If Shapiro had thought mmm, black pudding, instead where would we be? When I think of black pudding I think of it cooked and crisp, in modest slices, perhaps with a scallop. It's a vivid indication of how active the author is in the story.

The most problematic chapter though is the one about Eva Braun. I'm curious why Shapiro chose her, not least because she remains an elusive character. There are some films of her, a few authentic diary fragments, and other people's memories, but little of substance. She kept a strict eye on her figure so we learn she didn't eat much, and didn't eat what Hitler ate. We do learn a lot about what Hitler ate, how his ties were not well chosen, his country suits a little loud (all so vulgar). When Eva complains that Hitler only sent her flowers for her birthday (not jewellery or a puppy) Shapiro excuses him by explaining how busy he was at the time. The point she's making is about Eva's lack of maturity but it reads oddly.

A mixed bag of a book then. Shapiro is right when she says food talks, and she herself talks about it well. It's a really interesting way to approach these women's lives, she raises all sorts of interesting questions, and there's a lot to like, but there are problems with her approach too. I enjoyed it, but not wholeheartedly.


  1. May I interject on the subject of Black Pudding? In my opinion, the very best is that made on Stornoway and, when served with a hand-dived Scallop, is a dish made in heaven.

    How could an American know what food was like here in the 1950s unless she had been here and lived as we did at the time?

  2. I couldn't agree more about Stornaway black pudding, so like you my perception of it is as something of a treat. I really like the idea of exploring others lives through the food they ate, but it does mean that both the author and reader bring a lot f their own food prejudices with them.

    On 1950's Britain she's not unfair, but again it's the difference between someone who's read about it and someone who remembers, or has had memories passed down. But then food is one of those places where differences really stand out.

  3. Does she give any rationale for her choice of subjects? I mean, it's a great idea, but a very diverse group of women.

  4. Just that they're prominent women, and I suppose because their food lives are more or less well documented, starting with Dorothy Wordsworth's journals where she talks all about those domestic details. All things considered a lot of people probably don't talk about what they eat that much. It's fascinating in a gossipy way, but I wasn't totally convinced by it. Shapiro herself talks about having a foot in both journalistic and academic camps, I'd say this was closer to journalism.