What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women And The Food That Tells Their Stories by Laura ShapiroWhat She Ate: Six Remarkable Women And The Food That Tells Their Stories by Laura Shapiro

What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women And The Food That Tells Their Stories

byLaura Shapiro

Hardcover | July 25, 2017

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Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of The Year
One of NPR Fresh Air's "Books to Close Out a Chaotic 2017"
NPR's Book Concierge Guide To the Year’s Great Reads

How lucky for us readers that Shapiro has been listening so perceptively for decades to the language of food.” Maureen Corrigan, NPR Fresh Air

Six 
“mouthwatering” (Eater.com) short takes on six famous women through the lens of food and cooking, probing how their attitudes toward food can offer surprising new insights into their lives, and our own.

Everyone eats, and food touches on every aspect of our lives—social and cultural, personal and political. Yet most biographers pay little attention to people’s attitudes toward food, as if the great and notable never bothered to think about what was on the plate in front of them. Once we ask how somebody relates to food, we find a whole world of different and provocative ways to understand her. Food stories can be as intimate and revealing as stories of love, work, or coming-of-age. Each of the six women in this entertaining group portrait was famous in her time, and most are still famous in ours; but until now, nobody has told their lives from the point of view of the kitchen and the table. 

What She Ate is a lively and unpredictable array of women; what they have in common with one another (and us) is a powerful relationship with food. They include Dorothy Wordsworth, whose food story transforms our picture of the life she shared with her famous poet brother; Rosa Lewis, the Edwardian-era Cockney caterer who cooked her way up the social ladder; Eleanor Roosevelt,  First Lady and rigorous protector of the worst cook in White House history; Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, who challenges our warm associations of food, family, and table; Barbara Pym, whose witty books upend a host of stereotypes about postwar British cuisine; and Helen Gurley Brown, the editor of Cosmopolitan, whose commitment to “having it all” meant having almost nothing on the plate except a supersized portion of diet gelatin.
Laura Shapiro has written on every food topic from champagne to Jell-O for The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, Gourmet, and many other publications. She is the author of three classic books of culinary history. Her awards include a James Beard Journalism Award and one from the National Women’s Political Caucus. She...
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Title:What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women And The Food That Tells Their StoriesFormat:HardcoverDimensions:320 pages, 8.56 × 5.81 × 1.06 inPublished:July 25, 2017Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

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ISBN - 10:0525427643

ISBN - 13:9780525427643

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Eleanor had never wanted to be First Lady. She hated the idea of surrendering her independence and pulling back from hands- on political work just to become a hostess. For the sake of the country she was glad FDR had been elected, but she knew exactly what First Ladies did: they got dressed up, they shook hands, and they made small talk, day after endless day. How could she submit to such a role? When FDR was nominated, she was the only person in the room who was stone- faced; and when he won, she wrote later, “The turmoil in my heart and mind was rather great that night, and the next few months were not to make any clearer what the road ahead would be.” As she was organizing the household for the move to Washington, she made a tentative suggestion to FDR: Wasn’t there “a real job” she could do in the White House? Perhaps answer some of his mail? “He looked at me quizzically and said he did not think that would do, that Missy, who had been handling his mail for a long time, would feel I was interfering. I knew he was right and that it would not work, but it was a last effort to keep in close touch and to feel that I had a real job to do.” Eventually, of course, she created that job. She had seen how home economics operated: it was a woman’s profession in a man’s world. No lines were crossed, no fiefdoms challenged, but the women gave heart and soul to work they cared about. Now she, too, set out to find a professional place for herself, even while confined to FDR’s sphere. She couldn’t set policy, but she could travel, meet people, listen to them, investigate, pull myriad strings in Washington, make brilliant use of