PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Politics

'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.


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

Publisher: Viking
Length: 320 pages
Author: Laura Shapiro
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-07
Amazon

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?

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.