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What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories

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A beloved culinary historian’s short takes on six famous women through the lens of food and cooking—what they ate and how their attitudes toward food offer surprising new insights into their lives. Everyone eats, and food touches on every aspect of our lives—social and cultural, personal and political. Yet most biographers pay little attention to people’s attitudes toward f A beloved culinary historian’s short takes on six famous women through the lens of food and cooking—what they ate and how their attitudes toward food offer surprising new insights into their lives. Everyone eats, and food touches on every aspect of our lives—social and cultural, personal and political. Yet most biographers pay little attention to people’s attitudes toward food, as if the great and notable never bothered to think about what was on the plate in front of them. Once we ask how somebody relates to food, we find a whole world of different and provocative ways to understand her. Food stories can be as intimate and revealing as stories of love, work, or coming-of-age. Each of the six women in this entertaining group portrait was famous in her time, and most are still famous in ours; but until now, nobody has told their lives from the point of view of the kitchen and the table. It’s a lively and unpredictable array of women; what they have in common with one another (and us) is a powerful relationship with food. They include Dorothy Wordsworth, whose food story transforms our picture of the life she shared with her famous poet brother; Rosa Lewis, the Edwardian-era Cockney caterer who cooked her way up the social ladder; Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady and rigorous protector of the worst cook in White House history; Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, who challenges our warm associations of food, family, and table; Barbara Pym, whose witty books upend a host of stereotypes about postwar British cuisine; and Helen Gurley Brown, the editor of Cosmopolitan, whose commitment to “having it all” meant having almost nothing on the plate except a supersized portion of diet gelatin.


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A beloved culinary historian’s short takes on six famous women through the lens of food and cooking—what they ate and how their attitudes toward food offer surprising new insights into their lives. Everyone eats, and food touches on every aspect of our lives—social and cultural, personal and political. Yet most biographers pay little attention to people’s attitudes toward f A beloved culinary historian’s short takes on six famous women through the lens of food and cooking—what they ate and how their attitudes toward food offer surprising new insights into their lives. Everyone eats, and food touches on every aspect of our lives—social and cultural, personal and political. Yet most biographers pay little attention to people’s attitudes toward food, as if the great and notable never bothered to think about what was on the plate in front of them. Once we ask how somebody relates to food, we find a whole world of different and provocative ways to understand her. Food stories can be as intimate and revealing as stories of love, work, or coming-of-age. Each of the six women in this entertaining group portrait was famous in her time, and most are still famous in ours; but until now, nobody has told their lives from the point of view of the kitchen and the table. It’s a lively and unpredictable array of women; what they have in common with one another (and us) is a powerful relationship with food. They include Dorothy Wordsworth, whose food story transforms our picture of the life she shared with her famous poet brother; Rosa Lewis, the Edwardian-era Cockney caterer who cooked her way up the social ladder; Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady and rigorous protector of the worst cook in White House history; Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, who challenges our warm associations of food, family, and table; Barbara Pym, whose witty books upend a host of stereotypes about postwar British cuisine; and Helen Gurley Brown, the editor of Cosmopolitan, whose commitment to “having it all” meant having almost nothing on the plate except a supersized portion of diet gelatin.

30 review for What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories

  1. 5 out of 5

    Michelle

    No. I did not like this book. I started off saying "Well it's kind of interesting, in a sort of boring history class kind of way," but by mid-book, I had given up the optimism. What's the problem? First, the title: What SHE ate. Not what HE ate, not what she DIDN'T eat. And the majority of this book was not at all about what SHE ate. Next, six "remarkable" women - really? We have a mentally ill incestuous old maid, a server-come-cook who displays narcissistic tendencies, the woman in charge of "t No. I did not like this book. I started off saying "Well it's kind of interesting, in a sort of boring history class kind of way," but by mid-book, I had given up the optimism. What's the problem? First, the title: What SHE ate. Not what HE ate, not what she DIDN'T eat. And the majority of this book was not at all about what SHE ate. Next, six "remarkable" women - really? We have a mentally ill incestuous old maid, a server-come-cook who displays narcissistic tendencies, the woman in charge of "the worst food in the White House ever," the mistress of Hitler (but no worries, her chapter was really all about him), some 3rd rate mildly successful author, and the editor of Cosmo - who proudly admits anorexia. She could have called this book "Six Women and the Men who Hold Them Up" and that would have been more accurate. Or she just could have called it "Six Random Women and the Food They May or May Not Have Eaten While They Were Being Uninteresting." Also equally accurate. I liked the premise. However, the presentation was a huge letdown. Shapiro could have taken this idea far, if she had chosen different women and actually used the idea of food to explore their idiosyncrasies, their successes, and their relationships. This book fell far short for me.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Karen Witzler

    Very enjoyable. An assemblage of almost randomly chosen women from literature and history whose stories are retold by a gifted food writer. Intellectually lively and historically interesting with each section just the right length for my bedtime reading. I confess I read the section on Eva Braun(cyanide and champagne) first. The more admirable women are Dorothy Wordsworth (lake fish), Rosa Lewis (pigeon pie), Eleanor Roosevelt (mutton and Home Economics), Barbara Pym (wilted salads), and Helen G Very enjoyable. An assemblage of almost randomly chosen women from literature and history whose stories are retold by a gifted food writer. Intellectually lively and historically interesting with each section just the right length for my bedtime reading. I confess I read the section on Eva Braun(cyanide and champagne) first. The more admirable women are Dorothy Wordsworth (lake fish), Rosa Lewis (pigeon pie), Eleanor Roosevelt (mutton and Home Economics), Barbara Pym (wilted salads), and Helen Gurley Brown (diet jello). Quite good and recommended. I want to try Shapiro's Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century soon.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Brenda