symbolic gestures, and give speeches that heartened the poor, the exploited, and the powerless. As Blanche Wiesen Cook put it, “Her vision shaped the best of his  presidency”—an assessment that would have been supported overwhelmingly by the millions of Americans whose lives she touched, though Eleanor herself would have briskly turned away any such compliment.Her first responsibility was one that FDR asked her to take on: he wanted her to manage the domestic side of the White House—a notion that must have reverberated in his mind for the next twelve years like a howl of triumph from Satan himself. Eleanor promptly set out to locate a first- rate housekeeper, someone who would plan and oversee the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and marketing for what was, in effect, a private hotel under public scrutiny. She thought she knew just the right person. Back in 1928, when FDR was running for governor of New York, Eleanor had become involved with the Hyde Park branch of the League of Women Voters and met a local woman who was also active in it: Henrietta Nesbitt, a homemaker with two grown sons and an unemployed husband. She was a strong supporter of FDR’s and went to the same Episcopal church as Eleanor. And her family was hard up. Eleanor saw a way to help. She began hiring Mrs. Nesbitt to bake bread, pies, coffee cakes, and cookies for the constant entertaining that was going on at Hyde Park, and when the Roosevelts moved to Albany Mrs. Nesbitt kept right on baking for them, sending the orders upstate by train. Then FDR ran for president and won. Mrs. Nesbitt was delighted but also a little disappointed. The baking had been “a godsend,” as she wrote in her memoir, White House Diary. Now it was coming to an end, and the Nesbitts, who had been forced to move in with their son and his family, were going to lose their only source of income. But shortly after Thanksgiving, Mrs. Roosevelt stopped by and said she was going to need a housekeeper in the White House. At the time she wrote her memoir, Mrs. Nesbitt was aware that her tenure in the White House was likely to be remembered as a national embarrassment—she had read all the bad press and heard all the complaints—and in her book she made a point of quoting Eleanor’s job offer very precisely: “I don’t want a professional housekeeper. I want someone I know. I want you, Mrs. Nesbitt.” It’s not clear why Eleanor was so determined to hire an amateur for a job that called for supervising more than two dozen employees, maintaining sixty rooms and their furnishings, preparing meals for a guest list that often doubled or tripled on short notice, feeding sandwiches and sweets to a thousand or more at tea on any given day, and making sure family members and their innumerable overnight guests had everything they might require around the clock. Eleanor’s contacts in Washington, not to mention her friends in home economics, could have given her the names of many candidates far more experienced than Mrs. Nesbitt. But Eleanor was comfortable with this Hyde Park woman, so loyal and accommodating, whose pies and cookies always arrived at the house when they were supposed to, and who very much needed the work. Why look elsewhere?“Mrs. Nesbitt didn’t know beans about running a White House,” recalled Lillian Rogers Parks, who worked as a maid and seamstress for the Hoovers, the Roosevelts, the Trumans, and the Eisenhowers. Known backstairs as “Fluffy”—because she was so very much the opposite—Mrs. Nesbitt had neither the skills nor the temperament for the immense job she had taken on, and she met the situation by becoming officious, overbearing, and peremptory. The staff loathed her. J. B. West, the longtime White House usher, said the mansion began looking “dingy, almost seedy” under her care, and the kitchen saw plate after plate coming back with gray slices of meat and pallid vegetables barely touched. The president complained steadily about the food, and by 1944 he was saying that the main reason he wanted to win a fourth term was for the pleasure of firing Mrs. Nesbitt. But to the end of Eleanor’s life, she insisted she had made a good hire. “Father never told me he wanted to get rid of Mrs. Nesbitt,” she claimed in a letter to her son James, who had described in a memoir FDR’s vehement feelings about the housekeeper. She added that FDR “often praised” Mrs. Nesbitt’s work—an assertion so blatantly untrue that nobody took it seriously except Mrs. Nesbitt, who made the same claim in her own two books.Yet Mrs. Nesbitt, the most reviled cook in presidential history, kept a careful record of the lunch and dinner menus she had planned at the White House and gave them to the Library of Congress with the rest of her papers. It’s as if she wanted to announce to all future detractors that contrary to her reputation she had done a splendid job and fully deserved the faith that Eleanor had in