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When a book about historical ladies and food, like Laura Shapiro’s What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories comes along, I’m going to be the TN lady who grabs it. Why? Because I spent years dressing up to demonstrate 19th century cooking… and dodging wearing a bonnet because they make everyone look aged and pointy-faced.
Thanks to a social science degree and years working in museums, I have a better than average history education. And yet, as I’ve become intentional about seeking out stories of fascinating women in history, I’m constantly astounded at how many of them I’ve never heard of because my studies ignored the HALF OF THE POPULATION who have vaginas.
And it matters. Would I have paid more attention in Physics and Calculus if I’d known Katherine Johnson’s name in high school? I’ll never know… but I walked out of Hidden Figures thoroughly irritated that I hadn’t been given that opportunity and determined that my daughters will.
The problem is that there’s so much catching up to do. And, frankly, reading non-fiction is a discipline, not a delight, for me. I salute those of you who take a big fatty biography to the beach, Lin-Manuel-style. For me it’s always going to be a princess book.
One solution for me is reading picture biographies with my kiddos. Maybe it’s cheating, but… I’m not going to find and dig through a full scale biography of Esther Morris, but I can do I Could Do That.
If you don’t have rugrats and feel silly with a stack of Everybody Books in the library checkout line, another way around standard biography fatigue is to head for shorter biographies built around a topic you love. For me, Madeleine Albright’s Read My Pins works this way. It’s a well written introduction to a badass lady… and it’s told alongside pictures of her sparkly brooch collection. Negotiations with the Iraqis are more interesting for me when I know that Madeleine wore a snake pin to a meeting with Sadaam Hussein because he had called her a serpent. (Please send brooches for my birthday.)
Where am I going with all of this? Oh yes, the book I was reviewing before I got up on my soapbox.
Laura Shapiro’s What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories introduces readers to six historical women through the lens of their eating habits. And you don’t need a background in antebellum cooking techniques to enjoy these stories. If you like all those food photos in your instagram feed you’ll have a point of connection with these ladies that makes them jump off the page and into your imagination in in a more fully fleshed out way than a standard biography. If food photos irritate you, this volume is likely to make you think about what those photos will say about us in hindsight– beyond the fact that we like coffee… so maybe you’ll hate them a little less. Either way you’ll get a good introduction to six ladies whose lives span more than two hundred years. What She Ate is perfect to read on that last road trip of the summer– it’s not full-fledged, heavy fall reading, but it feels more substantial than standard beach fluff. No princesses here… but there’s a First Lady, which is just as good.
My favorite of the biographies here are the two that most overlap in time span, Eleanor Roosevelt and Eva Braun. Before reading I knew that Braun was Hitler’s mistress and died alongside him and I knew the broad strokes of Roosevelt’s political life and unhappy marriage. What I did not know were the details of what brought these near-opposite women to their paths in life and how they responded with their tables. Braun coped with being a genocidal despot’s dirty little secret with champagne and sweets; Roosevelt coped with being ill-suited for early 20th Century expectations for wives and mothers by embracing nutritious and economical meals that made White House visitors act like Leslie Knope faced with salad.
Shapiro undertakes similar explorations of Dorothy Wordsworth and Rosa Lewis, who I’d never heard of before, as well as Barbara Pym and Helen Gurley Brown, whose names and professions I knew, but nothing more. Each biography is the perfect length to give you a good understanding of the woman’s life without getting bogged down like full-length biographies can. For me, Shapiro’s beautiful, honest, autobiographical afterword, which made me think deeply about what I’ve eaten at different stages of my own life, is worth the cost of the book.
So grab a copy of What She Ate! Catch up on six historical figures who had two X chromosomes. And remember that, while an apron can be convenient, bonnets are just ugly.
￼(When a book comes along about textile history I’ll be on that one too.)
Bea loves life in the Pacific Northwest, rereading old novels and weird varieties of pickles. She can dive deep on Harry Potter, Twilight, 90’s CCM, celeb fashion or foreign policy. She’s trying to figure out what to do when the little one goes to kindergarten, what to make for dinner and how to be a feminist who can’t pass up a princess book.
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