    This is a book about what 6 women in history ate. Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of poet William Wordsworth, Rosa Lewis, a female chef in England, which was rare in her time, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Hitler's mistress until they married shortly before their suicides, and Barbara Pym, a British author, and Helen Gurly Brown. I only knew about 3/6 when I started the book. Don't know what I expected but I ended up disliking the 3 I knew about AND the three I didn't. VERY much disliking. This made This is a book about what 6 women in history ate. Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of poet William Wordsworth, Rosa Lewis, a female chef in England, which was rare in her time, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Hitler's mistress until they married shortly before their suicides, and Barbara Pym, a British author, and Helen Gurly Brown. I only knew about 3/6 when I started the book. Don't know what I expected but I ended up disliking the 3 I knew about AND the three I didn't. VERY much disliking. This made finishing the book very difficult. I'm stubborn is my only excuse.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    “If I eat I feel guilty. And I’d rather feel hungry.” The above is a quote from one of the six women featured in this book – Helen Gurley Brown, editor of “Cosmopolitan,” for over thirty years. It helps highlight the difficult, complicated relationship, that so many women have with food. Author, Laura Shapiro, takes six women and gives us a potted biography of each, with a particular slant towards their attitudes, and relationship, to eating. Those featured are Dorothy Wordsworth, Rosa Lewis, Ele “If I eat I feel guilty. And I’d rather feel hungry.” The above is a quote from one of the six women featured in this book – Helen Gurley Brown, editor of “Cosmopolitan,” for over thirty years. It helps highlight the difficult, complicated relationship, that so many women have with food. Author, Laura Shapiro, takes six women and gives us a potted biography of each, with a particular slant towards their attitudes, and relationship, to eating. Those featured are Dorothy Wordsworth, Rosa Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Barbara Pym and Helen Gurley Brown. There are those who enjoy a fairly uncomplicated love of comfort food – such as Barbara Pym. Those who equate cooking, or providing over meals, as a way of pleasing the men in their life, such as Dorothy Wordsworth and Eva Braun. Rosa Lewis, who apparently inspired, “The Duchess of Duke Street,” used her skills as a cook to rise from a scullery maid (born in the ‘village’ of Leyton – well, I expect it was a village at the time!) to the owner of the Cavendish Hotel and a famous chef, who prepared food for King Edward VII, among other famous clients. The two women whose food stories were, to me, the most interesting were Eleanor Roosevelt and Helen Gurley Brown. Eleanor Roosevelt apparently employed the ‘most reviled cook in Presidential history,’ in Mrs Nesbitt; who continually provided meals that her husband found repugnant. Helen Gurley Brown, as I mentioned in the beginning of this review, spent her life eternally dieting measured success in her marriage to David, gloating that he was a “motion picture producer, forty-four, brains, charming and sexy. And I got him!” This is very much a book of social history and biography and there is little analysis about why these women acted the way they did, or had such troubled, or happy, relationships with food. That aside, it is an enjoyable read, which may well lead you on to read full biographies of the women included. I have read biographies about some of them, such as Eva Braun, which is why, perhaps, this work added little that was new to me. However, it does look at such an important part of all our lives – eating and preparing food – and is a fascinating read. I received a copy of the book from the publisher, via NetGalley, for review.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Swann

    This was middle of the road for me. I enjoyed 3 of the 6 stories and ended up having to DNF the last story about Helen Gurley Brown. I couldn't read anymore about how her mindframe was "be skinny, no matter the cost." I really enjoyed Eleanor Roosevelt's story and the one about Eva Braun was interesting, although I felt it was more about Hilter than about her. Overall it was an ok read for me.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Kayo

    I thought this would be a totally different book. It wasn't that interesting and I couldn't care less about most of her 6 subject. Very disappointing. It could have been great.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Michelle

    This should have been such a great book! The concept was wonderful, but the writing style interfered with the story telling way too much. Also, the author seemed to keep losing the thread of where she was going with each story. She'd start in on the woman's story and then very mechanically, try to add something about food that seemed irrelevant and forced. She didn't actually have very much to say about food for several of the women even though she had decided to tell 'their food stories'. Yes, This should have been such a great book! The concept was wonderful, but the writing style interfered with the story telling way too much. Also, the author seemed to keep losing the thread of where she was going with each story. She'd start in on the woman's story and then very mechanically, try to add something about food that seemed irrelevant and forced. She didn't actually have very much to say about food for several of the women even though she had decided to tell 'their food stories'. Yes, they had interesting stories, aside from food, but the way she went about it made me feel a little suckered into reading a book that I probably wouldn't have picked up if the true premise of 'some short bios on a few women from history, that are unrelated to each other and some of them you might not have even heard of before'.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Roman Clodia

    You never just eat. No matter how hungry you are, it's never just food. In this vastly entertaining book, Shapiro uncovers the 'food stories' of six women: from Dorothy Wordsworth who cooked for her brother as if she were his wife, to Helen Gurley Brown who might gush about food but who never ate much more than protein powder and sugar-free jelly (yeurch!) Shapiro has done her research rustling around in the archives but this is determinedly 'popular' culinary history - she disses academic re You never just eat. No matter how hungry you are, it's never just food. In this vastly entertaining book, Shapiro uncovers the 'food stories' of six women: from Dorothy Wordsworth who cooked for her brother as if she were his wife, to Helen Gurley Brown who might gush about food but who never ate much more than protein powder and sugar-free jelly (yeurch!) Shapiro has done her research rustling around in the archives but this is determinedly 'popular' culinary history - she disses academic researchers at the start, but it's noticeable that there's no theoretical scaffolding to her work - this is just a collection of stories: amusing, sad, illuminating, for sure, but it would have been nice to have seen some analysis added to the wealth of material collected here. That said, Shapiro tells her mini-biographies with a lively fluency, whether we're with Eva Braun eating with Hitler, or Eleanor Roosevelt superintending menus in the White House. Not all the women are necessarily interesting: I admit to skimming the section on the Edwardian caterer, Rosa Lewis; and the novelist Barbara Pym who wrote about 'nice' food in 1970s England. This is a quick read as about 25-30% is notes: interesting, undoubtedly, and enjoyably entertaining but a bit more intellectual depth would have been helpful. Many thanks to HarperCollins for an ARC via NetGalley.

