"Food was my entry point into their worlds, so naturally I wanted to know what they ate, but I wanted to know everything else too."
With these words from the first paragraph of Laura Shapiro's book, What She Ate, I knew that we were of a like mind. To borrow a description from my friend Kathy (she's the culinary mind behind food blog, The Colors of Indian Cooking), I have always considered myself as a culinary anthropologist. I have always been obsessed with learning about cultures other than my own and starting in my late teens, food became my first step in that learning process.
I remember sitting in coffee shops pouring over old cookbooks from Madhur Jaffrey and Maya Kaimal's debut cookbook Savoring the Spice Coast of India and taking notes. I would visit the Souk, a spice shop in Pike Place Market in search of ingredients like fenugreek and asafetida. I learned that Indian food was a far more varied thing than what is most often served here in the states. That what is eaten in Punjab isn't necessarily what is eaten in Kerala or Pondicherry.
That one breakthrough in knowledge opened a door in my mind. Seeing how complex food is when you look beyond broad generalizations helped open me open my mind to see the varied and incredible cultures within India and around the world.
It has been many years since I had this culinary epiphany. During that time, I have obsessed over many cultures and the food that accompanies them. Food is a huge part of my world and, admittedly, it is something that, right or wrong, I tend to judge people on. Mainly, if you're a boring, stubborn, or close-minded eater, chances are, we will not be the best of friends.
Needless to say, when Viking Press got in touch with me about giving Laura's book, What She Ate, a try, it is safe to say that I was intrigued.
Throughout the book's 265 pages, Shapiro covers an interesting group of women from Cosmopolitan's former Editor in Chief, Helen Gurley Brown to Eva Braun, with Eleanor Roosevelt and others in between.
I must admit to being a bit shocked at the inclusion of Eva Braun and Helen Gurley Brown, one notorious for self-denial and one simply notorious. There I was picturing myself reading about happy food lovers rejoicing in the splendors of their tables. Perhaps I'd even do a little research of my own and recreate a few of their dishes. But, I was dead wrong. I guess when it comes to looking at one's food reflection, it is important to see the view from all angles.
One thing that I had hoped for, was that somehow Eva Braun's eating habits would reveal something about the wicked world in which she existed. I was hoping for an explanation, a reason it was created. I did not get what I wanted and was left with more questions than ever. The story did, however, reveal a type of person that could be drawn into that world, and it isn't as simple as you may expect.
My favorite food story was Eleanor Roosevelt's. The White House's undisputed champion when it came to terrible food, Mrs. Roosevelt inflicted horrors on her guests that no one with active taste buds should endure. Some of her menus were downright befuddling.
Befuddling, that is until Shapiro digs a bit deeper and explores the woman and the life behind the menu. Although, the horrors of Eggs Mexican and something called Shrimp Wiggle is worth the price of the book alone.
Shapiro's book also made me take a closer look at my own food story and that of those closest to me. What I found was genuinely fascinating ... to me. I will, however, be keeping those observations about those to myself.
After I was finished, my curiosity was sufficiently stoked. I couldn't stop thinking about other women that I would be interested on seeing through a similar lens. Winnie Mandela, Golda Mier, Louisa May Alcott, Benazir Bhutto, Imelda Marcos, and Jane Goodall are just a few that come to mind. Complex women in a complex world, that I would love to know more about.
Laura is a fantastic writer and presents the information very thoughtfully and is very thorough. But, you don't need me to tell you that. Shapiro made her bones writing for publications such as Newsweek, The New York Times, and The New Yorker and she has the James Beard Award for Journalism to prove it.
In the end, this turned out to be a fascinating read. Not warm and cozy, nor redemptive, as many books that look at life through the lens of food tend to be, but revealing, occasionally uncomfortable, and a damn good read.