I saw Laura Shapiro walking down the street slightly before she noticed me, and even though I’d never met or seen her before, I immediately knew who she was. She’s a petite woman with short, stylish salt-and-pepper hair and big wire-framed glasses. If you live in New York, you might recognize her type — these small women walking with authority, who look at the world around them with interest and the kind of confidence that only comes from growing and changing alongside the city for decades. Shapiro also has a sweet, slightly mischievous smile, an implicit promise that anyone lucky enough to get to talk to her will come away with great stories.
Shapiro’s physical smallness belies the Herculean nature of the project she’s just completed: a group biography, 10 years in the making, of the culinary lives of six historical women. What She Ate tells the “food stories” of poetry muse Dorothy Wordsworth, pioneering restaurateur Rosa Lewis, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, consort Eva Braun, novelist Barbara Pym, and Cosmopolitan magazine editor Helen Gurley Brown. Shapiro chose these particular wildly different women because they were all, in contemporary parlance, “influencers” — of art, culture, politics, and women’s roles in society. The only thing they all have in common besides that is that they all ate food.
Shapiro decided that we should dine at Tea and Sympathy, not for its ambiance but because its menu of stodgy British classics, cooked forever and thickly sauced, would have been familiar to, if not exactly welcomed by, two of What She Ate’s subjects. Rosa Lewis, an Edwardian chef and restaurateur, would have sniffed at it and loudly mentioned the superiority of her own cooking — simple French-influenced fare that led her to rise through the ranks of polite society from decidedly humble beginnings — while Barbara Pym, whose mid-century novels about single women have had a profound impact on today’s literary world, would have smiled and taken notes on what other people were eating, then gone home and prepared a delicious, simple feast of her own.
I encouraged Shapiro to order the “tweed kettle pie,” which contains salmon and cod under mashed potatoes. I expected her to laugh and order something more palatable, like fish and chips, but she rose to the challenge without a moment’s hesitation.
The publication of What She Ate is a watershed moment for Shapiro. After spending much of her life devoted to the idea that everyday food and the women who prepare and serve it are worthy of interest, the world is finally catching up to her way of thinking. The kind of cooking and eating that she describes in her book — the homely, survival-oriented eating of everyday life, not special-occasion or restaurant food — has, historically, and almost exclusively, been done by women, and it’s only recently that the myriad things that women do silently and invisibly to keep civilization afloat have gained cultural currency.
Shapiro began her career as a feminist, not a food writer, covering the women’s movement at Cambridge-based alt weekly The Real Paper in the 1970s, and later at Newsweek. “It was a great way to learn to write,” she told me, but she soon found that her true calling was research. “I discovered that I would rather read than call people on the phone.” Shortly after this revelation, she wrote her first book, Perfection Salad, about the rise of “home economics” — combining her interest in women’s liberation with her interest in how food and cooking shape the world. In it, Shapiro made the case that Fannie Farmer, for better or worse, changed the way America thought about food forever, as the “science” of nutrition translated meals into collections of calories and vitamins, divorcing eating and cooking from pleasure and aesthetic value.
After writing several books about the doyennes of American cooking, the seeds of What She Ate were planted when Shapiro read a biography of Dorothy Wordsworth, who kept house for her brother, William, the famous poet. A single detail — an out-of-character meal of heavy blood pudding in a life that had previously been sustained by ethereal repasts of gooseberries and broth — led Shapiro to the realization that writing about the role of food and eating in the lives of women who weren’t necessarily famous for anything food-related could be a way to tell their most intimate stories. “We’re meant to read the lives of important people as if they never bothered with breakfast, lunch or dinner, or took a coffee break, or stopped for a hot dog on the street, or wandered downstairs for a few spoonfuls of chocolate pudding in the middle of the night,” Shapiro writes.
When our food arrived, it had the desired effect of transporting us directly into the world of Barbara Pym, whose characters are given to observations like, “Not enough salt, or perhaps no salt, I thought, as I ate the macaroni. And not really enough cheese.” Shapiro gamely scooped out a bite from the pile of potatoes that concealed an oozing mound of white sauce. “This is the victory of white sauce over food. It was supposed to have fish in it and I’m looking for it,” she said, poking around in the pile. But then she checked herself: “This is somebody’s comfort food, so it's very nice.”
The chapter about Pym is the most mouthwatering one in What She Ate. She had a dramatic, very nearly tragic career, which she documented in diaries that happened to extensively detail the meals she that served to guests, as well as the ones that she and her sister cooked for just themselves: stews, crumbles, Victoria sponge cakes, frozen fish fingers, and Sunday roast lamb repurposed into Thursday curries.