  9. 4 out of 5

    J.M. Cornwell

    Laura Shapiro delves into lives of six famous women, many of whom are known to history even here in the 21st century. Beginning with Dorothy Wordsworth, the sister of the poet Wordsworth and their early lives together. Dorothy thinks more of her brother than of herself, reminding her brother when to eat and providing nutritious simple meals and then accompanying her brother on walks in the English countryside. There was a close relationship between Dorothy and William, almost as close as a marri Laura Shapiro delves into lives of six famous women, many of whom are known to history even here in the 21st century. Beginning with Dorothy Wordsworth, the sister of the poet Wordsworth and their early lives together. Dorothy thinks more of her brother than of herself, reminding her brother when to eat and providing nutritious simple meals and then accompanying her brother on walks in the English countryside. There was a close relationship between Dorothy and William, almost as close as a married couple until William met and fell in love with his bride to be. The narrative changes considerably when Dorothy no longer takes care of her brother and his wife takes over. Dorothy does her best to fit into their lives and take care of her nieces and nephews, but loses all interest in taking good care of her own needs. Her modest food needs become more important and take a larger focus in her thoughts and actions until Dorothy ends her life on the sidelines, luxuriating in food and the growing expanse of her waistline. William and his wife do their duty toward Dorothy as she declines into dementia and fractious old age, bending to Dorothy's extraordinary tantrums and needs. The food she carefully prepared when she took care of her brother changed as he moved on with his life into marriage and children and the popularity of his poetry and Dorothy slipped into the oblivion of forgotten old age. Rosa Lewis, the Cockney caterer who climbed the social ladder in Edwardian society, was the most famous English cook of the era, buying and operating her own restaurant in the heart of London. She pioneered the spread for weekend shooting parties at the landed estates all throughout England and Scotland, making her shooting parties unique, rustic, and essential to the post Victorian age when shooting parties were all the rage. From a poor serving family to the pinnacle to social success, Rosa was copied by other servants anxious to make their way out of the garrets and servants' quarters all over Great Britain, becoming a caricature of herself and a model of upward mobility that increased after World War I when the world was in chaos and on into the changing face of Europe and America as World War II began heating up. Rosa Lewis never lost her Cockney accent or hid her humble origins. Eleanor Roosevelt was born of privilege and may even have known and met Rosa Lewis, or at least enjoyed her food at British weekend parties when she and Franklin dined with friends and relations across the pond, but Eleanor was a very different sort of woman. She was born of privilege, married to her cousin, and promptly pushed to the sidelines as Franklin's mother took charge and set the tone for the marriage. Eleanor was not the kind of woman to be shoved aside without a single thought. Instead, she took the reins in her own hands, left her mother-in-law to deal with her family bailiwick, and struck out on her own, traveling to the colleges and universities in America, learning all about the new home economics and the needed economies in the wake of World War I and the financial crash that heralded the Great Depression of the middle 20th century. She chose and hired a housekeeper, branded the worst cook in White House history, who cooked plain food that showcased the sacrifices Eleanor felt necessary for the White House as well as the beleaguered American housewife. In a way, Eleanor fed Franklin the same, cheap food that wives throughout America could afford during the Depression, using a passive-aggressive approach as First Lady when dealing with Franklin and his staff while living in the White House for three terms. I imagine her approach was not only frugality but personal payback for Franklin's extramarital affairs and her mother-in-law pushing her to the fringe of her own family. Eleanor was a proud and industrious woman who took her position seriously and used everything at her disposal not to take advantage of her elevated position at FDR's side and to show the world that she was more interested in good works than good food, although she took center stage at dinners where she used the chafing dish to prepare her favorite and increasingly laudable dinners that were far removed from the inexpensive meals her cook managed in the White House kitchens. Eleanor was fond of good food, she said, but preferred her meals in company with friends and colleagues far from her mother-in-law and FDR and his cronies. On the other side of the pond, Eva Braun, Hitler's young and beautiful mistress, used her position to make everyone welcome at Hitler's table, selecting favorite dishes and pouring rivers of champagne at table. Unlike her generosity to guests and dignitaries, Eva kept a strict diet and exercise regimen that maintain her slim, trim, and youthful figure. She played the solicitous hostess to guests and catered to Hitler's eccentricities. Unlike what has been reported, Hitler was vegetarian . . . to a point. He had a sweet tooth and indulged in cakes and sweets while drinking wine and champagne. It seems, according to Hitler, champagne was the sparkling symbol of aristocratic success and he was lavish with gifts and pouring the champagne. Eva took no interest in the Reich or Hitler's political doings, but she was the hostess with the mostest among Hitler's friends and visiting dignitaries, knowing just how to make guests feel welcome, well fed, and sated. All the men regarded her as the most charming and vivacious. Eva was often the best feature of dining with Hitler. Back in Great Britain after World War II when the British were still dealing with postwar rationing, Barbara Pym ignored the bleak times and featured the best cuisine in spite of the privations. Witty heroines shone brightly in spite of the lean times and offered readers and beleaguered British maneuvering the bombed out streets and buildings to enjoy high old times that encouraged the people to put the bad times behind them and celebrate the moment with excellent food and drink. Better times were coming and Barbara Pym's heroines greeted the future with open arms, laughter, and no sign that they had ever been down and out. Food and drink were the feature of every book's optimism and good times heralding the future. Barbara knew whereof she wrote since she ignored the tough times to enjoy the indulgence of good food and good company. Laura Shapiro ends her tour of women who eat with a woman who created herself as a woman who cooked for her man, making his life as comfortable as a wife could, while denying herself a seat at the table. Helen Gurley Brown, who remade Cosmopolitan into the must read magazine of the 1960s and 1970s, ushering in the feminist era, wrote everything from the perspective of a woman whose whole world and whole attention are her husband. Writers and columnists got the HGB touch as Helen sifted their words through her fine-meshed strainer so that everything came out as Helen would have written it, the central theme the same she began when she became the doting wife catering to her husband. What Mike ate for breakfast was more important than what she cooked for herself, ending with super-sized sugar-free gelatin as a well earned treat. Helen preferred to binge on crafting words and scenes that had nothing to do with food. At all costs, she must remain as thin as a toothpick, denying guilty pleasure as if being force fed poison instead of nutritious food. As a busy and successful anorectic, Helen was happiest when the scales went down and her body was reed thin. Throughout Laura Shapiro's book about What She Ate I kept asking myself what did they eat and where was the food. Except for Barbara Pym's books centered around romance and food and the sad, corpulent end for Dorothy Wordsworth, there was little about what these women ate. I often wondered if the title shouldn't be changed to What She Never Ate since that was more prevalent than menus of what each of these women ate. Eleanor Roosevelt used food as a weapon against FDR to demonstrate her anger, saving the real food for dinners with friends and colleagues. Eleanor's work meant more to her since she used the work to find her own place and power in the world since her family, FDR and his mother, pushed her aside. Eva was a teenager who caught Hitler's eye and seemed determined to remain the coquettish girl catering to all the men while watching her figure, though not nearly as closely as Helen Gurley Brown. I would have liked to know what any of these women ate instead of what they avoided and how they fed the men in their lives, or at least some of the food served at Rosa's table when she wasn't busy catering to the aristocrats and King Edward during the richest time in British modern history. Books are fine, but what did Barbara Pym herself eat and enjoy and why did Dorothy Wordsworth end up fat and demented after a more active and healthier beginning. It might have been helpful to know the forces that shaped each woman, other than Eleanor Roosevelt and Helen Gurley Brown, whose psychology was so very clear and apparent, but maybe that is because Americans are easier to understand since so much psychology is bred in the bone. All in all, Laura Shapiro deserves a C+ for the book since she at least brushed the surface of these women's meals and what they ate.

