Monday, July 24, 2017

Culinary Historian Laura Shapiro talks about What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories, including why Helen Gurley Brown loved gelatin.

Laura Shapiro is a culinary historian--isn't that the most wonderful thing you've ever read? 

She was a columnist at The Real Paper (Boston) before beginning a 16-year run at Newsweek, where she covered food, women’s issues and the arts and won several journalism awards. Her essays, reviews and features have also appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Gourmet, Gastronomica, Slate and many other publications. Her first book was Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century (1986), which the University of California Press has reissued with a new Afterword. She is also the author of Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America (Viking, 2004), and Julia Child (Penguin Lives, 2007), which won the award for Literary Food Writing from the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2008. Her work is represented in the Library of America’s American Food Writing, The Virago Book of Food, and Best Food Writing 2002.  She is a frequent speaker and panelist on culinary history, and contributed a regular column on a wide range of food topics to, the Gourmet magazine website. During 2009-10 she was a fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.

In June 2012, the New York Public Library opened an exhibition called Lunch Hour NYC, co-curated by Shapiro and Rebecca Federman of the NYPL. Read Edward Rothstein’s review in the New York Times here. For more information about the exhibition, click here.

More recently, Shapiro was featured in Michael Pollan’s Netflix documentary series Cooked (2016).

I so adored this book and I'm so happy to have Laura here. Thank you, Laura! Now I am starving.

I adored this book. How difficult was it to choose the women you chose? And did you have a favorite?

I started out with a nice little crowd of six women -- well, as nice as a crowd can be that has Eva Braun in it -- whom I had chosen for all sorts of impressionistic reasons that didn't always hold up once I started the research. I would go looking for a paper trail documenting the food in some way and simply not find one.  So I held a few auditions, and although I only had three important criteria, it ended up taking quite a while to assemble the final group. 
 First of all, she had to be dead. This was a hugely important requirement. I've worked as a journalist for many years, and when you write about someone as a journalist you're naturally dealing with a real, live person. You're responsible to her, you owe her a fanatic degree of accuracy, and yet no matter how hard you try to achieve that, in the end the story belongs to her. She owns her own life. Writing about someone whose life is over is quite different. I'm still going to be as accurate as I can possibly be; I'm certainly not going to invent anything, but I'm going to feel much more free to think around and around my subject and bring her to life in my own way.
Second, I looked for women whose lives were open to research, and in particular, obviously, research on their meals. This was tough. Most people just don't record what they ate. Or maybe they do, but the references to food are scattered randomly through hundreds or maybe thousands of unpublished letters. Actually that's my favorite kind of research -- I love reading people's mail -- but I just couldn't do it six times over for a single book project. I worked as much as possible with primary sources, but I had to bow to the logistics.
Third, I didn't want women with any kind of professional connection with food. I assumed early on that the food stories of chefs and cookbook writers would be sitting right out front on the surface of their lives, which would make them too obvious to be interesting. I wanted stories that were lurking below the surface. For that reason I almost didn't start reading about Rosa Lewis, since she was a professional caterer; but I couldn't resist...and sure enough, her relationship with food wasn't at all obvious. It was going to be wonderfully difficult to extract, so I decided to break my own rule. 
As for my favorite -- it's Barbara Pym. I've loved her books for years, my copies are falling apart from constant rereading, and I jumped at the chance to write about her in as much glorious and expansive detail as I wanted.

I admit I know the answer to this from reading your wonderful book, but I always have to ask, why this book now for you? What were you thinking about when you started it?

The book that preceded this one was Julia Child, a short biography in the Penguin Lives series, and Julia was a such a perfect, peerless, incomparable and wonderful person to write about that I will probably never recover from the experience. As soon as it was published, I thought, I want to write another biography, and I want it to be about another Julia. But I couldn't find anyone else in the food world who appealed to me that much, and who hadn't already been written about quite a bit. So when I randomly picked up a biography of Dorothy Wordsworth one night, I think the food jumped out at me because I was ready to see it -- primed, in a way, to start wondering about culinary biographies of non-culinary people.

In a age where eating disorders are so prevalent, and glossy magazines always show 13-year-old models who weigh 95 pounds, it’s hard for women to remember that eating is a pleasure—and an important one.

