18 Sep 2017

'What She Ate' reveals eating habits of six women of history

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:10 pm on 18 September 2017

What we eat says a lot about who we are and what's important to us, says culinary historian Laura Shapiro.

In her new book What She Ate, Shapiro serves up a dietary portrait of six women from history including Eleanor Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler's mistress Eva Braun and long-time Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown.

Our relationship to what we eat reveals more than how we present ourselves to the world, she tells Jesse Mulligan.

Laura Shapiro

Laura Shapiro Photo: Ellen Warner

As a biography lover, Shapiro was always bothered by not getting to find out what people ate.

"It's as if these famous people grew up and lived their lives and never ate breakfast, lunch and dinner or had a snack in the middle of the night.

"Food is what tells you about class, culture, everything else – I want to know what they ate."

While home truths like 'Food is love' and 'Food is family' are true, there are always other things going on at the dinner table, she says.

"Food can radiate signals of misery and despair and self-questioning and self-doubt - I wanted to read those things, too."

Dorothy Wordsworth – the poet William's sister – was the initial inspiration for Shapiro's book.

Dorothy was devoted to William and before he left to marry and make a family, the two lived together in an idyllic cottage where she took care of him and cooked fresh food from the garden.

25 years after William left, Dorothy, who never married, was caring for a nephew in a dreary coal mining region.

Dorothy Wordsworth

Dorothy Wordsworth Photo: Public domain

One day she sat down to dinner and staring at her on the plate was a serving of black pudding, Shapiro says.

"Basically it's pig's blood and oatmeal. I thought, something's going on here. If I can understand that relationship – Dorothy and the black pudding – I'm going to find something out about her life."

Around this time Dorothy began to decline physically and mentally and became addicted to the opium derivative laudanum.

She went from being a "brisk, obedient, wiry little woman" who did things for other people all the time to overweight, lazy and demanding.

Until then there had been no mention of food in her diaries, but now she wanted love and attention and she wanted food, Shapiro says.

"The dementia released an inner Dorothy who had never been fed – now she was demanding to be fed."

When her husband Franklin D Roosevelt was elected president in 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt hated giving up her own political life to move to the White House and play a First Lady.

Once there, she set up a 'reform kitchen' which, rather than the usual lavish meals, served simple, austere food.

In the years that followed Eleanor's housekeeper Mrs Nesbitt serve the worst meals in presidential history – slabs of grey overcooked lamb, soggy vegetables and wilted salads.

Eleanor and Franklin had a power struggle in their relationship as she'd never forgiven him for his infidelity with her social secretary years earlier, Shapiro says.

"She was politically loyal to him but her emotions were somewhere else."

Franklin was the first foodie president who really loved good food, yet he didn't demand Eleanor fire Mrs Nesbitt.

"They both kind of knew that this was payback for something."

Eleanor Roosevelt in her dining room with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Mary Margaret McBride, and Maureen Corr

Eleanor Roosevelt in her dining room with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Mary Margaret McBride, and Maureen Corr Photo: wikipedia

After Franklin died, Eleanor began to write about enjoying restaurants when she travelled and good times cooking with friends.

"She's starting to see food in a completely different way – it's not about sacrifice, it's not about punishment, it's an exchange of love between people who care about each other."

Eva Braun

Eva Braun Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0

Adolf Hitler's wife Eva Braun was a "horrible person" but fascinatingly in her unknowability, Shapiro says.

She thought that finding out what Braun ate might provide an insight into the pretty, apolitical German teenager who devoted her life to a tyrant 20 years older.

Braun was a master of appearances who changed her clothes six or seven times a day and always carrying a camera.

At the Nazi dinner parties she hosted, good feeling flowed around a table of bourgeois German food.

The ambience Braun created denied the existence of the chaos, bloodshed and devastation going on, Shapiro says.

"Eva Braun presiding over the food – the lady of the house – enabled everyone at that table to persuade themselves they were living in a charmed circle where everything is okay."

The food images that now flood social media will be a fabulous record for culinary historians of the future, Shapiro says.

But she has a request for those who like sharing pictures of what they're eating.

"Don't just take that picture of the gorgeous ice-cream cone. Write something about it. I want to know what you were thinking when you decided to get the ice cream cone. Who were you with? What did you pay for it? Did you have any quarrels with the health monitor that runs inside all of us when you decided to get it? … Write all that down. I like words. I want to read the words, not just look at the pictures."

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