  10. 4 out of 5

    thefourthvine

    I am still trying to figure out how to rate this book. I loved the idea, and some of the chapters were fascinating — I loved the Eleanor Roosevelt chapter most, but I was also happy to read about Dorothy Wordsworth, Rosa Lewis, and Barbara Pym. It was fascinating to read about their relationships to food, the things they ate or wanted to eat, what food was like for them. It was great to know that Eleanor Roosevelt probably actually enjoyed good food, and her famous disinterest in food, which led I am still trying to figure out how to rate this book. I loved the idea, and some of the chapters were fascinating — I loved the Eleanor Roosevelt chapter most, but I was also happy to read about Dorothy Wordsworth, Rosa Lewis, and Barbara Pym. It was fascinating to read about their relationships to food, the things they ate or wanted to eat, what food was like for them. It was great to know that Eleanor Roosevelt probably actually enjoyed good food, and her famous disinterest in food, which led to her employing the worst cook in White House history, was more about hating her mother-in-law and being justifiably furious about FDR’s infidelity. I enjoyed reading about Barbara Pym’s love of ordinary food, and her delight in eavesdropping on people, especially in restaurants. (I also felt vindicated. I, uh, also enjoy that a lot.) Wordsworth, Lewis, Roosevelt, and Pym were interesting women, and fun to spend time with. I did not, however, love two of the chapters. I knew I’d hate the Eva Braun chapter — I don’t really want to read about the human side of Hitler at all, ever, and I am not interested in what he ate or drank or thought or did in his day-to-day life while he was killing millions of people. I’d also rather not read about concentration camps, especially side by side with Nazis happily eating and enjoying their buccolic lives, in my light popular history books. To be clear: this is important research, I’m glad it’s being done, and I want people to remember the Holocaust. Just, as a Jewish person, I’d rather not read about what Nazis ate. And the Braun chapter is mostly about that; Braun herself didn’t eat (or do, or think) much. As a result, this chapter really doesn’t fit in the book, and I don’t think it’s just my sadness at reading it that’s making me think so. I was surprised, though, at how much I loathed the chapter on Helen Gurley Brown. I knew who she was, but only in general terms (editor of Cosmo is where it began and ended for me), and getting to know her and her loathing of food and fat people and her love of her own anorexia (and her delight in her favorite dessert: diet Jello made with 1/4 the intended amount of water, so it was a dense rubbery mass, topped with diet yogurt) made me absolutely detest her. She made her eating disorder mandatory for so many American women, and I just — did not want to read about that. At all. I wanted to read about what women ate, not what they hated themselves for eating, and hated everyone else for eating, too. But the other thing that really bothered me was the women who weren’t included. Every woman in this book was white and either English or American. (And the author, while noting that her subjects are not representative of the women of their age, and are all exceptional, seems to have failed to notice that.) I really wanted to know more about the food stories, as the author calls them, of black women, of Latinas, of Muslim women, of ... just a wider variety of women, really. So basically I would have loved this book entirely if it had focused on a) women who actually ate and b) a wider variety of women. As it is, though, I’d advise skipping the introduction and the Braun and Brown chapters, and just reading the rest of it, for a moderately interesting look at what four random women ate.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Anne

