Forgettable Meals Forgotten

Review: 'What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories' by Laura Shapiro

Eleanor Roosevelt / Getty Images


Back in 1986, Laura Shapiro published Perfection Salad, a study of culinary history that was simultaneously an enduring classic and an evanescent artifact of its time. For readers too young to remember, those were the days of American feminism on a triumphal march through scholarship, with historical writing increasingly demanded to be a tale of the oppression of women. But those were also the days of a new critique of the Enlightenment, some of it born from Alasdair MacIntyre's 1981 After Virtue and the rest derived from Michel Foucault's 1975 Discipline and Punish.

With his philosophical treatise on virtue ethics, MacIntyre taught us to see the Enlightenment not as a universal moral logic but a particular (and logically flawed) way of viewing the world in a historical setting. And with his study of early modern prisons, Foucault taught us to look at the Enlightenment through the disciplines with which modernity imposed itself on public life.

Telling the tale of women and cooking in America at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, Shapiro probably set out in Perfection Salad to present a fairly well-worn tale of oppressed women, as told through the already a little overused device of material history, focusing on small domestic details. Perfection Salad proved better than other books of that ilk, however. Much better.

To begin with, Shapiro wrote better than many of her contemporaries, in a clean and quick-moving prose. Then, too, when she discovered the primary tastemakers of turn-of-the-century domestic cuisine were not men but women—think Fannie Farmer and her 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book—Shapiro did not falter.

Mostly, though, what made Perfection Salad so fascinating was its story of the attempt to bring the Enlightenment to the kitchen, understood as the last vestige of the pre-scientific Dark Ages. "It is my wish," as Farmer wrote, that the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book "may awaken an interest through its condensed scientific knowledge which will lead to deeper thought and broader study of what to eat." Home Economics, America was told, would shed the bright light of reason on the grim and superstitious medievalism that was our old way of cooking.

That female-led imposition of radical rationality on America would continue through the 1930s, championed by such figures as Louise Stanley, head of the federal Bureau of Home Economics, and Katherine Fisher of the Good Housekeeping Institute. By the time Shapiro wrote in the 1980s, the mockery of American cuisine had reached a crescendo: a sneer at the white bread, canned goods, and under-spiced meals the nation had learned to eat. What Perfection Salad forced us to remember, however, is that the bland American diet was actually learned. It had been taught to us by progressive women reformers, in the name of science and the Enlightenment.

Shapiro continued her interest in food through such volumes as her 2004 Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America and her 2007 biography Julia Child in the Penguin Brief Lives series. And now she's given us What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories. This latest work is not a particularly bad book. All that's wrong with What She Ate is that it's entirely an artifact of its time—what Perfection Salad might have been if Shapiro hadn't layered in the fascinating tale of a class of progressive women with an invincible moral conviction about the righteousness of their scientific rationality. Laura Shapiro once wrote a surprisingly compelling book, with the power to perdure in the mind. Thirty years on, she's written something mostly just forgettable.

Believing that "every life has a food story, and every food story is unique," Shapiro uses What She Ate to draw six pictures—six vignettes of women through their relation to food. "Food always talks," she writes, and the chapter on Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, tries to explain one of the few unsolved mysteries of the long Roosevelt tenure in the presidency: the godawful food. Bringing down from upstate New York an untrained housekeeper named Henrietta Nesbitt to run the presidential residence, Eleanor Roosevelt oversaw what is universally acknowledged among presidential historians to have been the worst food ever served in the White House.

Nesbitt would routinely set before the president and his guests such dishes as chipped beef on toast, the horrifying-sounding Shrimp Wiggle, and Eggs Mexican, which seems to have been a Nesbitt original—a concoction of rice, fried eggs, and bananas. The traditional explanation is that Eleanor Roosevelt put up with the bad meals because she had interest in food, no palate with which to taste it, and the political optics were good: Even the president eats terrible but frugal meals during the Depression!

Shapiro does note the charitable impulse that caused the First Lady to hire the destitute Nesbitt, and she certainly knows the progressive tradition that would lead to such New Deal excesses as the Bureau of Home Economics, imposing bleached flour on the nation. But in What She Ate, Shapiro thinks the cause of all the bad White House food was most of all the fact that the president despised Nesbitt's cooking. The striking thing about Eleanor Roosevelt's "culinary asceticism," Shapiro writes, "is that she practiced it chiefly in the context of being wife" to Franklin Roosevelt. The bad food was a quiet WASP-ish weapon with which to strike at her husband.

So, too, for Shapiro, food forms the story of Dorothy Wordsworth. Massively overreading "Dined on black pudding," an 1829 diary entry, Shapiro insists that occasional comments about food explain Dorothy's decline from the excitement of being the chief support of her famous poet brother William to the dullness of being "the all-purpose spinster in the Wordsworth family," caring for a poor nephew.

The chapter on Eva Braun is similarly unconvincing. While well written and persuasive as an insight into the psyche of Hitler's mistress and chief hostess, the connection to food seems forced. (Clothes, rather, prove the domestic detail that provides the best synecdoche for Braun's character.)

Better is the chapter on Rosa Lewis, an Edwardian scullery maid whose cooking skill and sharp palate helped her rise to become the best-known caterer in London. Good too is the chapter on the novelist Barbara Pym, although all that Shapiro's research really proves is that Pym was wise about the role of food in novels—doing in her fiction what Shapiro hoped to do in nonfiction.

And then there's Helen Gurley Brown, the author of Sex and the Single Girl and editor of Cosmopolitan, whose relation to food was essentially making sure meals were elaborate, serving them to men, and eating none of it herself. Her own diet often consisted of little more than vitamin pills and protein powder mixed into a diet orange drink. Brown was even talked by her publisher into producing a "sexy" cookbook, which was a disaster, as one might expect from an author so ambivalent about food. Shapiro reads into all this the failure of early-1960s feminism, increasingly liberated about sex but still caught in man-pleasing. It's a stretch, however, to get there from Helen Gurley Brown's eating habits.

Laura Shapiro intends What She Ate as a rebuke to historians with a "dismissive attitude toward women's domestic lives"—but it's been ages since there actually existed such historians. If anything, historians of anything other than domestic lives are thin on the ground these days. What She Ate is a pleasant book in many ways, but complaining about a straw man, Shapiro sets herself firmly among the hackneyed and trite writers of the day.

That's a shame, for much of Perfection Salad was anything but hackneyed. Anything but trite.

Joseph Bottum

Joseph Bottum   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Joseph Bottum is a professor of cyber-ethics and director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

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