On Love and Lemon Bars
First, a confession: I’m not a foodie.
Even so, one of the most intriguing books to come across my desk this summer has been “What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food that Tells Their Stories” by Laura Shapiro.
I’m fascinated by Shapiro’s treatment of women and food. I agree with her that what happens in the kitchen is essential to our understanding of women’s history.
For me, the most compelling element of Shapiro’s recent work is the simple call to write our personal food stories. I’ve been mulling that over for some time.
My own food story seems bleak, shameful even. I’m the type who forgets to eat –who forgets to plan. I’m the woman who perpetually has her mind on just about everything other than what’s for dinner. Not only am I not a foodie, I’m not much of a cook.
And then . . . lemon bars.
I recently traveled to Mitchell with Jeff for a family reunion. I’m only getting to know his family, and I wanted to make a good impression by bringing something to the table. Together, we flipped through the Better Homes & Gardens cookbook on my counter. (Was that dust I saw fall away when he turned a page?)
“These look good,” he said.
Things got serious. Pastry cutter. Fresh lemons. Microplane rasp grater. Real butter. My grandmother’s flour sifter.
And then, just like we knew what we were doing, together we crafted a homemade dessert. Jeff squeezed lemons; I cut the butter and flour together, pressing the crust into pan. We talked and laughed and the lemon bars turned out perfectly.
The Haiar family of Mitchell, South Dakota, was kind enough to eat lemon bars and compliment me on their deliciousness. The food they provided was remarkable. On the drive home, I began to recall all the food I already know how to make – good food. Food my daughter loves. Food that nourishes and food that delights.
Perhaps I’m more of a foodie than I had allowed myself to remember.
Perhaps the food story Laura Shapiro wants me to write has only just begun.
Here’s my conversation with the author of “What She Ate.” I hope it inspires you to write a bit of your own story.
Tell me how you began writing about women and food.
Well, it had occurred to me that, when I would read a biography, you never knew what anybody ate. It's as if these people never had breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Well, you know they did, and why wasn't the biographer telling you about that? To me, that would have been the most interesting and revealing part of their lives. I now know that one reason we don't read about food in people's lives so much is that biographers can't find the material — people don't write it down. It's not in their memories and letters. Another reason is that, traditionally, biographies were written about important people who were too important for us to think that they thought about food at all. Food was something kind of lowly and uninteresting and associated with women, housework, and all kinds of awful things that did not belong in a serious biography. The result was that this whole part of life dropped out of the telling of a life story — so I wanted to put it back.
Why do you think female life at the stove or at the table, as you write, really matters? What do we gain from knowing?
Well, when the women's movement was in flower during the '70s and women's studies started to come along, there was a lot more interest in women's history. I looked around and I could see that a lot of people were working on books about women in politics or women in power, women in education. Nobody was writing about women and food. It seemed to me that what went on in the kitchen, where women spent so much of their lives, it had to be important just because so much of life went on there. The food that they could bring into that kitchen — those choices were dictated by politics, economics, their social history, their cultural history, and their class, as well as all the agricultural and all the other food issues circulating around them. So it seemed to me, if you could look at the food in that kitchen and relate it to the woman, you would really see something, and that's what I tried to do.
Who did you decide to feature in the book and how did you choose those particular women?
Well, it's kind of a motley crew. I have included Dorothy Wordsworth, who is the sister of William Wordsworth. The poet Rosa Lewis, who was a Victorian and Edwardian caterer, a woman who was a scullery maid, working class, with a Cockney accent — she used food to climb up the social ladder till she was accepted by all the rich and noble of her time. Eleanor Roosevelt, who was kind of famous for having no interest in food, but what I discovered was, she in fact had an appetite — she had a capacity to enjoy food. I have Eva Braun, who was Hitler's mistress, who represents in this book the power of food to kind of cast a warm sentimental glow around the table — even when the people who are around the table are Nazis and what's going on outside is the most horrific destruction of the 20th century.
I have Barbara Pym, a wonderful British novelist whose books are full of food and tell you an enormous amount about the life, a woman's life, in Britain after World War II, and Helen Gurley Brown, obviously, the longtime editor of Cosmopolitan whose approach to food was basically to resist eating it as much as possible.
Band of Thebes
All right. How difficult was it to find the kind of research and information, the sort of breadcrumbs along the way that would help you tell the full food story of these women?
It was difficult in many cases. Some of them have a huge paper trail, like Eleanor Roosevelt. There are whole libraries dedicated to Eleanor Roosevelt, and there was a huge amount of material that I could go through. Someone like Eva Braun left very little personal documentation. We don't have much from her own hand, but she was at the center of a place and a time that was very much written about and recorded while it was going on, and of course, by many, many historians since then, so you can pull it out. If you kind of read around her, you can pull the material out. Helen Gurley Brown was an interesting person to do the research, because her papers are all at Smith College in boxes and boxes of documents that she gave them. She just gave everything away. It's like she never tried to hide anything.
