‘What She Ate’ Illustrates How Food Can Shift Balances of Power in Surprising Ways

Laura Shapiro’s portraits alternate between a female’s sense of rebelliousness and capitulation in the struggle for food sovereignty.

My father only ever ate half a dozen things for dinner. Whatever we kids were having, my mom would fix up one of his usual plates on the side. Eventually, I went off to college and met somebody decent. When an academic opportunity arose, we visited Chicago and figured we may as well get over the hump of dinner with my father. But time was tight, so I insisted he’d have to meet us near the hotel. In order to size up my prospective life partner, my father therefore had to eat Thai food. And he crabbed about it the whole time, which sealed my victory wonderfully.

There is a grocery store right next to the school where I teach. Once I ran into one of our assistant principals there after work. A look of horror flashed across his face because this chance meeting happened in the wine aisle of all places and he’d spent most daylight hours easily convincing our staff that he was an uptight, sanctimonious teetotaler who never touched the stuff. He made the requisite two minutes of small talk while hiding his hand basket behind his back the entire time. Meanwhile, I put four bottles more than planned into my cart so we could be clear on how different we were.

Food can shift balances of power in surprising ways. In high school, my debate coach was a surrogate father figure to the entire team, so we happily overlooked the fact that he often chewed with his mouth open, lobbing flecks of fast food at us as he spoke. As a food critic, I often have a terrible time of the scrutiny at dinner parties because the hosts live in fear of my opinion, as if I don’t know how to shut it off or at least keep it to myself. In grad school, we always knew which professors would pick up the tab and which ones wouldn’t. A Pulitzer Prize winner once mightily impressed me by his graceful acumen with chopsticks. I have stealthily coached teenagers at table, whispering to them about which fork to use. My literary crush on another writer instantly evaporated when I heard all the specific instructions for his cheeseburger order. Thinking about Donald Trump eating pizza with a knife and fork makes me embarrassed to call him president.

I’ve long been fascinated by the idea that Hitler was a vegetarian. Obviously, this is a terrific piece of propaganda that frames him as healthy, trendy, kind to animals, moderate and humble at table. But he hadn’t actually given up meat to any serious extent, and moreover, he had an overwhelmingly public sweet tooth. He’d run in and out of meetings to stuff his face with cookies alone in the privacy of his office. The few anecdotes I know about food and Hitler are what piqued my interest in reading Laura Shapiro’s What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories. You may not have noticed that all the examples I’ve given so far pertain to snatching supremacy from the jaws of powerful men. It’s not just the kitchen space itself that is gendered. Habits of eating can also be read through a feminist lens to a remarkable degree, and Shapiro’s book is exemplary in this regard.

All six women in the book are deceased, which has pros and cons. The author relies primarily on diaries and home movies, plus secondary sources from other historians. On the upside, none of her subjects will be offended by Shapiro’s conclusions, which may flatter the women’s distinct personalities but reflect so much of the general misogyny of their lifetimes that the whole cultural milieu begins to seem like a bummer. The judgment of a lingering male gaze is present in her analysis even more than the food and the females who ate it. The six women are public figures of various kinds and almost never is Shapiro analyzing the meals they ate alone at the kitchen table. Neither the food nor these singular women have any kind of solitude, no respite from a public perception buttressed by masculine privilege. As a result, Shapiro’s portraits alternate between a female’s sense of rebelliousness and capitulation in the struggle for food sovereignty.

Dorothy Wordsworth spent the first half of her life caring for and cooking for her brother, the poet William Wordsworth. It was her highest aim in life to further his writing by all her means, and when he got married, she then spent the second half of her life growing bitter and extremely obese. The simple, flexible recipes that utilized every scrap were supplanted by her fantasy of scarfing endless chickens and fancy pies while already bedridden and sickly. Her unhappiness, her longing to give close support to William, manifested itself as a chronically painful gastrointestinal disease.

Rosa Lewis is the only professional chef in the book. Lewis bootstrapped herself up from nothing like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, catering to King Edward and the super rich in the early 1900s and eventually managing the storied Cavendish Hotel. She was crass, brash, and extremely unreliable in the embellishments of her own story, lording her French cooking techniques over the male-dominated world of British haute cuisine. Her catering was her currency. The catering was the consequence for Eleanor Roosevelt, who notoriously hired the worst White House chef in history in order to punish her husband for his affairs and hedge against her mother-in-law’s judgmental micromanagement.

Then there’s the tale of Eva Braun, who loved Hitler and genuinely cared nothing for political issues all the way right up to sitting in his bunker chewing her cyanide capsule. She loved being skinny and changing outfits seven times a day, eager for tea and table time even though she ate very little because those were the only moments she was permitted to play house with Germany’s genocidal leader.

Playing house was quite a serious business for writer Barbara Pym, whose extraordinarily apt and precise deployment of food in her novels caused male literary critics to find her work boring at the time. Yet what Jane Austen often spelled out with a sledgehammer’s directness, Pym could convey in a few understated lines about the crusts of sandwiches or a cup of tea.

Most of Shapiro’s interest is located in England, but the shockingly American portrait of Helen Gurley Brown at the end is in many ways the best. Brown took over the reins of a failing Cosmopolitan magazine in the mid-’60s, famously rebranding it with her signature tone and overly saccharine punctuation in short order, then ran it in her own confused way for more than 30 years. The speediest and most thorough turnaround in perhaps all of American journalism ran parallel to her agonizingly slow courtship of a wealthy man who finally agreed to put a ring on it. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Brown was the poster girl for functioning anorexics. She never dined with her husband and subsisted mainly on gelatin. She felt her greatest accomplishments were, in this order: being married, being skinny, being the editor of Cosmo.

These women are all more or less famous, all more or less influential in their professional spheres. Yet their food stories are common, are all too familiar in their resonance as modern feminist conundrums. Shapiro portrays each of her six subjects with warmth and as fully rounded characters. They win some and lose some, they resist or persist when they are able. The universal necessity of food ensures that it is a powerful tool, and Shapiro’s approach to gendering it is enlightening without being too insistent about what works or what doesn’t.

What She Ate is a solid framework that only scratches the surface of this inquiry. I’d like very much to see what the author can do with some living subjects, too. Wouldn’t we all get sucked in to 40 pages on what Beyonce eats?