What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories
by Laura Shapiro (Viking, $27)
A reader might wonder what Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Helen Gurley Brown, and novelist Barbara Pym could possibly have in common, said Melanie Rehak in Bookforum. But Laura Shapiro is a cleverer food writer than most, and “her nose for a good story doesn’t fail her.” Food, in Shapiro’s way of seeing, reliably offers a window on power dynamics, and the six women profiled in What She Ate “are linked, like women everywhere, by the covert methods they used to acquire whatever power was available to them.” Eva Braun and Helen Gurley Brown nearly starved themselves to win male attention; Eleanor Roosevelt used her control of the White House kitchen to, wittingly or not, exact revenge on her philanderer husband. “It turns out these women have more in common than you might imagine.”
Shapiro occasionally strains to put food at the center of each woman’s story, said Laura Miller in Slate.com. Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of the poet William Wordsworth, would surely be surprised how much drama Shapiro finds hiding in the simple diary entry “Dined on black pudding.” Still, each of Shapiro’s subjects “fascinates in a different way.” Eleanor Roosevelt secured her place in culinary history by hiring arguably the worst White House chef ever—a Hyde Park, N.Y., housewife who specialized in fare like jellied bouillon salad. Other historians have assumed Eleanor just didn’t care about food. Shapiro concludes differently. “Three times a day,” she writes, “the first lady made sure that her husband received a large helping of pent-up anger.”
Braun’s inclusion in the book’s portrait gallery at first seems tasteless, said Nina Martyris in NPR.org. But Shapiro, by focusing on the dinner parties Adolf Hitler threw for his inner circle and how much the events meant to Braun, creates a “penetrating” character sketch. Hitler’s mistress was too figure-conscious to consume much besides Champagne, but she drank bubbly constantly, including at her 1945 wedding. A day later, Hitler shot himself, while Braun chose a less disfiguring means of suicide: The last thing she ate was a cyanide capsule.