her. Hence we have a comprehensive picture of what was served throughout FDR’s administration—not just the state dinners, which every administration publicized, but all the other meals as well. They make it clear, in fact they make it vivid, what everyone was so unhappy about.Mrs. Nesbitt was under orders to practice strict economy, first because of the Depression and later because of wartime rationing. Beyond this, her only culinary vision was the one she had developed as a small- town home cook who occasionally ate out in modest restaurants. Eleanor looked over the menus every morning, but she was even less adventuresome than Mrs. Nesbitt when it came to feeding people and rarely asked for changes. Apart from this daily conference with the First Lady, Mrs. Nesbitt insisted on absolute control in the kitchen. “Of course, Henrietta did not personally do the cooking, but she stood over the cooks, making sure that each dish was overcooked or undercooked or ruined one way or another,” wrote Lillian Parks. Taste, texture, serving the food at the proper temperature, making sure each dish looked appetizing—these were niceties that did not concern the housekeeper. For dinner she typically offered simple preparations of beef, lamb, chicken, and fish, though by the time they arrived at the table they tended to be cold and dried out. She also deployed an occasional novelty of the sort that appeared in women’s magazines under such names as “Seafood Surprise” and “Ham Hawaiian.” Low- cost main dishes like sweetbreads, brains, and chicken livers appeared frequently, so frequently FDR took to complaining that he was never given anything else. But the greater cause for misery seems to have been lunch, which Mrs. Nesbitt saw as a fine occasion to save money. She built up a small repertoire of dishes based on leftovers and other inexpensive mixtures, and these turned up week after week as regularly as if they were on assignment. Sometimes these mixtures were stuffed into a green pepper, other times into a patty shell, but her favorite way to present them was the most straightforward—on toast. There were curried eggs on toast, mushrooms and oysters on toast, broiled kidneys on toast, braised kidneys on toast, lamb kidneys on toast, chipped beef on toast, and a dish called “Shrimp Wiggle,” consisting of shrimp and canned peas heated in white sauce, on toast.Another way to stretch just about any sort of food was to turn it into a creamed entrée or side dish, so day after day the Roosevelts and their company encountered creamed codfish, creamed finnan haddie, creamed mushrooms, creamed carrots, creamed clams, creamed beef, and creamed sweetbreads. Egg dishes also appeared with some persistence: she offered stuffed eggs and shirred eggs, and she featured “Eggs Benedictine” until 1938, when somebody finally corrected her. Sometimes the menus make it clear that she was at wits’ end: we see her resorting to a dish she called “Stuffed Egg Salad” for two lunches in a row, and on another presumably frantic day it was sweet potatoes at both lunch and dinner. (She did vary them, adding marshmallows at lunch and pineapple at dinner.)When it came to the salad course, Mrs. Nesbitt’s interpretation of the possibilities came from a long, uniquely American tradition in which any combination of foods, however unlikely, could be designated a salad simply by serving them on a lettuce leaf. “We leaned on salads of every variety,” she wrote in The Presidential Cookbook, her collection of White House recipes. “Mrs. Roosevelt was especially fond of salads. . . .  And even the men, who seemed inclined to frown on vegetables in any form, showed a definite interest in greens when they were fixed in appetizing ways with a tangy dressing.” How the men reacted to “Jellied Bouillon Salad” is not recorded. Other salads that appeared on the White House table, and these must have made quite an impression on foreign visitors unfamiliar with the tradition, included “Stuffed Prune Salad,” “Ashville Salad” (canned tomato soup in a gelatin ring mold), and “Pear Salad,” a hot- weather specialty featuring canned pears covered in cream cheese, mayonnaise, chives, and candied ginger. Mrs. Nesbitt said she sometimes colored the mayonnaise green.Many of these dishes reflected the American eating habits of her time; others would have been extreme under any circumstances. Not many families began dinner with sticks of fresh pineapple that had been rolled in crushed peppermint candy. But on the whole, Mrs. Nesbitt was setting a familiar if dowdy table, a culinary standard that suited Eleanor very well. She was emphatic about promoting simple, mainstream cuisine as a Roosevelt administration virtue. “I am doing away with all the kickshaws—no hothouse grapes—nothing out of season,” she told The New York Times. “I plan for good and well- cooked food and see that it is properly served, and that must be