What She Ate by Laura Shapiro

Book cover: What She Ate, Laura Shapiro

Laura Shapiro’s “What She Ate” was my introduction to culinary history as a genre, and to a brand of feminism so timless that I hate myself for not thinking about food as a legitimate angle to storytelling. Hell! Everyone has a “food story”. But historically, women have cooked, served and of course, eaten food for so much of their lives that you cannot tell their stories without talking about food. It was quite brilliant to watch the emotional state of the six women unravel through the food they cooked, ate and served.

Biographers, according to Shapiro, have often omitted food from the stories of famous men. As though these people never ate. As though food was a triviality that only women cared about. In fact, in his preface to the now popular Grasmere Journals (written by Wordswoth’s sister Dorothy), William Knight, philosopher and writer, wrote dismissively,

There is no need to record all the cases in which the sister [Dorothy] wrote, “To-day I mended William’s shirts,” or “William gathered sticks,” or “I went in search of eggs,” etc. etc.

However, is it possible to fully understand Wordsworth without talking about, for example, the fact that he ate and enjoyed cold pork? More importantly, how do we articulate Dorothy’s contributions to poetry, without describing the meticulousness with which she cooked and served meals at Dove Cottage?

Barbara Pym, whose works were supposedly loaded with “trivialities”, wailed in one of her notebooks,

What is wrong with being obsessed with trivia? Some have criticized my novel The Sweet Dove for this. What are the minds of my critics filled with? What nobler and more worthwhile things?

I love this comment. Yes, what *nobler* things do people who do not obsess over trivia think about?

Shapiro does not just narrate the stories of six remarkable women in her book, but also (surely intentionally) tells the stories of the men in the women’s lives. That, I think, is the beauty of taking the food angle to storytelling. It connects people, lives, the past and the present in an interesting way. I really enjoyed reading about the evolution of cuisines through and beyond the war.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s story about her brand of politics, rebellion and feminism which she expressed through the deliberately terrible dinners served at the White House was a fascinating read.

This was surely one of the better reads of the year.

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