Yes, and the dieting advice you see everywhere is so full of inane messages -- Eating is fun! Eating is a pleasure! Just follow these rules obsessively, spend a fortune on ingredients and kitchen equipment, never eat anything resembling a normal meal, and you'll be happy and blonde and 25 forever.
Two of the women in the book have dieting obsessions, Eva Braun and Helen Gurley Brown, and although I didn't set out to write a cautionary tale in either case, I hope it's clear that when you cast food as your enemy, there will never be any such thing as victory.

I definitely agree with you that how we do our eating shows character! I fell in love with my husband on our first date because he insisted we try three different desserts!  And I left a controlling guy because he monitored what I ate! Can you tell us a food story that involves you?

My mother was a wonderful cook, and we always had great food at home, so when I got my own apartment I was delighted to be cooking and enjoying food  just as I had been raised to do, but now in my very own home. Then I acquired a boyfriend who I think must have been one of the first neurotic foodies -- obsessed, but in a joyless way. He cared desperately about what he ate, shopped with fanatic care, and cooked very well because he knew all the best cookbooks and recipes. But he also worried quite a bit about his weight, so he used to serve himself, and me, the most minuscule portions I had ever seen. It was such a double message. He was being generous, in his own way, by doing all this excellent cooking; and then he would sit there looking nervous because I might eat too much. Giving and withholding, giving and withholding --ugh. I was so relieved when I finally figured this out and broke up with him.

I loved the story of Eleanor Roosevelt who protected the worst cook, and Helen Gurley Brown eating nothing at all—that one made me particularly sad because I always felt she was punishing herself under this veneer of cheer.  Food indeed is our story, and I feel like people should pay more attention to how they eat and why they eat. Can you talk about this please?

People do pay attention to how they eat these days, but it tends to be in the context of a crisis -- we're too fat, or we eat to much salt, or we have to cut out sugar, or we feel guilty because we're giving them pasta again instead of some beautiful Asian soup that we can't make without shopping in six different stores. If we could get past the worries, and the social/cultural demands that are always hovering, I think we'd be able to use our senses -- and our imaginations -- a lot more actively when we cook and eat. I see pictures of food posted on Instagram and Facebook, and I think yes, very nice, but that's only part of the story and probably not the most important part. The most important part you can't take a picture of -- it's what's going on in your mind and heart when you're crashing together a pan of macaroni and cheese for the kids, or in your psyche when you start planning a menu for a dinner party. Decode those messages, and you see where your food story is lurking.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

More and more nowadays it seems as though people do nothing but think about food, at least judging by what's going on in social media and by the lines that start forming at 5 pm outside this or that buzzed-about new restaurant. But it doesn't seem to me that chasing the latest chef, or posting pictures of some new hybrid ice cream made with chicken livers and sesame seeds, has anything to do with what's truly important about food, namely nourishment and sharing. The thing they call molecular gastronomy is a perfect example. It's not about feeding anyone. It's for people who are so jaded, who have eaten so much, and spent so much money doing it, that there's no way to woo them anymore except by transcending food entirely and entertaining them with Cirque du Soleil on a plate. It drives me nuts to see food writers take this seriously, when there are so many people in this country we haven't reached, who deserve to be freed from the clutches of the food industry. Simple, fresh food that people can afford and cook -- there's no culinary idea more genuinely radical than that.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

I'm sure you were planning to ask about the research, and I am delighted to answer. I loved doing it. I always love the research most, and this book had six times as much because it had six different subjects. There is nothing -- nothing! -- more blissful than picking up a stack of books you've requested at the British Library and taking them to your desk and opening the first one.  The world disappears, or at least one world disappears and another one comes to life before your eyes.  I admit, I'm speaking as an English major here, something I never really outgrew, so I was homesick for the British Library long before I ever saw the place. But every library makes me happy. The reading room at the Jerwood Centre in Grasmere, in the Lake District, was built to house the Wordsworth papers. They will bring you Dorothy Wordsworth's diary -- the very paper she wrote on, line after line of practically illegible handwriting -- and put it in front of you. It's yours, it came directly from Dorothy and now you yourself are looking at it and turning each fragile page.  I love research. Thank you for asking.

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