enough.” And perhaps it would have been, if Mrs. Nesbitt had been able to bring the right instincts or training to her work. She had little of either to draw upon. The arrival of foreign visitors was especially challenging, though she liked to think of herself as rising to the occasion. “For Chinese people I’d always try for a bland menu,” she explained in White House Diary. “Then for the Mexican dinner I’d have something hot, like Spanish sauce with the chicken.” She was especially proud of the nondairy, vegetarian menu she was able to create for the ambassador from Abyssinia and his entourage, who were Coptic Christians, and she carefully kept it on file to reuse when she had to feed Hindus or Muslims. Those who couldn’t eat the clam cocktail or the bluefish presumably filled up on the Mexican corn.A few of the meals in Mrs. Nesbitt’s collection are marked “Mrs. Hibben’s menu,” a reference to a rare dalliance with gourmandise that took place early in the first administration. After the election, Eleanor received a memo from Ernestine Evans, a former journalist and peripatetic literary agent who took an interest in food and thought it could play a useful role in the new White House. Why not showcase American cooking? Menus could include fine regional dishes—“cornbreads and gumbos and chowders”—authentically prepared with local ingredients. Just as the White House regularly supplied the press with the names of the guests at official dinners, it could also supply the menus; and a commitment to focus on America’s culinary traditions would assure positive news coverage. Evans said she had the right person in mind to help make this happen: Sheila Hibben, author of The National Cookbook and “the best practical cook I know.” Perhaps Hibben could work quietly behind the scenes in the White House kitchen for a few months, developing appropriate menus and recipes. “She should be used like a good architect,” Evans mused. “She should go back and find out what Jefferson served, and be ready always with a great deal of lore, so that every dish has history as well as savor.”Sheila Hibben was a witty, cosmopolitan food writer who contributed regularly to The New Yorker and other chic magazines. In the introduction to The National Cookbook, she wrote that she had been inspired to start collecting regional American recipes the day she came across a picture in the Sunday paper of a bowl of soup topped with whipped cream—whipped cream, that is, in the shape of a Sealyham terrier. Off she went on a mission to rescue what was still excellent in American cooking, hoping the best recipes would act as a kind of seawall to protect fine regional cookery against crashing waves of the idiotic, the reductionist, and the dreary. A project that began with indignation, she added, ended in patriotism—“a special sort of patriotism, a real enthusiasm for the riches and traditions of America.” Eleanor liked the idea of food that could teach history, and she invited Hibben to visit the White House kitchen and share her ideas and recipes with Mrs. Nesbitt. Alas, there seems to be no record of precisely what happened when Mrs. Nesbitt met this particular challenge to her authority, but in the end, victory went to the housekeeper.Mrs. Nesbitt’s most important adversary, however, wasn’t in the kitchen; he was in the Oval Office. She and FDR were at odds from the start. “Father, who would have been an epicure if he had been given the opportunity, began grumbling about the meals served under Mrs. Nesbitt’s supervision within a week of her reporting for duty,” wrote his son Elliott in a memoir. “Restricted in his wheelchair from dining out except on ceremonial occasions, he was at the mercy of Mrs. Nesbitt’s kitchen.” FDR liked a decent fried egg in the morning; Mrs. Nesbitt’s were invariably overcooked. He longed for a good cup of coffee; Mrs. Nesbitt’s was bitter. (Finally she agreed to put a percolator on his tray in the morning, so he could brew his own.) His friends used to send the president gifts of quail, pheasant, and other game birds, which he loved; Mrs. Nesbitt served them dried out and ruined. Reminded that the president didn’t like broccoli, she ordered the cook to make it anyway. When FDR asked that coffee be served to the guests he was entertaining in his office—they happened to be royalty—Mrs. Nesbitt sent up iced tea instead. She had no ill will; she was merely incompetent and inflexible, and she was always certain she knew best. Grace Tully, the president’s longtime secretary, reported that when he was sick one day, she had asked him if there was anything he particularly wanted. He had a yen for “some of that big white asparagus that comes in cans,” he said mournfully, but Mrs. Nesbitt had assured him they could not be found in Washington. (Tully located ten cans and had them delivered that afternoon.) Once, according to Lillian Parks, Eleanor remarked