Pym’s first 13 years as a published novelist produced six books, success, and good reviews. In 1963, though, her publisher abruptly rejected the seventh — not because it was bad, but because it was so deeply unfashionable. Pym’s subjects, spinsters with rich inner lives, were dismissed as trivial and “cosy.” Despite her fan base, she could not find a new publisher. “She was really like the Hillary Clinton of writers,” Shapiro mused between brave nibbles of tweed kettle pie. “Somebody else would have stockpiled guns and gone out and shot people!”
Pym kept writing, even though it would be another 14 years before her reputation and her novels were saved by a timely shout-out in the Times Literary Supplement, which named her one of the most underrated writers of the 20th century. Her earlier novels were reprinted and the newer ones became bestsellers, earning her the respect and readership she deserved. Through it all, Pym kept cooking, eating, and documenting: The last meal described in her diary was served to her in the hospital, days before she died of breast cancer in 1980.
The least sympathetic subject in What She Ate, by far, is Hitler’s longtime lover Eva Braun, who dieted so that she’d look nice in photos as hundreds of thousands of people starved to death by the hand of her beloved. Shapiro’s deftness in synthesizing reams of research into a few incredibly telling anecdotes reaches its climax in the chapter about Braun. Without ever dipping into melodrama, Shapiro juxtaposes the horrific starvation suffered by so many of Hitler’s victims with the excesses of the Nazi elite, who basically lived on rich pastries and plundered Moet et Chandon. Using just a few descriptions of Braun playing hostess at gracious lunches in the Berghof, Shapiro creates an indelible portrait: Every bite illustrates both Braun’s monstrosity and her banal humanity, and how they went hand-in-hand.
“I had never written about anybody who I disliked before,” Shapiro confessed as we gamely picked at the last of our meal. “I thought this would be the hardest thing you could ever do.” Researching Braun was so unpleasant that Shapiro nearly quit, but in light of Donald Trump’s election, she’s glad that she didn’t. She’s incredulous of people dismissing analyses of Trump’s diet as frivolous, by the way — to her, of course, his chocolate cake and extra scoop of ice cream speak volumes.
Our waitress came by to offer dessert, and since, as Shapiro says, “dessert is the whole point of British food,” we ordered sticky toffee pudding, which arrived in a puddle of custard made from a packaged powder that Shapiro identified after the first spoonful. I asked which of the women in What She Ate is her favorite, expecting to hear more about Pym, but she surprised me by naming Eleanor Roosevelt.
“Eleanor was a life force,” Shapiro said admiringly. Roosevelt, as Shapiro makes clear in What She Ate, spent most of her life not caring at all about food; she hardly ever prepared it herself until she was out of the White House and freed from public and familial responsibility. Shapiro’s love of mischief — the same streak that made her order the tweed kettle pie — is what makes her so fond of a woman who would have fed her White House guests Soylent, had it been available in 1933. She hired a wildly inexperienced cook and charged her with the task of preparing meals that reflected the country’s austerity: chipped beef on toast, leftovers stuffed into peppers or eggs, and desserts where prunes figured prominently. Was she enacting a subtle revenge on FDR for cheating on her? It’s possible, but more probable that she just didn’t really notice food beyond its cost and nutrition value until her post-White House years, when she learned to make simple egg dishes for herself and a friend.
After Shapiro and I finished our meal and went our separate ways, I was struck with the thought that it has been simultaneously one of the best, fun-wise, and worst, food-wise, dinners of my life — a contradiction that seemed perfectly appropriate. At this dark moment in our country’s history, it was a tonic to spend time with a historian who grapples with all that’s led us here while maintaining an optimistic outlook.
A few days after our meeting, I wrote to Shapiro to ask for her own signature meal, and wasn’t surprised to learn that it’s something both homely and delicious-sounding: a quiche made with sliced fried onions, mild cheddar cheese, and a buttery cracker-crumb crust. “You'll notice the Ritz crackers. I feel very strongly about the Ritz crackers, which work perfectly in this context and should not be scorned just because of their pure supermarket origins,” she wrote to me in an e-mail. I can’t wait to try it.
Emily Gould is the author most recently of Friendship, a novel. She works at Emily Books, a bookstore and publishing imprint.
Veronica Casson is an illustrator whose creates art in Portland, Oregon.
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter