Monday 21 January 2019

Women and food warfare

Non fiction: What She Ate, Laura Shapiro, 4th Estate, €20.99

Sophie White

A striking image leaps from the pages of What She Ate: Eva Braun serving plundered champagne and sweets to nervy officers sequestered in the bunker during the Third Reich's final days, their devotion to consumption persisting even in the face of death.

Collectively we have an almost pathological obsession with food and most particularly, the appetites of women. Articles detailing the dismal devotion to grilled fish and steamed vegetables of our contemporary 'women of note' are digital publishing's bread and butter.

My own insatiable appetite for the same is why I fell upon the latest output from prolific food historian and New York Times contributor, Laura Shapiro.

What She Ate is an analysis of the lives of six notable women spanning a century. Along with the mores of the day, the tables of Shapiro's women tell a wider story about the evolution of cooking, eating and the particular battleground that food has provided women during our quest for emancipation.

Opening with Dorothy Wordsworth's culinary biography, I worried that the exploits of a spinster sister devoted to her brilliant poet brother might prove a shade dry. However, after the adored brother married and had children, the restrained Dorothy rebelled spectacularly. By the time she died, she had grown enormously, rejected personal hygiene and succumbed to an appetite that she wielded like a malevolent force upon her brother's household.

Famed hotelier and the inspiration for The Duchess of Duke Street, Rosa Lewis started out as a scullery maid in the early 1900s. Aided by her talent for cooking, she pulled off that rare trick of transcending the rigid Edwardian class system and became a favourite cook of King Edward.

With Lewis's story, Shapiro offers not only a vivid portrait of a pioneering businesswoman but a visceral and most unappetising depiction of the culinary landscape as it was in the early 20th century. The meals were interminably long by Shapiro's account and attended by the most obscene amounts of food. "No age, since that of Nero, can show such an unlimited addiction to food," wrote Harold Nicholson.

Our next course is a woman who, oddly, history remembers as having an almost aggressive indifference to food, Eleanor Roosevelt. Shapiro writes of the often ridiculous-sounding dishes served at the White House during her tenure as First Lady - Mexican eggs, a concoction of rice, bananas and fried eggs, particularly baffles. An unyielding housekeeper employed by Eleanor was apparently to blame. Shapiro charts the Roosevelts' culinary cold war back to an episode of adultery 13 years into the marriage. Eleanor chose to stay in the relationship but as one historian put it, three times a day she served him up "a large helping of pent-up anger".

Through Eva Braun's relentless dieting, Shapiro offers a fascinating portrait of Hitler's infantile and self-obsessed mistress. Never concerning herself with the atrocities carried out by her 'boyfriend', Braun preferred to play dress-up and monitored her weight right down to her final hours while the world crumbled.

Novelist Barbara Pym's food story from the outset appears to be a slightly more mundane affair. She lived through the same war that Braun's lover was waging and was accustomed to parsing out the finer pleasures such as olive oil due to rationing. However, Pym's characters lovingly baking and making ravioli effectively disproved the notion that the supposedly Spam-obsessed Britain had no palate before the arrival of Elizabeth David.

A final essay explores the relationship with food of Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley-Brown, who was known on occasion to mix protein powder with diet soda and described sugar-free diet Jell-O as "50 cals - heaven!" Gurley-Brown n was a jarring accompanying dish to a backdrop of the second-wave feminism that she claimed to deeply admire while holding fast to her love of winning men and staying thin.

As with all these essays, there is so much more on the table than merely eating, Shapiro deftly conjures up an insightful narrative about women and our cravings for love, success, and security. In her final pages lies a brief memoir of her own food affair. Shapiro turns over the conflict still evident at the core of our identity even after more than a century of progress and emancipation: wanting to be more than the sum of our physical parts while still embodying some notion of a feminine ideal. A delectable feast of the political, the domestic and the idiosyncratic, Shapiro's version of our recent history as the providers of the species is an engrossing, sumptuous and satisfying repast.

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