And you go through those papers, and the most amazing visions come of this very interesting young woman. Ambitious and smart, sort of dedicated her life to remaining young and sexy. Long after the time when most women would have put those goals away, she kept it going, but you see all this happening in her archives. So, as I say, some of them had plentiful archives, and some I had to really poke around and keep looking for.
The New York Times
And sexy to her means skinny. To Helen Gurley Brown. Those two are inseparable.
Absolutely. She said, "To be fat, what does that mean?" It meant that one tiny fraction of an inch bigger around the waist, to her, that was fat. Her whole idea was that women could do anything they wanted, be anything they wanted, climb as high, do anything, but none of it meant anything unless there was a man in her life, and there was only one way to get a man in your life. That was to be skinny and sexy. If you weren't those things and you didn't get the man, it didn't matter who you were or what you did. Your life was useless. I believe she actually believed that.
Was she the same person privately as she was in this public way? Is that how she really felt, or was she selling magazines at that point and sort of putting a persona forth to the world?
I think she felt it. I think that's what was so interesting about going through her own papers there. It's like when she started out, she was this lively, smart young woman, went to Los Angeles to make it and really prove herself in the big city, and she was extremely successful. She made money. She did very well. When she married, she married David Brown, a movie producer. She felt that that was like the crowning achievement of her life, and it was the thing that validated her as a woman, and that was such a powerful part of her identity that she really did sell it to all other American women in the pages of Cosmopolitan. "You can be like me. I was really skinny and sexy, and I won this wonderful man. You can do it too." It was a way to sell magazines, but I think she sold it to herself as well.
Wow. I'm wondering, Laura, how does that change how we then relate to her as a woman in history, and then let's sort of expand that to some of the other women as well.
I think that you maybe feel a little more sympathetic towards her because of how she was clearly a prisoner of those beliefs. It was kind of heart-rending to me to write the end of that chapter where she's being interviewed by Gloria Steinem, who's a woman she has tremendous respect for. Gloria, to her credit, has respect for Helen Gurley Brown, because she knows that there's a great businesswoman and a smart person under the wig, and the plastic surgery, and the skinny body. She sees a real person of substance, so she says, "Helen, tell me something good about yourself, something important, something that shows us what kind of person you are, how we should take you seriously," and Helen thinks about it. She finally, she says, "I'm skinny." It's all she can come up with.
As a feminist, I did not have high regard for her or for Cosmopolitan—but the fact is, once you know her life, you can reach out a hand and kind of get closer to that person, and you have some sympathy. This was not the case in all of them. Eva Braun, obviously, I did not become any closer to her once I learned what she ate, and in fact, it was difficult to write that chapter in many ways. You're spending a lot of time with a really horrible person, but I chose her because I thought, “if food could tell me something about this very mysterious kind of unknowable person, then I was right”. You really can use food as a tool in biography. If it can get you any closer to Helen, to Eva Braun, then it really is helping you in some way.
Sure enough, we don't know much about Eva Braun. There isn't much written about the food. We know that she ate lightly, because she wanted to keep her figure appealing for Hitler, but she wasn't a crazed dieter like Helen Gurley Brown. What we really know about her was that she lived in a bubble—that she protected herself from fully seeing or knowing about what was going on around her. She knew it perfectly well, but she protected herself from having to deal with it, from her own conscience, from what passed for heart and moral core—if she had those things. She was completely shielded. I used champagne not only as a real thing, which it was, but as a metaphor. It's like she lived in a champagne bubble.
All these Nazis, they were drinking champagne all the day and night. There was tons of it. It had been plundered from France. It came in all during the war, and they drank it all the time, and she drank it, as they all did. My image of her is that she just created this bubble of sweetness and celebration and life. She dressed up in beautiful fashions. She was a photographer. She took pictures of everybody. She loved living on the surface of things. That's where you stayed if you didn't want to go deeper, if you didn't dare to go deeper, if you were afraid of what you were going to see if you went deeper. That's what I learned about Eva Braun. As I say, it didn't make me one whit sympathetic.
Did she cook?
No. She didn't cook.She didn't have to. She had a maid, and there is no evidence that she ever cooked. She liked thinking of herself as sort of the First Lady, the hostess and the person in charge—but there were flocks of servants doing all the work.
Speaking of First Lady, really interesting stuff about Eleanor Roosevelt and sort of her embarrassment about what her husband's appetites were, and then her own disregard for food. Tell us more about that.
