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Arts & Life

'What She Ate': The Culinary Biographies Of Some Remarkable Women


Here's an unlikely trio - the poet William Wordsworth's sister, Eleanor Roosevelt and Hitler's mistress. What did they have in common? Well, here's one thing - they ate. Exactly what they ate and why is a subject of a new book called, "What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women And The Food That Tells Their Stories." NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg says it is a seriously and hilariously researched culinary history.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Spinster Dorothy Wordsworth lovingly provided the care and feeding of her poet brother, William, the host of golden daffodils guy.

LAURA SHAPIRO: William was the passionate fixation of her life.

STAMBERG: Author Laura Shapiro says the feeding was all local - what Dorothy found in the early 19th century in England's Lake District - fish from the lake, apples from the orchard.

SHAPIRO: Neighbors brought them bushels of gooseberries. And she made little gooseberry tarts. She made rhubarb. She cooked the food that was just near and intimate and tasted of that place.

STAMBERG: Food as love, as nourishment, as torment for some, and as revelation of character - Laura Shapiro's book finds history and mysteries in the way we eat. Food and ambition shared the menu on Rosa Lewis's table. She served foie gras, truffles, turtle soup at her hotel, the Cavendish in Edwardian England. She cooked her way to the top, started off as a Cockney scullery maid - Eliza Doolittle with a dish pan - eventually got catering jobs with upper-class types like Winston Churchill's mother. She learned what author Shapiro calls the secret handshake of high society - how to spoon soup, how to eat fish, how to sit. Rosa Lewis admired the rich and the noble, people with manners.

SHAPIRO: She used to say, OK, some of them rolled around drunk on the floor, but they did it as gentleman.

STAMBERG: The Prince of Wales was a fan - loved Rose's fancy French food. Loved women - he had dalliances with Churchill's mum, Sarah Bernhardt, others. He was Queen Victoria's eldest son and became king Edward the Seventh. Died of heart attacks - surely nothing to do with Rose's cooking. A later British King, the father of today's Queen Elizabeth, and his wife Elizabeth were guests of President and Mrs. Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt took a global view of food.


ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: But you can't talk about freedom of worship or freedom of thought, until you first given people the freedom to eat.

STAMBERG: Laura Shapiro, you don't mention in your book that Mrs. Roosevelt served hot dogs to the king and queen of England.

SHAPIRO: Actually, those hotdogs, I believe, where FDR's idea.

STAMBERG: President Roosevelt knew the menu at that Hyde Park picnic would make headlines in newspapers across the land. His aim in 1939 was to humanize the royals and get isolationist Americans to sympathize with England's war preparations.

SHAPIRO: Suddenly, they would see these royalty as people. And that's exactly what happened.

STAMBERG: FDR was a shrewd politician but a hungry husband. He had grown up on fine dining in his parents' home. But his wife Eleanor didn't give a fig about food. And what she served in the White House was so awful that guests complained. Now, to be fair, it was not entirely Eleanor's fault.

SHAPIRO: She hired a housekeeper, Henrietta Nesbitt, who was just a friend of hers from upstate New York and a woman who needed work. And she was nice. And she was a loyal Democrat. So Eleanor thought, sure, she can run the White House.

STAMBERG: Well, Henrietta Nesbitt had some limitations.

SHAPIRO: She had no palate. She had no real culinary background.

STAMBERG: Wouldn't ask for help. Absolutely sure she knew what was best.

SHAPIRO: And she just continued to serve the dreariest most reprehensible food that had ever been seen in the White House.

STAMBERG: How dreary was it? Here's a pear salad Mrs. Nesbitt liked to serve in the summer.

SHAPIRO: A hot weather specialty, featuring canned pears covered in cream cheese, mayonnaise, chives and candied ginger. Mrs. Nesbitt said she'd sometimes call it the mayonnaise green.

STAMBERG: Laura Shapiro has a theory about these curious concoctions. Years before they moved to the White House, Eleanor found out about Franklin's affair with her social secretary Lucy Mercer. Although she remained a loyal wife, for Eleanor, the marriage was over.

SHAPIRO: I believe that when she served those awful meals one after the other, three times a day, she was serving up a big helping of her rage.

STAMBERG: A culinary cold war ER's revenge. After he died and Eleanor Roosevelt expanded her remarkable public career, she wrote in columns and letters about delicious meals in Paris and the Middle East. She became a lover of fine foods just like her husband. Another wartime woman - Adolf Hitler's young blond girly-girl mistress, Eva Braun, lived in a bubble of champagne and fantasy that she was the first lady of the Reich.

SHAPIRO: She dressed for it. She used to change clothes six or seven times a day. She was always beautifully gowned.

STAMBERG: Although Hitler kept her hidden from view - didn't want her appearing in public with him. Inside her bubble, isolated from his atrocities, Eva watched her weight, followed fashion, read movie magazines and drank.

SHAPIRO: Champagne was the social fuel of the Reich.

STAMBERG: It's been reported that before committing suicide, Hitler, a vegetarian, ate spaghetti with tomato sauce in their Berlin bunker. Eva Braun's last meal that day was a cyanide capsule.


STAMBERG: World War II was long past. A revolution - the feminist one - was in the future when Helen Gurley Brown wrote "Sex And The Single Girl" - the older sister of TV's "Sex And The City." Then she became editor in chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, full of rules on getting and keeping a man. The longtime Cosmo editor loved raciness. On TV, she advocated dancing naked.


HELEN GURLEY BROWN: And it's very slenderizing. It's much better than doing pushups and the other kind of things you have to do to keep skinny.

STAMBERG: The magic word.

SHAPIRO: Skinny, to me, is sacred. This was a mantra that she kept close to her all the time.

STAMBERG: Food was Helen Gurley Brown's enemy. Here's what she wrote about how she ate.

SHAPIRO: If my weight's OK, dinner for me might be muesli with chopped prunes, dried apricot, six unsalted almonds, dusting of Equal and a cup of whole milk - delicious.

STAMBERG: From marketing lists, articles, letters, diaries, biographies, the observations of friends and relatives, Laura Shapiro has put together a rich meal - the culinary biographies of some remarkable women. Her book is called, "What She Ate." Hungry as usual, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF YORGUI LOEFFLER'S "RUBY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.