that she was constantly getting requests for White House recipes. “Laughing, FDR said she ought to send some of Henrietta Nesbitt’s recipes for brains and sweetbreads—that would certainly dry up requests for recipes in a hurry.”When the president became truly irritated—for instance, after several days in a row of salt fish for breakfast and a similarly unrelieved stretch of liver and beans for lunch—Eleanor treated it blithely. “I had to do a little real housekeeping this morning because I discovered that my husband did not like the breakfasts and lunches that he had been getting!” she noted in “My Day.” “It therefore behooves Mrs. Nesbitt and myself to scurry around and get some new ideas.” They didn’t scurry too hard, however, because Eleanor decided FDR was merely on edge—“in a tizzy,” as she put it—owing to the pressures of office. That made sense to Mrs. Nesbitt. “When he said ‘The vegetables are watery,’ and ‘I’m sick of liver and beans,’ these were figures of speech,” she explained in White House Diary.FDR could have had Mrs. Nesbitt sent right back to Hyde Park the moment he tasted her coffee for the first time, but for all his exasperation, he never insisted that Eleanor change housekeepers. And Eleanor, famous though she was for her thoughtful hospitality, appears to have switched off that gene when it came to serving meals in the White House. The sight of guests toying miserably with their “Eggs Mexican”—rice topped with bananas and fried eggs—had no effect. Mrs. Nesbitt was still working at the White House when FDR died and Truman took over. Bess Truman finally fired her, in frustration, after asking Mrs. Nesbitt numerous times to stop serving brussels sprouts because the family hated them.Why didn’t Eleanor do the same? In part, she found it easy to sidestep FDR’s misery because they spent so little time with each other. She ate lunch, dinner, and often breakfast with her own guests, while FDR had meals in his study with his secretary Missy LeHand and often a few friends and advisers. His most sociable time of day was the cocktail hour, when he took charge of mixing the drinks and encouraged plenty of gossip, laughter, and flirtation. Eleanor couldn’t bear this ritual, or indeed any manifestation of FDR’s irrepressible appetite for all the good things in life, including women. It charmed his friends, and perhaps it had charmed his bride, but now it was only a source of pain. Often she skipped the cocktail hour, or came in late, or even tried to use it for work, which FDR considered unforgivable. “I remember one day when we were having cocktails,” their daughter, Anna, told the biographer Bernard Asbell. “Mother . . . c ame in and sat down across the desk from Father. And she had a sheaf of papers this high and she said, ‘Now, Franklin, I want to talk to you about this.’ . . .  I just remember, like lightning, that I thought, Oh, God, he’s going to blow. And sure enough, he blew his top.” FDR gave the papers a violent shove across the desk; and Eleanor stood up, expressionless, and walked to another part of the room, where she began talking to a guest. Anna told Asbell that she always suspected her father had encouraged Eleanor to travel so widely in part because he simply didn’t want her around all the time.She and FDR dined together on formal occasions, of course, and when their children and grandchildren showed up for a birthday or a holiday. And they made a point of honoring their longtime custom of Sunday- night suppers, with Eleanor at the chafing dish. Otherwise, as Lillian Parks wrote, “Eleanor and the President were like ships that passed in the night—exchanging signals but seldom stopping to visit.” J. B. West said the staff had never seen Eleanor and FDR in a room without others present. “They had the most separate relationship I have ever seen between man and wife,” he wrote. She never accompanied FDR to Shangri- La, the presidential retreat later named Camp David, which he cherished as a “secret paradise” far from the Oval Office. Nor did she share his fondness for Warm Springs, Georgia, the rehabilitation center he had established for polio patients, where he loved to swim in the therapeutic springwaters. Eleanor preferred Greenwich Village, where she kept an apartment all her life. They even built separate dream houses. Back in the 1920s Eleanor had established a private domain on the grounds at Hyde Park—a house called Val- Kill, two miles from the main house, which she owned with two of her closest women friends until she bought them out in 1938. Later FDR built his own private getaway on the estate, a cottage he treasured and hoped to retire to, about a mile and a half from Eleanor’s.So they were apart, as usual—Eleanor in Washington and FDR in Warm Springs—when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945. His aunt Laura Delano was in Georgia with him; so was his cousin Daisy Suckley, and