“Food talks — but somebody has to hear it.”


What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories by Laura Shapiro, Viking, US $27.00, Pp 320, July 2017, ISBN 978-0525427643

French gastronome Brillat de Savarin once said, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Not everyone can make the same claim. The reason is we do not think of the most important thing in our lives — food – the way we should. Food, after all, happens every day. It is intimately associated with all our appetites and thoroughly entangled with the myriad social and economic conditions that press upon a life. In What She Ate, Laura Shapiro says whether or not we spend time in a kitchen, whether or not we even care what’s on the plate, we have a relationship with food that’s launched when we are born and lasts until we die. She writes, “Cooking, eating, feeding other, resisting or ignoring food – it all runs deep, so deep that we may not even notice the way it helps to define us. Food constitutes a natural vantage point on the history of the personal.” In short, she says, “Food talks — but somebody has to hear it.”

Laura Shapiro takes up the lives of six women from different centuries and continents – women who cooked and women who didn’t — she placed food right up front where she believes it belongs. She starts her story with Dorothy Wordsworth and Barbara Pym, and moves to Edwardian-era caterer, Rosa Lewis. Next, she tells the food story of a First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, and a notorious mistress, Eva Braun. She ends with an editor, Helen Gurley Brown. All of these women were famous when they were alive and some are still household names. Obviously, none of these women represents anyone but herself; each stood out dramatically from the female world into which she was born, and each has attracted enough scholarship, journalism, anecdotes, gossip, and downright fantasy over the years to win a secure spot in history.

Laura Shapiro says that today’s popular culture is on a culinary binge; and so much personal writing is now devoted to gazing back upon the kitchen and the table that we have had to invent a new literary genre, the food memoir, to contain all of it. But this mania is recent. Food always talks. The arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, who became friends with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, wrote once that Stein “had a laugh like a beefsteak. She loved beef, and I used to like to see her sit down in front of five pounds of rare meat three inches thick and, with strong wrists wielding knife and fork, finish it with gusto, while Alice ate a little slice, daintily, like a cat.” Many, many people wrote about visiting Stein and Toklas in their famous Paris flat, but we have few descriptions as succinct and revelatory as this one. Luhan noticed the food.

What She Ate is a hilariously interesting book. In the very beginning of the book, you will realize how little you knew about the role food plays in your life and how it reshapes your personality. It is difficult to put it down once you start reading it. You will never think the same way about food. Laura Shapiro teaches you how to hear food.