Books

the story behind the book | kate tuttle

History through the story of food

david wilson for the boston globe

Back when she was covering the women’s movement for the Real Paper, the Cambridge alternative weekly, Laura Shapiro felt there was something missing in feminist media. “It was all women in politics, women in power, women in education,” Shapiro said. “Nobody was writing about women in the kitchen, which is where women spent so much of their time!”

Even Radcliffe’s Schlesinger library was slow to add cookbooks to its holdings in women’s history. “The idea that there was anything to be learned from the relationship between women and cooking, I think just didn’t occur to people,” Shapiro said. “To me, it seemed the most interesting thing in the world.”

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Both journalism and academia have caught up with Shapiro, who has already published three books chronicling the history of women in the kitchen. In her fourth book, “What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories,” Shapiro profiles Dorothy Wordsworth, Rosa Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Barbara Pym, and Helen Gurley Brown through their relationships with food, cooking, and eating. With the exception of Lewis, an influential Edwardian caterer, she said, “I’m really focusing on women who are not professional cooks.” The most fascinating food stories, she went on, tend to come from “people who don’t think that they have a food story.”

Each of the book’s subjects offered a kind of revelation. Researching Eva Braun, for instance, Shapiro was stunned to discover “that oceans of champagne were flowing through the Third Reich,” even as the Nazis starved their victims to death. Here on the home front, Eleanor Roosevelt was known for her indifference to food — a reputation at odds with the “much more multifaceted and nuanced” reality.

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Writing about food, Shapiro added, has taught her about history and herself. “I know more and more about the failings that I have as a cook,” she said. “And I also know how important it is to keep cooking. I really believe in cooking.”

Shapiro will read at 7 p.m. Monday at the Harvard Coop, 1400 Mass. Ave., Cambridge.

Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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