    I had a hard time getting through this book, and I'm not sure why. The author had a great idea for a book, and she wrote a fairly interesting book. However, the two were not the same. Perhaps if she had titled the book "What She Served" that would have been more accurate. Even in the Afterword, where the author discussed her life as a newly-married woman living in India, she was fixated on the food that she prepared for her husband. Her choice of historical women was a bit strange to me, as well I had a hard time getting through this book, and I'm not sure why. The author had a great idea for a book, and she wrote a fairly interesting book. However, the two were not the same. Perhaps if she had titled the book "What She Served" that would have been more accurate. Even in the Afterword, where the author discussed her life as a newly-married woman living in India, she was fixated on the food that she prepared for her husband. Her choice of historical women was a bit strange to me, as well. Perhaps they were of personal interest to her. Perhaps she just chose women who mentioned food frequently in their diaries or memoirs. Overall, this book seemed to me like condensed biographies about six women in whom I am not particularly interested.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Katie/Doing Dewey

    What She Ate is a biography of six famous, infamous, or just plain interesting women told through the food they ate. Subjects include Dorothy Wordsworth; an 19th century caterer; Eleanor Roosevelt; Eva Braun; author Barbara Pym; and Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan.  Since I'm all about quirky micro-histories, I was so here for this. Like many micro-histories, this book starts with a narrow topic but leads the the reader on a journey through many fascinating and otherwise unconnected st What She Ate is a biography of six famous, infamous, or just plain interesting women told through the food they ate. Subjects include Dorothy Wordsworth; an 19th century caterer; Eleanor Roosevelt; Eva Braun; author Barbara Pym; and Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan.  Since I'm all about quirky micro-histories, I was so here for this. Like many micro-histories, this book starts with a narrow topic but leads the the reader on a journey through many fascinating and otherwise unconnected stories.  Food may strike you as a strange way to lead people into interesting biographies. I know I wasn't sure it would work. It did though, amazingly well. Food is such an intimate part of people's lives. The food we choose to eat, how we prepare it, how we serve it, how we eat it, and who we eat it with - all these decisions reveal a surprising amount about us. The author painted full, complex portraits of these women, all by focusing on what they ate. Like many authors of micro-histories, the author clearly had a passion for the topic she writes about. Her love for food history was clear on every page and it pulled me in too. While there were a few small sections I found dry, for most of the book, I was completely caught up in the stories the author was telling. She wasn't quite as funny as Mary Roach, but she was equally engaging and will join Roach on my list of must-read authors of nonfiction.This review was originally posted on Doing Dewey

  13. 4 out of 5

    Lynne

    A somewhat dry look at an interesting topic. Worth a listen due to the historical aspect but not really about what the women ate. From a foodie perspective it’s a bit disappointing.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Libby

    Oh what a hard review to write. I expected to love this book, especially after reading the excellent, even exciting, introduction. We were going to read about six fascinating women and their food stories, what they cooked, how they grocery shopped, what they ate! Always my favorite part of any story, real or fiction. Unfortunately each of the six stories were mini biographies which yes, did mention food, in some cases more than others. But many pages of all the bios featured lots of other inform Oh what a hard review to write. I expected to love this book, especially after reading the excellent, even exciting, introduction. We were going to read about six fascinating women and their food stories, what they cooked, how they grocery shopped, what they ate! Always my favorite part of any story, real or fiction. Unfortunately each of the six stories were mini biographies which yes, did mention food, in some cases more than others. But many pages of all the bios featured lots of other information. Ordinarily I enjoy biography. But in this case the other details felt endless - "Get back to the food, will you?!" - because that is what I came for and what I was promised. By the time I got to the final story about Helen Gurley Brown, which probably contained the most food-related detail of the six, I was so impatient and tired of the book that I speeded through. As for the afterword, author Laura Shapiro's description of her own food interests and practices as a young wife, my interest had died some pages before, perhaps when she was still talking about Barbara Pym's system of using notebooks and journals to write novels. no, I don't know what that has to do with food either. I notice it took me 13 days to read this book, what with Netflix being so great and all. Honestly I'm surprised it was just 13 days. It felt longer.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Lara

