What She Ate:
Six Remarkable Women and
The Food that Tells Their Story

Laura Shapiro
This is a curious collection. It is ostensibly about six famous women and their eating habits and their relationship to food. Yet two of the women - - - Helen Gurley Brown and Hitler's mistress Eva Braun - - - were anorexic. Dorothy Wordsworth was a woman who shepherded her brother William for years, making simple meals and pies, but died at eighty-three seriously overweight and senile.

The writer Barbra Pym turns up here but she wrote novels that featured plain homefolk from Pimlico with simple tastes in food and dull eating habits. In her excellent Excellent Women, we find Mildred who Shapiro tells us is "a modest spinster in a drab skirt and cardigan who helps out with church jumble sales." She is given to reading about that big boor Cardinal Newman.

One day she takes it upon herself to make "an impromptu lunch for the man who lives in the flat downstairs,

    I washed the lettuce and dressed it with a little of my hoarded olive oil and some salt. I also had a Camembert cheese, a fresh loaf and a bowl of greengages for dessert . . . I remembered that I had a bottle of brandy which I kept, according to old-fashioned custom, for "emergencies" and I decided to bring it in with the coffee.

All is not lost though. There are enough asides to make each of the chapters - - - with one exception - - - rather fascinating. Dorothy Wordsworth was, an inveterate journal keeper, and we learn that she occasionally partook of black pudding, which the English, for some reason, seem to crave. It has to be prepared with the assistance of dead hog. One is to boil groat - - - the hull of certain grains - - - and after an half an hour or so, it to be mixed neat "with two quarts of fresh warm pig blood that has been stirred constantly until it cools. " Add some herbs and hunks of pig fat, and take the intestines of the newly dead porker, clean them and stuff the guts with this admixture. "Put them into a kettle of boiling water, boil them very softly an hour . . . then run screaming from the room." I just put in that last to make sure you were following the rigors of preparing black pudding. You are to boil these guts filled with blood and fat and herbs and then "lay them out on clean straw." Then you can run screaming from the room.

I found myself a little uneasy when we embarked on the longest chapter in the book, the one about Eva Braun. For one thing, the very story Shapiro give us is not about a woman "remarkable " in any way except her willingness to live with a monster for fourteen years without complaint. I am always wary of those who write about those around Der Fuehrer at Wolf Lair or in the underground Berlin bunker as the Russians were making their way into the city. Writers on these characters often emphasize how innocent they were as rapine visited the land.

As we discussed in our earlier review of Until the Final Hour by Taudl Junge - - - one of Hitler's three personal secretaries - - -

    She claimed that she knew nothing of the workings of the concentration camps, the SS, the Gestapo, the Death Squads. As secretary, documents certainly flowed through her hands which treated with these matters.

    On occasion, a guest would complain about what they had seen on the outside. A Frau von Schirach told Hitler that she had seen a train full of Jews. "These poor people --- they looked terrible. I'm sure they're being badly treated. Do you know about it? Do you allow it?"

    There was a painful silence. Soon afterwards Hitler rose to his feet, said goodnight and withdrew.

    Von Schirach was not invited back.

Schapiro tells us that Braun's favorite hobbies were dancing, watching her weight, playing with her two Highland terriers and tending to the needs of her boyfriend. Methinks that Shapiro has to stretch it to bring food into the story of this lightweight Know Nothing. Albert Speer tells us of the last days in the bunker: he solicitously managed to get into Berlin to comfort the Fuehrer. Speer also met with Eva - - - always his favorite. He seemed to have a thing for her, thinking of this blithe spirit with great affection - - - especially in those moments when everyone know that the ship was going down.

When he made it down into the bunker - - - -"thirty feet below ground, a warren of rank little rooms wrapped in concrete under a roof some sixteen feet thick, with another six feet of earth atop the concrete, he wrote,

    Eva Braun radiated an almost gay serenity. "How about a bottle of champagne for our farewell? And some sweets? I'm sure you haven't eaten for a long time." I was touched by her concern; she was the first person to think that I might be hungry after my many hours in the bunker. The orderly brought a bottle of Möet Chandon, cake, and sweets.

Putting this into a book on the eating habits of famous people makes us wonder howcum we don't get a chapter introducing us to the different dishes favored by Pol Pot's first wife Khieu Ponnary. Perhaps she had a thing for Prahok fried in banana leaves with fresh green vegetables and steamed rice, whereas wife #2, Mea Son, was more enamored of a simple bowl of kuyteav and Mee Kola, a vegetarian noodle dish. Or perhaps we could look into the exotic but tasty cow bladder soup with stuffed brain or pig fricassee festooned with rat placenta so favored by Mrs. Hun in her simple, dung-floored kitchen there in Atillaville.

