A conversation with What She Ate author Laura Shapiro
Everyone eats, but the decisions about how, what, and where that happens can offer unique insight into who they really are. In her newest book, What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories, food historian and author Laura Shapiro delves into the food habits of a diverse group—including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler's longtime companion Eva Braun, and Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Helen Gurley Brown—to craft intimate and surprising portraits of some of history's most notable and notorious women.
Extra Crispy: Eating is one of the few things that unites us all, and this is smart framework to talk about some incredibly complicated women.
Laura Shapiro: I wondered what I would find if I went at these lives food-first. I would sit in libraries turning the pages of letters and memoirs and then somebody would say: "I went out for a ham sandwich." I would glom onto that. You have to accumulate all the little things.
You focused on Eleanor Roosevelt—a First Lady known for her drab dining life—and explored her role in shaping a national dialogue around food.
For her, a million things went into it: her marriage, her feelings about herself as a woman, her passion for home economics, which tied together a major life-changing reform movement for women and the things that Eleanor Roosevelt took seriously about women. She really valued life at home (in part because she felt she was such a failure at it) as well as the contribution women could and should make in public life. She thought women could be in the lead in bringing the country towards peace and changing the economy. Home economics—at it most idealistic in its early decades—thought so too. And it led directly to this horrible food.
It is such a stunning contrast to the current administration which hasn't addressed food, and to the previous administration which explored the totality of food, and embraced gardening, nutrition, farming, and cooking.
Michelle Obama and Eleanor Roosevelt were the only two First Ladies who chose food as a way to make a point. Every First Lady moving into the White House is asked, "What's the food going to be like? What is his favorite?" They all have to talk about food, but those two women were the ones who took that subject and ran with it.
Throughout the book, several of your subjects—notably Helen Gurley Brown and Eva Braun—deal with the fraught relationship between food and body size. It's interesting and rather depressing to see that this focus on thinness is not just a contemporary one.
There's always a social message to women that says your body is all wrong and here's what you have to do to fix it. You're too thin. You're too fat. You're not blonde enough, or you're too blonde—anything that the culture can tell women to foment anxiety and discontent. It's framed that you won't look good enough for whatever it is: Catch a husband, have a career, be popular in high school. It seems invariably in every generation and every lifetime we are ready to hear the worst about our bodies. It's our most vulnerable thing. It cast a light on all these relationships with food that are in the book.
You use food as a framework to talk about some women who were not good people—like Eva Braun. We talk a lot these days about how we shouldn't normalize monstrous people like Nazis. I think there's extra horror in seeing that these weren't just gorgons and mythical creatures; these were real people doing real evil. You show Eva Braun as a human being who decided to be complicit in evil.
All this language about how these are monsters from outer space who wreaked this horrible evil. No they weren't. They were elected. People chose to put Nazis in charge of their country. And in any country where there is voting, people elect human beings who will do monstrous things. The scariest thing is not that they were monsters; they were real and they had regular lives.
The thing I just couldn't shake was this image of Eva Braun sitting next to Hitler at this big table in Berchtesgaden—his home life was there in this mountain retreat. That's the only place where she was allowed regularly to appear with him in public. That's what allowed herself to feel as though she was the first lady of the land, the consort of this wonderful person. It fit her fantasy and it happened at family dinners. This is the most iconic event in all our food writing—the family dinner—it's sacred. It's where food is related to love and connectedness and all the good things. Well Nazis had them too. Hitler and Eva were at the head of the table.
Food tells us different things depends on who's doing the talking. You have to constantly reinterpret and question all your assumptions about food. It isn't always the symbol of happiness and togetherness. Or if it is, it's maybe Nazis who are feeding on that symbolism.
There's a section about how Hitler drove Germany First nationalism through diet. He forced decisions at people's dinner tables by making certain foods available and others not.
And yet in Berchtesgaden itself they were happy to break all the rules. They could have sweets, sugar, fat, butter, white bread—whatever they wanted. They're creating their own little reality. It has nothing to do with the rules that operated outside with that disaster, the chaos, the bloodshed that was happening outside. That was all at a distance. Eva herself lived in this little bubble that she created for herself out of her imaginings. You have to be geniuses of compartmentalization, and they were.
She loved her Champagne.
I knew that they plundered the wine and brought it all over, but I found out that it flowed in a mighty torrent right through those years in the Third Reich. They came back from the killing fields and opened a bottle of bubbly. They took it for granted that it was theirs—frivolity and celebration and the great glorious symbol of happiness and good times. They took it from the French and they owned it.
At the end of her chapter, you said Eva's food story was about "how often and how easily she died."
During those last days in the bunker, they would all sit around talking about how they were going to die and they're debating cyanide or a bullet. And she said it would not the bullet for her. She would bite into a cyanide capsule because she said, "I want to be a beautiful corpse."
That said A: everything you would ever have to know about Eva Braun and B: she had been a beautiful corpse ever since she met Hitler.
Helen Gurley Brown's food story is all about control. There's all this documentation of "skinny hot buttered rum" recipes and the "low-willpower, high-protein diet that allows for binges and slide-backs."
The person she is trying to control is herself. What she's trying to do is package the author of Sex and the Single Girl—her ticket to immortality, fame, fortune and immortality—and keep control of her forever. She never gets older. Her hair doesn't get white. She certainly never gains weight. She is always sexy. Bring on the plastic surgery and the wigs and control what you eat to this crazed fanatic degree that even she suspected was anorexia. Instead of seeing that as a disease or disability or a problem, she glorifies it as a way to a happy successful sexy life. It's like the fountain of youth, and there is no life for her if she gets older than 40. After that forget it.
Of course I have to ask you what you had for breakfast today.
My breakfast never varies. My daughter has seen it so many times she now rolls on the floor when she sees me going about my classic, every single day of my life breakfast, which is a piece of whole wheat toast. I put some cheese on it and here's where we get a little variety: Sometimes it's feta and sometimes it's goat cheese. Depends where whim carries me.
Everything starts with coffee. It is absolutely the first thing. Then comes my toast with this wild assortment of cheese, one or the other. And then if fresh berries are in season I'd like to have some. If they aren't in season, I get frozen ones.
Did you find yourself cleaving even more to routine while you were working the book?
I got more and more rigid about it because when you write, anything can happen and that's good. Every part of you is poised for that insight or that little glimmer of something that's going to come out of nowhere. You want every spark to fall your way. You don't want to be set in your ways as a writer, so you've got to be set in your ways in something else. You cling to the food.
I have one question I ask all writers now because there's nobody neutral on this. How do you feel about oatmeal?
Oatmeal is a very good thing. I will defend it against all comers—not gunked up the way they gunk things up now, but the essential honest oatmeal that really goes back to the caves. I'm sure they were eating oatmeal in the caves and that's when they learned how to domesticate oats. Sign me up as a passionate supporter.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.