12 August 2017

Weekend Cooking: What She Ate by Laura Shapiro

Review: What She Ate by Laura ShapiroWhat She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Story by Laura Shapiro (Viking, July 25) sounded like a book made for me. I love biography, food, and history, so I immediately said yes when offered a review copy, both as an eARC and audiobook.

I have no doubt about Shapiro's writing and research abilities. I loved her Perfection Salad (1986) and have her Julia Child biography still on my to-read list.

Shapiro's approach to What She Ate was to look at the lives of six women and explore their relationship to food, cooking, and eating. The woman we meet are Dorothy Wordsworth, Rosa Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Barbara Pym, and Helen Gurley Brown. We learn about their cooking skills (or lack thereof) and the people they cooked for or ate with. Shapiro includes contemporary sociocultural tidbits and information about their lives in general.

I'm not sure why this book didn't click with me, but I had trouble staying focused. I was most interested in the chapter covering Barbara Pym, an author I've loved for years. I even have her cookbook (see below). Pym's fascination with food and cooking, and all they symbolize, is made clear by their central role in her novels. Thus she was an obvious pick for Shapiro's book. This was by far my favorite chapter in What She Ate.

As for the other women, I had mixed feelings. For example, I had never heard of Lewis, a famous caterer in Edwardian England, so there were parts of her story that captured my attention. I was already familiar with at least some of the material presented in the Wordsworth and Roosevelt chapters, especially the spartan meals the latter served in the White House.

I can understand people's fascination with Braun, but her eating high off the hog while the German people starved and others were systematically slaughtered was somewhat disturbing (even if totally true). By the time I got to Brown and her endless dieting, I had pretty much lost interest.

The book is well researched, complete with endnotes and a decent bibliography. Thus I was, frankly, surprised I was not more invested in reading about the ties between these women and the cultural and political environments in which they lived.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook (Penguin Audio; 10 hr, 3 min) read by Kimberly Farr. I credit Farr's excellent performance for keeping me listening. She was expressive and engaging and did a fine job with any needed accents. I also appreciated the way she subtly distinguished quotes from the running narrative. The introduction and afterword were read by the author.

Recommendation: Despite the quality of the audiobook, I suggest you read Laura Shapiro's What She Ate in print so you can skim the book if you want to. Even if you read nothing else, don't miss the chapter about Barbara Pym.

NOTE: Mr. Linky sometimes is mean and will give you an error message. He's usually wrong and your link went through just fine the first time. Grrrr.

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Mae Travels 8/12/17, 6:31 AM  

Laura Shapiro's earlier books, including the Child biography, appealed to me very much, so I've been meaning to read "What She Ate." I had no idea there was a Barbara Pym cookbook! I'll have to check that one out.

best... mae at maefood.blogspot.com

gluten Free A_Z Blog 8/12/17, 7:38 AM  

Sounds like an interesting approach to the info about the women. I like biographies and I like reading the info about the food in cookbooks, so I might give this one a try

Tina 8/12/17, 7:47 AM  

I saw this book a few other places with mixed reviews. Some loved it and others got bored. I would like to read the Barbara Pym section for sure. By the way, I stole your salad recipe and love it!

JoAnn 8/12/17, 9:06 AM  

Thanks for the advice! I've got this on my audio wish list, but will go the print route instead. I expect the Barbara Pym portion to be my favorite, too.

Jackie McGuinness 8/12/17, 9:09 AM  

Darn I had this on my TBR list.

DoingDewey 8/12/17, 11:02 AM  

I'm sorry to hear this didn't work for you, especially since it seemed like such a good fit! I read about food less than you do, I think, but I love microhistories and I really enjoyed this. The stories about Barbara Pym and Lewis were my favorites too, but I didn't know anything about the other women going in and I enjoyed their stories as well.

Claudia 8/12/17, 11:08 AM  

Thanks for the review, I had heard of the book, and was interested. Not so much any more. Maybe from the library to read the Barbara Pym chapter.

Vicki 8/12/17, 1:28 PM  

I was planning on listening to the audiobook, but now I guess I'll read so I can skim if need be.

Deb in Hawaii 8/12/17, 1:39 PM  

Thanks for your review. This is a book I thought sounded great so good to know your feedback and suggestions. I think I requested the audio book at the library so now I'll go back and request the e-book or print. ;-)

Sarah (Sarah's Book Shelves) 8/13/17, 8:04 AM  

I couldn't get through this one either...glad to hear I wasn't the only one who wasn't thrilled with it. Thought I would be b/c I love food so much :(

Margot 8/13/17, 11:29 PM  

I'm so glad to see there is a Barbara Pym cookbook. I can't wait to check it out.

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