    Interesting biographical perspective and an affectionate, intimate writing voice that makes the characters come to life. I applaud Eleanor Roosevelt for getting revenge on FDR three meals per day, Hollywood needs to make a biopic of Rosa Lewis, I need to read some Barbara Pym, and Helen Gurley Brown rhapsodizing over the 50-calorie "heaven!" that is a pan of sugar-free Jello topped with a spoonful of Dannon yogurt may be one of the saddest things I've ever read.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    Genius! Biographies are tough as an author tries to get to the heart of who someone was. I've often said that if you want to know what someone believes of the world and their place in it, you could do worse than to look at their dinner plate. One's politics, religion, and self-worth are often served up there. My first impression of this book was that the author had an open way of writing. It was conversational without being unkempt. It felt like each word was lifted up a bit before the next so t Genius! Biographies are tough as an author tries to get to the heart of who someone was. I've often said that if you want to know what someone believes of the world and their place in it, you could do worse than to look at their dinner plate. One's politics, religion, and self-worth are often served up there. My first impression of this book was that the author had an open way of writing. It was conversational without being unkempt. It felt like each word was lifted up a bit before the next so there was momentum going into the next word - almost like reading the words downhill. Food is an interesting way to approach biography. A different portal in which to glimpse a life. Though very brief sketches, they were interesting. The author arranged the chapters in chronological order, starting with who lived first. She told of the lives of Dorothy Wordsworth (English writer and sister of Romantic poet William Wordsworth), Rosa Lewis (known as the "Queen of Cooks" for her culinary skills and because Edward VII favored her - Queen Victoria's son), Eleanor Roosevelt (Former First Lady), Eva Braun (Hitler's girlfriend), Barbara Pym (English novelist), and Helen Gurley Brown (most famous for being editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine for decades). The choices these women make as far as the food run the gamut from the highest-end gourmet fare to the worst slop ever to skipping meals completely. Roosevelt's chapter was very revealing. I had no clue that was going on in the White House. Wow. Hitler's last meal - are you kidding me? All of these women's lives had some sad tidings, but Dorothy Wordsworth's took the cake. Some of her food choices were downright bleak after her brother left. Ironically, her need to serve may have made her feel empty toward the end of her life. She became voracious, gorging where she once ate sparingly. She ate her ache. Rosa Lewis was the mirror opposite of Wordsworth in terms of food. I knew of her from a series my mother watched on PBS about a cook that rises to great heights (The Duchess of Duke Street). Rosa was the American Dream incarnate except in jolly ole England. She grew up poor but somehow had the insight to know that choosing to cook was a way she could distinguish herself, where working in a factory held no chance at all. To describe her cooking as lavish would be an understatement. I don't know what she ate, but I'm going to assume she ate what the royals and wealthy people she cooked for ate. Once Lewis left her chosen profession, the one she made it to the top of, her life became almost as bleak as Wordsworth's. To go from Lewis to Eleanor Roosevelt was stark - the difference in meals was startling. Opulence was out and nutrition was in - taste be damned. But there was more afoot the author tells us. Roosevelt hired the most reviled cook in White House history that was under strict orders to practice economy, first because of the Great Depression and later because of the Great War. At this point in the book I started drawing lines. To Wordsworth, food was love. To Lewis, it was a ticket out. To Roosevelt, it was public service. Ironically, these women either had no marriage (Wordsworth) or unhappy marriages and no children or children that they barely raised (Roosevelt). The author suggests that the meals FDR was served in the White House were passive aggressive fare for his philandering. After Roosevelt found out about the latter, the First Lady and US President rarely spent time together unless in public or at official functions. He didn't give up his mistresses and she didn't give up her cook - so three times a day, the US President was served prison slop. From the White House, we go straight to the Nazi's and Eva Braun. The contrast was stark. And shocking. In fact all the transitions between women are juxtaposed as such. Where Eleanor was frugal and cared about the masses, the Nazis only cared about their own and famously pillaged other towns and cities for food booties, leaving locals starving. The lavishness that the Nazi elite showered on themselves was on a scale bordering on insanity One oddity is how champagne flowed in Germany during wartime at the highest levels of power. Even with a food shortage for the German masses, they also had champagne to drink. For Braun, food was a battle to be won. Being thin was more important than eating for pleasure. Ironically, it was reported that while Hitler didn't mind starving people to death, he would have liked a little more meat on the bones of his lady. This chapter was as much about Hitler as it was about Braun. Hitler was supposed to be a bit of a sugar fiend - he thought it calmed his nerves. It was reported that he was stuffing himself with cake shortly before he killed himself. Weird imagery squared. Though, I think he may have been born the month he killed himself. Birthday cake perhaps? I can see it now, the Gestapo throwing him a birthday bash before he finishes himself off. As far as the suicide, Braun had tried it before. She didn't have to kill herself, she did it because she was that submissive to Hitler. A little factoid I didn't know. After Hitler fired his favored vegetarian chef because it was discovered she had a drop of Jewish blood in her (though he protected her ironically), he hired a new one that cooked Italian food to Hitler's liking. Spaghetti was on the menu the day Hitler killed himself. His final meal was spaghetti and cake. The writer Barbara Pym was the one woman I knew nothing about before reading this book. Ironically, she was the one that resonated with me the most. She was a writer far happier remaining single than marrying the man of her dreams. She wanted to be thought of as a writer, not as a wife. As the author wrote about Pym's passion for food, it was clear the author shared that passion. Pym's chapter was the one that was most passionately written. The last woman written about was Helen Gurley Brown. The first thing that popped into my mind was that Brown was stick thin and what the hell is she doing in a book about food. Well, she was similar to Braun in that she thought staying thin was the most important thing a woman could do. She believed that nothing else would matter or fall into place unless a woman was desirable and one can't be desirable if one is fat. Brown was a peculiar feminist in that she touted male superiority (or at least wanted it to appear that way). She would cook for her man while starving herself. I had no idea Brown had published a cookbook at one time. All I could think was that it was akin to Hitler publishing tips on celebrating Hanukkah. The author wraps up the book by telling us her own food story. Where Brown may have had an eating disorder, the author writes she had a cooking disorder - an obsession. She goes off onto interesting riffs about the world of wifedom - this strange land where dinner became different once she was a "wife." It was the 1970s and women's liberation was front and center - the irony that she was a wife worried about cooking dinner was laughable. Not that one shouldn't take care of cooking a nice meal for those they love, but that label of wife really threw her for a loop.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Mrs. Elaine

