What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women & the Food that Tells Their Stories, by Laura Shapiro (Viking, 2017)


“But what struck me as I followed the paper trail through each life was that while extraordinary circumstances produce extraordinary women, food makes them recognizable” (7).


Shapiro presents food-centric biographies of six women: Dorothy Wordsworth, Rosa Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Barbara Pym, and Helen Gurley Brown. Culling their personal diaries, private and public menus, Shapiro shows readers just how much can be revealed by a person’s relationship with food. The book is thoroughly researched and written in easily-accessible (non-jargony) prose. End notes are unobtrusive.


Method of Preparation:

I enjoyed learning not only about the women featured, but also about the intricacies and possibilities of food-biography. For example, Dorothy Wordsworth, author William’s sister and devoted companion, wrote lovingly of the food she prepared for her brother, until her brother married and Dorothy became the second-place woman in his life. While other historians and critics have seen Dorothy’s journals, including daily notes on what was eaten, as trivial, Shapiro sees in them a marked shift in Dorothy’s sense of purpose and place. Shapiro captures the ways in which food (its procurement, its preparation, its hoarding, its rejection, its luxuriating consumption) acts as a gateway to the human condition. I particularly enjoyed her food autobiography in the Afterword, in which she describes how learning a new cuisine represented her own foray into new landscapes that were at once both personal and international. 



Shapiro shows what is possible with the new genre of “food memoir.” Her book reminds us that food can evoke memories, signify class, admit access, delight, torment, or taunt forbiddingly. Its repetitions can denote either the luxury of affluence or the drudgery of hand-to-mouth. For a single girl, it can snag a beau; for a novelist, it can provide access to the complexities and contradictions of human behavior. But it can never be ignored.