so was Lucy Mercer, who hastily packed her bags and fled. Despite his long- ago promise, FDR had never given her up. When Eleanor arrived in Warm Springs that night, Laura Delano, long jealous of the president’s famous and popular wife, spitefully told her that Lucy had been with FDR when he collapsed, that Lucy had been at Warm Springs for the last three days, and that Lucy had been visiting the White House for years during Eleanor’s frequent absences. Listening to this, Eleanor was impassive; and she remained impassive during the long train ride back to Washington. Then, just before the funeral in the East Room of the White House, she said she wanted a few minutes with her husband and asked to have the casket opened. She took off her wedding ring and left it with him.Most scholars of the Roosevelts have written only perfunctorily on the question of their culinary cold war, with the notable exceptions of Blanche Wiesen Cook and the culinary historian Barbara Haber. For Haber, whose essay “Home Cooking in the FDR White House” was the first extended analysis to take a close look at both the food and Mrs. Nesbitt, much can be explained by Eleanor’s strong personal bond with the housekeeper. The fact that people raised a fuss about what they were having for lunch didn’t strike Eleanor as any reason to fire a hardworking woman who was one of her most fervent allies, especially since Eleanor herself, in Haber’s view, barely tasted what she ate. Cook, by contrast, zeroes in on the marriage. Eleanor had never gotten over the shock and grief of discovering FDR’s infidelity. What’s more, it was clear to her, as it was clear to everyone in their circle, that he had acquired something of a second wife in the person of Missy LeHand, his most important assistant. Missy was pretty, stylish, and indispensable. She lived in the White House, went in and out of FDR’s bedroom in her nightgown, traveled with FDR, acted as hostess for the cocktail- hour gatherings, and understood him better than anyone else did. This was the sort of marriage that appealed to FDR. Eleanor pursued him with pleas for presidential action on her various causes; she was always serious and always on the job. Missy adored him and could make him laugh. Eleanor never tried to dislodge Missy from FDR’s life, but three times a day the First Lady made sure that her husband received a large helping of pent- up anger. Cook calls Mrs. Nesbitt “ER’s Revenge.”Both these readings move us closer to the heart of the issue, but we can get closer yet—indeed, we can solve this decades- long mystery—if we stop taking for granted Eleanor’s legendary indifference to food. Yes, asceticism was a strong aspect of her personality, but what’s striking about her culinary asceticism is that she practiced it chiefly in the context of being wife to FDR. Inside the White House, she was apathetic about what was on her plate. Outside, we get glimpses of a very different Eleanor.Visiting Works Progress Administration projects in Seattle in 1938, for instance, she had lunch with her daughter and son- in- law and singled out the delicious crabs’ legs for special mention in “My Day.” “After all, when one travels, one should find out the food specialties,” she wrote. In San Francisco on a speaking tour: “We went to a marvellous Chinese place for dinner & I think I ate too much!” she told her daughter. After FDR’s death, Eleanor launched a fresh career as a writer, speaker, activist, political mentor, and international public conscience; and as she kept up an extraordinary public and private schedule of activities, she dropped appreciative notes on food into “My Day.” On a trip to Beirut in 1952 she had a “delicious Arab dinner” and tried her best to convey a sense of the food—“The lamb had a wonderful kind of rice and almonds as a base. The salad was leaves of lettuce with a chopped- up arrangement the base of which was wholewheat”—before giving up, as helpless as any neophyte food writer. In Paris after the war she was never immune to what she was eating, especially at her favorite Left Bank restaurant, Les Porquerolles. “The French don’t like you to hurry over a meal, but I had to consult Madame as to what we could order because we had less than an hour in which to enjoy her excellent cooking,” she wrote after one visit. “She gave us a wonderful fish soup and then broiled langouste, which is about like our broiled lobster.” In fact, she reacted to Paris just the way all the other Americans who turned up in France were reacting in those years—why is everything so delicious here? Why can’t we do this at home? “There is one art practiced in this city that we do not treat with quite the same respect. That is the art of cooking and eating,” she mused in her column on November 5, 1948. “I am quite sure that if we knew how to cook as well as the French do, we could serve an even more superlative variety of dishes