    I almost didn't finish this book. Chapter one was dreary and depressing despite the author clearly hinting to a possible incestuous relationship between the topic of the chapter and her brother. The second chapter was a bit better and the third was significantly better and that pattern stayed true throughout the book. My main issue was the writing itself. I strongly feel the book is in need of a better editor. The chapters feel jumbled and while the main draw is supposed to be food the writer tak I almost didn't finish this book. Chapter one was dreary and depressing despite the author clearly hinting to a possible incestuous relationship between the topic of the chapter and her brother. The second chapter was a bit better and the third was significantly better and that pattern stayed true throughout the book. My main issue was the writing itself. I strongly feel the book is in need of a better editor. The chapters feel jumbled and while the main draw is supposed to be food the writer takes us off topic frequently. Eva Braun should have been the star of chapter four but she was frequently eclipsed by her lover! What she ate consisted of a few paragraphs while her desire to be THE face of Nazi womanhood and a competent host popped up over and over. I can tell you what Hitler ate but for the life of me I can't remember a damn thing about Eva's food preferences! All of the women are entertaining on their own as character studies but the author promised us more then that. We were promised a unique view of these women based off of their relationship with food! She succeeded with Eleanor Roosevelt, a little bit with a few others, and completley failed with Eva Braun. If you want to read a short bio of these women then proceed but do not read this hoping to really understand how food affected their lives. It just isn't going to happen. Once I accepted the books flaws I did enjoy it. I had never heard of Helen Gurley Brown (editor of Cosmo in the 60s) and I had never read much about Eva Braun or any of the women mentioned in this book so it was refreshing to learn about these amazing women! Amazing amd depressing depending on the woman.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Alicia

    "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're born and lasts until we die." "It turns out that our food stories don't always honor what's smartest and most dignified about us. More often they go straight to what's neediest." "Pursuing these women through their own writing, through their biographers, through the archives, pouncing on every clue that might help me figure out what they cooked or "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're born and lasts until we die." "It turns out that our food stories don't always honor what's smartest and most dignified about us. More often they go straight to what's neediest." "Pursuing these women through their own writing, through their biographers, through the archives, pouncing on every clue that might help me figure out what they cooked or ate or thought about food, has been just the sort of research I love. It's like standing in line at the supermarket and peering into the other carts, but with the rare privilege, of complete freedom to pry." Oh, how I wish that this book lived up to my expectations! As you can see I connected so fantastically to her introduction including the last quote about peering into one another's shopping carts and the idea of understanding them through food. But I was so disappointed that it read like another biography of the women she profiled with a snippet here or there to supposedly fulfill the idea of what the book was going to be about. I wanted to dive deeper! Or pick others where the food story is much more pronounced so that we CAN peer into their shopping cart! Food fascinates me and why I loved First Bite so much. I was hoping for more of the magic but alas, it was not there. And it's only redeeming quality was some of the fascinating tidbits, specifically about Eva Braun and Wordsworth dedicating her life to her brother.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jo

    Interesting but hugely inconsistent. There was no thread that tied the women together, they seemed chosen totally at random. The section on Eva Braun was particularly random, weak, mostly about Hitler and failed to grapple with the huge issues at hand in a satisfying way. The section on Helen Gurley Brown was also weak, talking about food and dieting without reckoning with body image and American culture in any way seemed to me an odd choice. I liked the other four essays a lot more, but they di Interesting but hugely inconsistent. There was no thread that tied the women together, they seemed chosen totally at random. The section on Eva Braun was particularly random, weak, mostly about Hitler and failed to grapple with the huge issues at hand in a satisfying way. The section on Helen Gurley Brown was also weak, talking about food and dieting without reckoning with body image and American culture in any way seemed to me an odd choice. I liked the other four essays a lot more, but they didn't seem to add up to anything and there was no thread tying the book together besides woman and food.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    I've been struggling with how to rate this, but I think I'm just going to not rate it at all since I barely managed to get through the introduction before having to restrain myself from rage throwing my phone. I was drawn in by the premise, which seemed interesting to me: food as a gateway or window into the lives of 6 very different women from very different periods of time. Sounds neat, right? Then, as I started listening to the audiobook on my walk to the subway station, the author started ba I've been struggling with how to rate this, but I think I'm just going to not rate it at all since I barely managed to get through the introduction before having to restrain myself from rage throwing my phone. I was drawn in by the premise, which seemed interesting to me: food as a gateway or window into the lives of 6 very different women from very different periods of time. Sounds neat, right? Then, as I started listening to the audiobook on my walk to the subway station, the author started bashing academics for not looking at things from this perspective before. Full disclosure, I'm an academically trained historian, and am married to an English lit professor, so I have a couple of dogs in this fight (what a horrible analogy! sorry!). I was completely with Ms. Shapiro as she called us to task for historically overlooking the contributions of women and the historical importance of daily domestic life. But her purported consternation with how academics could possibly not have written about these women from this perspective before, it's so obviously the way to go about it, which she notices because she's a journalist and not some stuffy, ivory tower academic, lost me with its self-aggrandizing tunnel vision. I got a few funny looks from my fellow commuters as I looked at my phone and told it to shut up. I'm not a big fan of people who build themselves up by tearing others down. Maybe the rest of the book is great. Maybe it's not. I'll leave it to you to decide, but I found I couldn't take anything the author said seriously after that introduction, so I had to quit.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Kristin

    This book reminded me of a book of short stories or essays in this respect: some of the stories or essays I liked and some I didn't. The sad thing is that I really only cared for two of the women out of the six of this book. Two women, in my opinion, did not lead remarkable lives at all, so I had no interest in their lifestyle, including what they ate. The author had such sketchy information about Dorothy Wordsworth's life that I scratch my head at why she was even included. Barbara Pym was also This book reminded me of a book of short stories or essays in this respect: some of the stories or essays I liked and some I didn't. The sad thing is that I really only cared for two of the women out of the six of this book. Two women, in my opinion, did not lead remarkable lives at all, so I had no interest in their lifestyle, including what they ate. The author had such sketchy information about Dorothy Wordsworth's life that I scratch my head at why she was even included. Barbara Pym was also of little interest to me. The women who I found the most interesting were Rosa Lewis, a caterer from the 1800's who saw cooking as a way to climb up the social ladder, and Eleanor Roosevelt, who had a woman cook for the White House whose meals have been considered abominable. If you do choose to read this book, don't feel guilty if you find yourself skimming some of these women's lives. I know I didn't.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Bucket

