Did you know that Eleanor Roosevelt prepared a weekly White House Sunday dinner of scrambled eggs? Or that Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown was so obsessed with thinness that her typical breakfast consisted of protein powder mixed with diet orange soda?
These are just a few of the fascinating revelations in food biographer Laura Shapiro’s delectable new book, What She Ate.
Here, Shapiro explores six notable women from history—Roosevelt, Brown, Nazi mistress Eva Braun, William Wordsworth’s sister and poet Dorothy Wordsworth, British novelist Barbara Pym and Rosa Lewis, a preeminent caterer in Edwardian England—and the ways in which their attitudes toward food and eating defined who they were.
Brown, for example, prepared elaborate meals for her husband, despite eating nothing but diet foods herself. Roosevelt, completely indifferent to food, hired the chef considered to be the worst in presidential history—to the point where Washington insiders knew to eat beforehand if they received an invitation to dine at the White House.
Perhaps the most interesting section of the book deals with Braun. Shapiro admits to the moral gap between Braun and her other subjects, but argues that though it’s hard to know how small of a bubble Braun lived in, her world was one of “make-believe morality” and a lot of Champagne. Braun, who met Hitler when she was 17 and he 40, took immense pleasure in serving extravagant meals to her partner’s guests at intimate luncheons and dinners, quite possibly because it was the only time she was allowed to be seen on her beau’s arm. (In public, he wanted to maintain a picture of himself as wedded to the cause rather than a woman.) In other words, serving Bavarian meatballs and apple strudel allowed her to live out a fantasy in which she was on the right side of history.
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.