Yes. The relationship, the food story for Eleanor is very much a food story of their marriage, which was full of difficulty. He had had this affair, and that was just a huge, crushing blow to Eleanor. They stayed together, but to her, it was not a marriage after that. It was a political partnership, and she respected it as a political partnership—but she was not happy in it. And of course, she took her life as First Lady and became one of the great, great beacons of women and feminism of the 20th century, but it wasn't something that she had chosen. The food came to represent all that. He asked her to take charge of the domestic side of the White House, and she did that. She put in place a housekeeper who was completely inept, who could not in any way do the enormous job of running the kitchen for this very public place, but she did have that job. Food was terrible, in part because the budget was low, because it was the Depression, and they wanted to keep that kitchen on a very economical basis.
I love this story about Ernest Hemingway coming to dinner, or lunch, and finding out that you're supposed to eat before you go to the White House. Tell us a little bit about how that reputation spread.
Well, what happened in Hemingway's case was that he was going to the White House, and they were flying there, and they were waiting with his companions. They were waiting there at Newark Airport, waiting for the flight to Washington, and he saw them eating sandwiches. He said, "What? We're going to dinner. What are you eating?" They said, "When you're invited to the White House, you eat before you go." That was the rule, and everybody in Washington knew this. Apparently, because the food was so dreary, and people would write home and say, "Well, we had dinner at the White House. FDR was charming. Eleanor was so warm and welcoming, but the food ... " And they would write back these descriptions of this gray, miserable meat, the soggy vegetables, the ridiculous salads, the pathetic desserts. It was really awful.
The reason that it kept going like that was that Eleanor was very much of two minds about giving in to any luxuries or life-enhancing things. There was a part of FDR that she just didn't trust. She didn't want him to have a good time with food or anything else, and that was kind of her approach to it. What we do find out about Eleanor, though, and this kind of redeems her completely, is, on her own, outside the doors of the White House, traveling or meeting with her women friends whom she loved, or, in the long career that she had after his death, she went off on her own and had a major public career, and the food was great. She enjoyed it. She traveled all over the world. She ate what she wanted. She had a good time.
She did have an appetite. She did have a capacity to enjoy food, but it had to be on her own terms, with her own people. It was the marriage and the kind of prison of the White House, which it was for her in those years, that clamped down on her appetite and gave her that reputation of being the puritan who disdained food.
The History Chef
Laura, I'm noticing a theme about the men. Let's talk a little bit about the men in these women's lives. How much do they really alter a woman's overall food narrative?
Well, in Eleanor's life, of course, FDR was key. Eva Braun wouldn't have existed without Hitler in her life. Dorothy Wordsworth cooked all the time for the brother she adored—so in many ways, she was kind of under the sway of a man. I mean, you're right about this. Helen Gurley Brown had the validation of her husband all the time. But then there was Barbara Pym, this wonderful British novelist, who made a choice. She grew up in the '30s. She volunteered during the war and so forth, and she goes back to London and she decides to become a novelist, something she's been trying to do for many years, but she thinks now she's going to do it seriously.
She has had a life full of men, love affairs, and wild crushes. It was a very important part of her growing-up years. Now she's settling into her chosen profession, and it's incredibly important to her, to define herself as a novelist, and to make writing the center of her life. And although she never says so — she doesn't put it in these terms, I'm putting it in these terms — she turns her back on a future with men, and she delivers herself to a life of writing, with the greatest pleasure. There are plenty of men in her life. In fact, she continues to have crushes on very unavailable men, namely gay men, and people she'll never get close to. But she is genuinely and truly married to her life as a novelist, and it is to writing and to fiction that she really gives her best, and the fiction repays her a thousand-fold.
It's a beautiful reflection of her time, her moment, and who she is. In that sense, she's really the only one who doesn't have what I call the "male gaze" over her all the time. For one thing, she's just so funny, and she has no illusions about men at all. She really thinks so many of them are just windbags, and has no trouble having her characters say so at any opportunity. She does not have this male worship that we see in some of these other women.
One last question—the introduction alone is so beautifully written, but it's almost impossible to get through it without wanting to pick up a pen and write your own sort of food story, stories about your life with food. That's maybe intentional on your part. Tell us how you feel about, these food stories that might never get told, and some of the ways that women might approach this book.
I feel very strongly about exactly what you're saying. I really hope that [when] people finish this book, they will look around their kitchens, look in their refrigerator, look at the plate in front of them, and see what you see about your life there, and see what it tells you, about your growing up, and why you chose this, and why you cook it that way. Do you feel awful because your mother used to make it so much better, and you will never get there, or do you feel great because your mother was a terrible cook and you are so much better? The material of your life, it all counts.
You know what also counts? If you're totally not interested in food, if you forget about that meal the minute it's over, that counts. That is your food story. I wish everybody would just go and write it down. Tell everything about it. Type it into your little personal blog, or put it in your papers for your great-great-great grandchildren to find. They will thank you. They'll know who you are when they read it.