than we do now. We certainly have the necessary ingredients.” Two days earlier, Julia Child had arrived in France to begin her own adventure. Writing home, she would express her delight in the food far more eloquently, but the sentiment was the same.It’s not that Eleanor suddenly became obsessed with food or even knowledgeable about it. “She had no idea of cooking, none at all,” declared Marguerite Entrup, who worked as Eleanor’s cook from 1956 until Eleanor’s death in 1962. And yet, as Entrup indicated about these post– White House years, whenever Eleanor ordered a menu for company she always wanted dishes that appealed to her own appetite—hearty, flavorful dishes she hoped everyone would like as much as she did. Any good hostess would do the same, of course—but Eleanor has gone down in history as a woman entirely aloof to the pleasures of food. Now, living on her own and greeted with rapture and respect by crowds around the world, she was eager to give everyone her own favorite dessert. “A pancake dessert,” reported Entrup. “You make it large like a layer cake, and she had maple syrup which she used to bring from Vermont and maple sugar. What you had to do was put the maple sugar between, and then you poured the maple syrup over, and you served it warm.” It never occurred to Eleanor, Entrup added, that many women were on diets and might not touch such a confection. “She wouldn’t think,” said Entrup. But Eleanor did think—she thought, for once, about what tasted good.Eleanor was never a lyrical or evocative writer, but now and then she tried to be, and one such passage appears in a “My Day” column she wrote early in 1936. She had spent a weekend in the country, probably at Val- Kill, with some of her women friends; and in the column she described a long Sunday walk and then a quiet, lazy afternoon by the fire with books and knitting. The maid had gone home, so when suppertime came, she wrote, “We all became very busy housewives” and set to work in the kitchen. “My opportunities to satisfy a craving, natural to nearly all women, are rather rare,” she explained; hence she did not try to turn herself into a cook that evening. But she wrote that she enjoyed making salads and setting a pretty table, and that was how she contributed to the meal—tossing the salad and putting out the pewter, the silver, and the blue- and- white china. “There is something healing and life giving in the mere atmosphere surrounding a country house,” she concluded.What was life- giving, in this simple party, was the presence of people she loved. This was the context that allowed her to share “a craving natural to nearly all women” and to handle food and homemaking with pleasure. At Cornell she had discovered that domesticity had a brain; here, in the beloved, safe home that was entirely hers, she was learning that it had a heart. Outside the confines of the White House, she experienced moments so abundant with love that she was inspired to feed people from her own hands. One of her most intimate friends was a former state trooper named Earl Miller, who had been her bodyguard when FDR was governor of New York. She and Earl became very close—some, including her son James, believed they were  lovers—and although Earl had a number of women in his life, he and Eleanor remained devoted throughout the White House years and after. Once, in the mid- 1930s, she and her ever- present secretary, Malvina (“Tommy”) Thompson, spent ten days helping Earl settle into a new house near Albany. “I did the ironing . . . & made popovers which came out well & so feel very satisfied with myself,” Eleanor wrote to a friend. Another day she  reported—so shyly that she had to be self- effacing about it—“I’ve actually learned to get breakfast if no one eats anything.” And a day later, almost wonderingly, “It’s the first time I’ve ever learned to feel a tinge of confidence in a kitchen.” On another visit she baked biscuits for Earl, and she made him an applesauce cake.Clearly Eleanor had the ability to unleash her senses in the kitchen and at the table—but it wasn’t going to happen inside the four walls of the White House. “On the whole, I think I lived those years very impersonally,” she wrote in her second memoir, This I Remember, which was published four years after FDR’s death. “It was almost as though I had erected someone outside myself who was the President’s wife. I was lost somewhere deep down inside myself. That is the way I felt and worked until I left the White House.” It was “the President’s wife” who took charge of White House cuisine, and “the President’s wife” who allowed Mrs. Nesbitt to strip the food of character and pound it into submission. But it was Eleanor, away from FDR and ensconced with the people she cherished, who discovered the delights of appetite; and it was Eleanor, “deep down inside myself,” who learned what food could mean when love did the cooking.

