Food As More Than Sustenance: Everyone Has a Food Story to Tell

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What did you have for breakfast this morning? What about dinner last night? How many meals can you recount of the past week before your memory turns hazy? Unless you are scrupulously counting calories, most of your meals are probably forgotten not long after they were digested. This drives culinary-minded researchers like Laura Shapiro crazy. Her job has accustomed her to “turning page after fragile page of somebody’s diary and finding only “after dinner, we decided to…” or “He stopped by for lunch, and then…” or, most irritating of all, “breakfast didn’t take long”.” What we eat, day in, and day out (and what we don’t eat, and what we push around on the plate so as not to hurt the cook’s feelings) may seem so unremarkable to us as to be barely worth tasting as it passes our lips, let alone writing down for posterity. But, Shapiro asserts in What She Ate — her biography of six disparate women told through their food choices — our plates, whether piled with pastries or bare save a few peeled grapes, are clear windows to our souls: “No matter how hungry you are, it’s never just food.”

For Dorothy Wordsworth, food was a means of asserting, and indulging, her self, after a lifetime of effacing it to the care of her brother, the poet William Wordsworth. For Rosa Lewis, a real-life Eliza Doolittle who worked her way from cockney guttersnipe to restaurateur and favored chef of King Edward II, food was both a method of transcending her class and asserting her roots. For Eleanor Roosevelt, food was revenge, a dish best served inedible, which she accomplished on a daily basis with the help of her loyal and perversely tasteblind cook, Mrs. Nesbitt. For Eva Braun, food, or more often Champagne, allowed her live in a fantasy world where sekt – German sparkling wine – was as good as the finest French vintage, and her vegetarian boyfriend was a beloved leader – a fantasy that endured to the end, as Braun sipped Champagne hours before she and Hitler killed themselves. For the British writer Barbara Pym, food was a magnifying glass that enabled her to see an entire world in a cup of tea, and for Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown food was, quite simply, the enemy of her lifelong goal to remain slim and attractive.

Each one of us, Shapiro writes, has a food story, as individual and textured as the prints of our palms. But few of us probe what our food stories really say about us and our appetites. “It’s easy, it’s practically automatic, to associate cooking and eating with our warmest emotions,” Shapiro writes, but food, even for people who aren’t obsessed with staying thin as Helen Gurley Brown, is rarely this simple or cozy. Our meals are where “all those feelings we’re trying not to notice start dribbling down the sides of the bowls and crawling out from under the platters.” Our food stories, she believes, “often go straight to what’s neediest.”

If there is a common theme to the six women she profiles and their complicated relationships to food, it is the way their battles between the image they wanted to project and the truth of their lives were waged at the dinner (and breakfast, and lunch) table. Dorothy Wordsworth’s diaries reveal a woman fighting, with all her might, to convince herself she had no physical desires – certainly not for her beloved brother, despite the fact that she suffered paralyzing fits of weeping and despair on his wedding day, and not for food either – it was so much more satisfying to sit and watch William eat the broth she’d lovingly ladled him… until it wasn’t, and her enormous hunger asserted itself, and she grew demanding, insatiable, and fat.

Similarly, Eleanor Roosevelt insisted to the world that food mattered not a bit to her, as long as it was wholesome, nourishing, and economical, just as she put a placid face on her reaction to her husband’s decades-long affair with Lucy Mercer. The truth was she was heartbroken by FDR’s infidelity, and expressed her disappointment by denying him pleasure at the table, an arena she could control more effectively than the bedroom. Only after FDR’s death did she allow herself to take pleasure in food, both in eating and making it.

“Culinary memoirs often devote a few pages to the author’s lifelong devotion to food. She’ll explain how she grew up with a discerning palate, a wondrous instinct for inventing recipes, a sense of joyful adventure at the very thought of a meal to be prepared,” Shapiro writes in her afterword. “Well, my obsession was marked by none of those helpful attributes; I don’t have them even now.” What she has instead is a keen psychological acuity to the volumes that can be spoken by a piece of grilled fish; a bowl of broth; a chocolate brownie. There is food in What She Ate – some quite delicious sounding, more perfectly dreadful – but more importantly, there is insight, curiosity, and brilliance into the way that we make dinner, but food makes us.