In What She Ate (Viking, July), the culinary historian Laura Shapiro looks at six notable women, including Dorothy Wordsworth and Helen Gurley Brown, and their relationships with food.
Your book argues that by investigating a notable figure’s relationship with food we can learn a surprising amount about her. What led you to this idea?
My previously published book was Julia Child: A Life (Penguin Books, 2009). I was deep in the Julia archives, reading her letters and memoranda—just living with her for all the years of that research. When I finished that book, I thought, great, I’m going to write another book about somebody wonderful just like Julia. I was looking in the food world, of course, and I started thinking, you don’t have to have written a cookbook to have a life in food. We all have a life in food. Maybe I could write a culinary biography about somebody whose relationship with food we could find out, but it wouldn’t be expressed professionally.
How did you choose these six women—Eva Braun, Helen Gurley Brown, Barbara Pym, Rosa Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Dorothy Wordsworth—in particular?
One of the inspirations to write the book came when I was leafing through a biography of Dorothy Wordsworth. I came across this meal of black pudding that she had eaten later in life, long past the beautiful Lake District years, that opened up a whole view of her I hadn’t had before. Helen Gurley Brown had interested me since her death. I had dismissed her as sort of superficial—it was just about sex and men—but the more I read about her, and by her, the more I thought, there’s a conflict going on here. There’s a drama in this life. She’s wildly obsessed with being slim on the one hand, but she’s also writing a cookbook and talking about how much she loves food on the other hand. I could see these clashes.
What were some unexpected facts you uncovered while researching the book?
The Roosevelt White House was famous in its time for having the most terrible food in the history of the Presidency. [Eleanor Roosevelt] was always characterized as a woman who didn’t care about food. The surprise was that, when you look into the letters and memoirs and what she wrote—this is somebody who had a huge paper trail—you saw that there were moments of loving food that broke through. Suddenly she was exclaiming over how delicious something was. There was a food lover inside Eleanor. That food lover didn’t emerge until she was out of the White House.
If you could have profiled a seventh person in this book, who might it have been?
I would love to get some woman who’s anonymous. Maybe she lives down the hall from me, or goes to the same dry cleaner. I would get a woman who’s not all interested in food. She cooks for her family, she does it because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s not a focus. She doesn’t post pictures of what she eats. She has a relationship with food that she’s never paid attention to. I want to write her food story.