Editorial Reviews

“Both a biography and a book of culinary history, What She Ate is charming, well-researched and thoughtful. Food has never meant so much.”—Adriana E. Ramirez, Los Angeles Times“Laura Shapiro has put together a rich meal. . . . A seriously and hilariously researched culinary history.” —Susan Stamberg, NPR Morning Edition “[F]ascinating . . . Shapiro, like a consummate maître d', sets down plate after plate . . . and an amazing thing happens: Slowly the more familiar accounts of each of [the women’s] lives recede and other, messier narratives emerge. . . . How lucky for us readers that Shapiro has been listening so perceptively for decades to the language of food.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air “Who could resist?”—People “It’s great fun to read about notoriously abysmal dishes served in the Roosevelt White House” —The New York Times Book Review “If you want to know what makes a woman of substance, consider the substances she consumes. . . . Fascinating.” —The New York Post “If you find the subject of food to be both vexing and transfixing, you’ll love . . . What She Ate.” —Elle “Such a fun read . . . Shapiro deftly uses food to link one woman to another—and to us today. . . . Writing this book, Shapiro notes, has made her ‘aware of all the food stories that will never be told’ . . . A deliciously satisfying read.” —Chicago Tribune “Shapiro approaches her subject like a surgeon, analytical tools sharpened. The result is a collection of essays that are tough, elegant and fresh.” —Washington Post “A delectable and sometimes spicy dish on some intriguing women and their sustenance of choice.”—The Plain Dealer “Fascinating.” —Moira Hodgson, Wall Street Journal “A collection of deft portraits in which food supplies an added facet to the whole . . . What She Ate redeems the whole sentimental, self-indulgent genre of food writing.” —Slate “Delectable . . . Buy this book, read this book and then spend a few seconds before every meal thinking about what message the dish sitting in front of you could be sending to your dinner companions.” —PureWow.com “History gets plated.” —Vanity Fair “Simply a fun read.” —Bon Appetit “Fascinating . . . you’ll quickly see that food choices are more revealing than you might expect.” —Bustle  “Clever . . . This dissection of diet is a telling window into the lives of these fascinating historical figures.” —PopSugar “In studying these women’s meals and attitudes toward food, [Shapiro] reveals surprising insights into how they lived.”—Hello Giggles “Mouthwatering.” —Eater.com  “Like a textbook for my own feminist food studies curriculum.” —Austin American Statesman “An unconventional approach…[that] works deliciously.” —Fort Worth Star-Telegram “Fascinating.”—Tampa Bay Times “Chock full of ‘iconic repasts’ and lesser but no-less-piquant morsels, What She Ate establishes Laura Shapiro as the founder of a delectable new literary genre: the culinary biography. ‘It’s never just food’ is Shapiro’s mantra as she sifts through letters, journals, manuscript drafts, and of course scads of recipes, to derive six thrilling ‘food stories’ spanning two centuries and a spectrum of appetites. Only as fundamental a subject as food and as skillful a writer as Shapiro could bring Dorothy Wordsworth, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Helen Gurley Brown together happily in one richly satisfying volume.” —Megan Marshall, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life and Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast“Laura Shapiro has done it again! She’s given us a fascinating and wonderfully entertaining history of six women of the last two centuries you might never have thought of as foodies, yet here they are, distinguished by how differently they dealt with the overwhelming importance of food in their lives. What She Ate argues—and proves--that every woman has a food story. It ought to inspire all of us who love food to get busy on our memoirs.” —Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and author of Soda Politics “Six crisply written, ardently researched, and entertainingly revelatory portraits of very different women with complicated relationships with eating and cooking…. A bounteous and elegant feast for hungry minds.” —BookList, (starred review) “Offering an interesting angle from which to view the lives of various women, [What She Ate] will appeal to not only food readers but also to anyone wishing to learn more about women’s history.” —Library Journal “[Laura Shapiro] changed the way I thought about American food, and did so in the most entertaining and informative way possible.” —SheKnows