Books/Reading

Book Review: What She Ate

Synopsis from Goodreads: A culinary historian’s short takes on six famous women through the lens of food and cooking—what they ate and how their attitudes toward food offer surprising new insights into their lives.

It’s a lively and unpredictable array of women; what they have in common with one another (and us) is a powerful relationship with food. They include Dorothy Wordsworth, whose food story transforms our picture of the life she shared with her famous poet brother; Rosa Lewis, the Edwardian-era Cockney caterer who cooked her way up the social ladder; Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady and rigorous protector of the worst cook in White House history; Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, who challenges our warm associations of food, family, and table; Barbara Pym, whose witty books upend a host of stereotypes about postwar British cuisine; and Helen Gurley Brown, the editor of Cosmopolitan, whose commitment to “having it all” meant having almost nothing on the plate except a supersized portion of diet gelatin. (less)

I selected this book for several challenge prompts, including Completely Melanie’s November prompt of “a book with food on the cover”, as well as for Nonfiction November and the Fall Into Reading Challenge. A lot of the Goodreads reviews were not particularly favorable for this title, but I think the main issue people had with it was they were expecting a “foodie” book and it’s really more a set of vignette-sized biographies in which the author looks at the lives of 6 women through their diaries, personal papers and letters, using passages that refer to food of some kind. This isn’t a recipe book at all, and in some instances, particularly Dorothy Wordworth and Rosa Lewis, there aren’t a lot resources to pull from, which makes it a bit harder for the author to expand on their feelings about food and how food played a role in their lives.

The book looks at 6 women whose lifetimes spanned from the very end of the 18th century through the 19th and into the 20th. Each section does highlight some of the “standard” ideas about food in a given era, from the luxurious dinner parties of the Edwardian Age Rosa Lewis catered, to the champagne-driven, fairy-tale high life inside the Third Reich that Eva Braun attempted to create for herself, to the (absolutely appalling) diet culture that Helen Gurley Brown lived by and was able to feed the readers of Cosmopolitan magazine for DECADES (yes, pun intended). I personally enjoyed the little snippets of personal life the author used to expand on her “mini” biographies of each of these women. Eleanor Roosevelt is probably the most well-known out of the group, due to her writing, her humanitarian works and her time in the White House during WWII. I appreciated learning more information on how Home Economics became a curriculum and why Eleanor was such a strong proponent of it as a must-have coursework plan for every woman.

The information on Helen Gurley Brown is downright scary. This is a women who obviously had an eating disorder (at one point, standing 5′ 4″ she was 90 pounds and all her hair had fallen out, but she felt people commented on her being “too thin” because they were jealous of her) and whose voice as Cosmopolitan’s editor in chief really perpetuated the diet culture and body shaming that seems endemic to most of our first world cultures today. I am happy that many of today’s innovators in cooking, especially for the home cook, are looking at creative ways to eat healthy, nourishing foods and there is a strong move away from artificial sweeteners and diet pills and fake things, when you can make fantastic-tasting foods that are healthy, using good produce, grains, and various proteins depending on your personal choices.

A short little appetizer of a book (it’s only about 300 pages), this was a perfect way to kick off Nonfiction November and I enjoyed this one a lot as an easy read that had me adding biographies of several of these women to my future TBR list.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: What She Ate

    1. I did too – and I enjoyed reading it. I like books like this that give you a small serving of some interesting ideas and then you can springboard from there on what interests you most about them.

  1. This sounds like an interesting book! It’s a great idea to look at our food habits through time – I am sure what we eat and how we eat says a lot about other aspects of life as well. And I like it’s structured by looking at concrete people and their lives instead of just being a history book about food.

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