“Tell me what you eat, I longed to say to each woman, and then tell me whether you like to eat alone, and if you really taste the flavors of food or ignore them, or forget them a moment later. Tell me what hunger feels like to you, and if you’ve ever experienced it without knowing when you’re going to eat next. Tell me where you buy food, and how you choose it, and whether you spend too much. Tell me what you ate when you were a child, and whether the memory cheers you up or not. Tell me if you cook, and who taught you, and why you don’t cook more often, or less often, or better. Please, keep talking. Show me a recipe you prepared once and will never make again. Tell me about the people you cook for, and the people you eat with, and what you think about them. And what you feel about them. And if you wish somebody else were there instead. Keep talking, and pretty soon, … I won’t have to tell you what you are. You’ll be telling me.”
Food writer Laura Shapiro starts her newest book, “What She Ate”, with a promising introduction and a compelling premise – to cook up mini-biographies of six different women based upon their relationships to food.
“Food, after all, happens every day; it’s intimately associated with all our appetites and thoroughly entangled with the myriad social and economic conditions that press upon a life. Whether or not we even care what’s on the plate, we have a relationship with food that’s launched when we’re born and lasts until we die….Cooking eating, feeding others, resisting or ignoring food – it all runs deep, so deep that we may not even notice the way it helps to define us. Food constitutes a natural vantage point on the history of the personal.”
Here was a book to tempt my sweet tooth – food? feminism? Yes, please! I expected the food stories to be revelatory, intimate. Shapiro’s biographies, taken singly, were well researched and well written, full of wit and charming anecdote. However, the depth of each woman’s food story lacked a little something, and the women selected weren’t satisfyingly linked. Throughout these six mini-biographies, the through-thread of food often felt forced or backed-into. Food as a theme seemed superimposed on narratives that didn’t fully embrace the topic. Disappointing, too, was the monochromatic nature of the women selected; Dorothy Wordsworth, Rosa Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Barbara Pym, and Helen Gurley Brown represent white women of privilege and (primarily if not exclusively) underdeveloped feminism. Ultimately, “What She Ate” had tantalizing ingredients and an enticing recipe, but the finished product just didn’t rise.
Thank you to Viking Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, for providing a complimentary copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.