We do get to partake of the final sweet prepared and brought to Eva by her new husband. Hitler perepared and daintily fed her a last exotic trifle, a capsule of cyanide. Bon Appétit!

You might want to skip though much of this - - - the chapter on Pym reminds us a bit of a PhD thesis - - - but the chapter about Eleanor Roosevelt is a show stopper. And it has little to do with food at the White House during her aegis. Rather, it is about the concept of "Home Economics."

By the time most of us heardabout it back in the 1940s it had changed radically our country's concept of women and their role in the home. Before, it was the German three k's: Kinder, Küche, Kirche. But the idea of "Home Economics" came out of Cornell University's College of Agriculture, and was the work of Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose. It is simply and nicely put by Shapiro: "Under the rubric of home economics, all women would study the science involved in cooking, cleaning and child care; and those who wished to study further could earn an academic degree representing their intellectual fitness for the job of wife and mother." It

    focused on the good that a woman could do for her family and her nation, once she had been trained in hygiene, child psycholory, nutrition, and economics.

Eleanor Roosvelt "had lost her husband to another woman [Lucy Mercer - - - his long time mistress]; she had turned over her children to nurses and governesses to raise, and knew they were happier with their grandmother than they were with her. There was nothing to be proud of in her private record as a woman."

    Home economics couldn't transform her marriage or make her a different sort of mother, but it could package the traditional responsibilities of womanhood in a way that allowed her to achieve mastery. It removed domesticity from the realm of the emotions and placed it among the sciences, to make it an activity for the brain rather than the heart - - - this was an ideal which she could support with all her heart. Being a wife and mother according to home economics wasn't a job managed by love; it was a job managed by serious rational work; and if women learned to do it properly, the whole nation would benefit. Eleanor needed a way out of the corner her husband and family had left her in. At Cornell she found, for the first time in her life, a definition of femininity that made room for a woman like her.

The coda to this is delicious; or should we better say, is lovely in its very earnestness. It has to do with how Eleanor constructed the homemaking side of the White House from day one, and, as such, focuses on one Henrietta Nesbitt. The was the tart, insufferable lady named housekeeper by Eleanor in 1934. Nesbitt's running the presidential kitchen for over ten years is as funny and biting a tale as one could ask. You might buy this book just to be led through how Nesbitt murdered the foodstuffs coming out of the kitchen, baked and parboiled drudge served to employees, visitors, presidents, Shahs, generals, admirals, political associates, friends of the family and senior statesmen from around the world.

Nesbitt was defined as "the most reviled cook in presidential history," and I'm convinced you will be as charmed as I about the grim gustatory gorp fed to the famous and the powerful. In Nesbitt, Eleanor found someone who would sabotage every attempt to do liven up the dreadful menu that was served day in day out. Her favorite way to present the dishes was apparently on toast. "There were curried eggs, on toast, mushrooms and oysters on toast, broiled kidneys on toast, braised kidneys on toast, lamb kidneys on toast, chipped beef on toast, and a dish called 'Shrimp Wiggle,' consisting of shrimp and canned peas heated in white sauce, on toast."

    How the men reacted to "Jellies Bouillon Salad" is not recorded. Other salads that appeared on the White House table, and these must have made quite an impression on foreign visitors unfamiliar with the tradition, included "Stuffed Prune Salad," "Asheville Salad" (canned tomato soup in a gelatin ring mold), and "Pear Salad," a hot weather speciality featuring canned pears covered in cream cheese, mayonnaise, chives, and candied ginger. Mrs. Nesbitt said she sometime colored the mayonnaise green.

And the president himself? How did he react to this grim sustenance served even at official dinners. "For instance, after several days in a row of salt fish for breakfast and a similarly unrelieved stretch of liver and beans for lunch - - - Eleanor treated [his complaints] blithely."

She blamed it on "the pressures of the office." She wrote later, when he said "The vegetables are water, and I'm sick of liver and beans . . . these were figures of speech."

Shapiro has another take on it too. She said it was Eleanor's way of getting back at a man who insisted on referring to her best and dear friends as "she-males." This was a man who had promised so long ago to give up his mistress Lucy Mercer, but Lucy was one of the only women with him on the last day of his life at Warm Springs.

On that 12 April 1945,

    just before the funeral in the East Room of the White House, she said she wanted a few minutes with her husband and asked to have the casket opened. She took off her wedding ring and left it with him.
--- Pamela Wylie
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