Read a Book About Food might be the 10 to Try category I am most excited about this year. There are so many different kinds of food books: culinary histories, memoirs by chefs and food writers, novels that star sumptuous meals, cookbooks... In fact, when I sat down to pick my titles for 10 to Try this year, I found myself a little overwhelmed by the choices. Happily, I ended up with a little help when my mom gave me a copy of What She Ate for Christmas last year.
In an interesting twist on traditional biography, author Laura Shapiro examines the lives of six very different women by focusing on their culinary lives - what they ate and drank, what they cooked (or didn't), who they ate with, and more. For me, it was a new way of looking at someone's life, and I thought it was fascinating! The six women profiled are all white and American or European, and with the exception of Dorothy Wordsworth (the poet's sister), lived and ate in the 20th century, so the book examines just a narrow slice of history. Even in that small sample, though, Shapiro finds women (Wordsworth, British chef Rosa Lewis, Hitler's companion Eva Braun, Eleanor Roosevelt, novelist Barbara Pym, and Helen Gurley Brown, the legendary editor of Cosmopolitan magazine) who had varied and complicated relationships with food. Pym, for example, wrote with warmth and wit about everyday British food at a time when it was widely reviled. Braun, who left very few records about her life, served champagne and cake in the underground bunker where she and Hitler took their lives at the end of WWII. Helen Gurley Brown, obsessed with her weight and constantly dieting, struggled to find a "voice" for Cosmo regarding food, although she wrote and edited with supreme confidence on most other topics.
By examining these women's diets, Shapiro reveals facets of their personalities, their relationships, and culinary culture at the time they lived. Although I wish Shapiro had done more to unite the women or her analysis of them thematically, What She Ate was quick, engaging read, and it only whet my appetite (pardon the pun) for more food writing.
Share your favorite books about food in the comments below and I'll add them to my reading list!