    This is the sort of book -- micro-history-ish -- that I'm often excited about but ultimately disappointed by. Not the case here. I was pleasantly surprised at how well the author accomplished her premise. She sets out to bring insight to our understanding of six women through how they associated with food and, to my mind, she succeeds amazingly. The chapters hone in on food, but that perspective never feels too narrow. She made excellent choices about who to feature - these are women whose lives This is the sort of book -- micro-history-ish -- that I'm often excited about but ultimately disappointed by. Not the case here. I was pleasantly surprised at how well the author accomplished her premise. She sets out to bring insight to our understanding of six women through how they associated with food and, to my mind, she succeeds amazingly. The chapters hone in on food, but that perspective never feels too narrow. She made excellent choices about who to feature - these are women whose lives were impacted by their relationship to food - but she also builds the connections clearly and with enthusiasm. Overall, loved it.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Nancy

    This was a salmagundi, with the accounts of the six women and their relationship to food ranging from one star to four. The best of them, Dorothy Wordsworth, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Helen Gurley Brown, are personal accounts as well as of their times, when food was the only way for a woman to exercise control. Two of them are interesting comments on the zeitgeist, but the woman gets lost in the account. Eva Braun was unforgivable; sheer exploitation. She didn’t eat much so as to stay slim and that This was a salmagundi, with the accounts of the six women and their relationship to food ranging from one star to four. The best of them, Dorothy Wordsworth, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Helen Gurley Brown, are personal accounts as well as of their times, when food was the only way for a woman to exercise control. Two of them are interesting comments on the zeitgeist, but the woman gets lost in the account. Eva Braun was unforgivable; sheer exploitation. She didn’t eat much so as to stay slim and that was it; the rest was pure Adolf. Entertaining withal, so can justify three stars, but Eva was creepy.

  24. 4 out of 5

    catechism

    I finished this while I was out today and spent some time trying to figure out what to even say about it, and then I read TFV's review and it perfectly captures 100% of my feelings. I really liked reading about Eleanor Roosevelt but have negative interest in humanizing Hitler or how great the Nazis ate while murdering millions, and since Eva Braun did not really eat, why is there a chapter on her in a What She Ate book? And ugh, Helen Gurley Brown, I wish you'd've gone to therapy instead of Cosm I finished this while I was out today and spent some time trying to figure out what to even say about it, and then I read TFV's review and it perfectly captures 100% of my feelings. I really liked reading about Eleanor Roosevelt but have negative interest in humanizing Hitler or how great the Nazis ate while murdering millions, and since Eva Braun did not really eat, why is there a chapter on her in a What She Ate book? And ugh, Helen Gurley Brown, I wish you'd've gone to therapy instead of Cosmo.

  25. 5 out of 5

    MargaretDH

    This is my third Laura Shapiro book, and I've enjoyed them all. I really appreciate her ability to give an intimate and sympathetic portrait of a woman without looking at her through the lens of the present. She allows all of these women to come to life on their own terms in their own times. Despite that though, this book highlighted how some of these women were bound by the strictures of their times. Some of the women embraced these strictures more than others, while others found themselves in s This is my third Laura Shapiro book, and I've enjoyed them all. I really appreciate her ability to give an intimate and sympathetic portrait of a woman without looking at her through the lens of the present. She allows all of these women to come to life on their own terms in their own times. Despite that though, this book highlighted how some of these women were bound by the strictures of their times. Some of the women embraced these strictures more than others, while others found themselves in situations that they would not have chosen for themselves. And their relationship with food was a way for them to express themselves. And I learned so much! Anyway, I'd definitely recommend this. There's a lot here to talk about for a book club.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Katie

    I loved the concept of this book, that we can learn about people through the food they eat, and how they interact with and talk or write about food. I wonder if food biography is a genre, not food memoir, but biography. I'd love to learn about more people through their food.

  27. 4 out of 5

    K

    A pretty darn good little book about 6 wildly different women and their relationships with food. Shapiro manages to cover the important aspects of these women's lives while weaving her theme of food throughout. Interestingly, the afterword, where she reveals a bit of her own well examined thoughts on her role as wife/food preparer, is not to be skipped.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Sonya

    This was an okay read. I loved the premise but the book didn't live up to my expectations. There wasn't as much about food as I expected. It was more like short bios on six women, several of whom I had no knowledge of prior to reading the book.

  29. 5 out of 5

    eghzarw

    A good concept, but I felt that at times the author was a bit too subjective in her assessment of the emotional impact of certain meals (e.g. Dorothy Wordsworth's diary entry "Dined on black puddings" is insistently highlighted as an extremely low point, but I fail to see why -- good black pudding is lovely, and may easily become a delicious supper dish).

  30. 5 out of 5

    Ashwini

    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 kinda hate myself for not thinking about food as a legitimate angle to telling the stories of women, earlier. 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. Biographers, according to Shapiro, have often omitted food from the 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 kinda hate myself for not thinking about food as a legitimate angle to telling the stories of women, earlier. 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. 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, when William Knight, a philosopher and writer edited and published the Grasmere Journals (written by Wordswoth's sister Dorothy), he omitted all the details about the meals that Dorothy cooked for her brother, William. He felt that these details lacked "literary or biographical value". However, it is impossible to humanize people like Wordsworth without talking about the fact that he ate cold pork, porridge and cake. More importantly, it is hard to articulate Dorothy's contributions to poetry, without talking about the meals she cooked and served at Dove Cottage. 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 dinners served at the White House was a fascinating read. I'd love to read Shapiro's own food story someday. This was surely one of the better reads of the year.

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