My current TV addiction is the FX/Hulu miniseries Mrs. America, about Phyllis Schlafly’s battle to stop the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. One of the main ways Schlafly sets herself apart from the second wave feminists—northeastern elites, as she calls them—is her insistence that she’s just standing up for the housewives of America who would be utterly destroyed if they were forced to forsake their sacred separate sphere and be treated exactly like men. This isn’t what the ERA says, of course, but as the show makes clear, one of the reasons for Schlafly’s success was that she never let the truth get in the way of her argument.
There’s a lot of talk about women in kitchens in Mrs. America, whether they should go back to them or whether they should break free of them altogether, but for most of the women in the show, the kitchen in entirely symbolic. Schlafly, as some other characters point out, delegates all the kitchen work—including the bread-baking and jam-making that possibly swayed the Illinois state legislature to reject the ERA—to her Black maid, Willie B. Reed.
But what really did happen in the home kitchens of America? There’s been an elaborate folklore constructed around the 20th-century kitchen featuring pastel or earth-toned appliances operated by maternal figures in aprons and shirtwaist dresses that hid souls full of quiet desperation and despair. These women served up steaming casseroles packed with unspeakably disgusting ingredients and equally disgusting jiggling Jell-O salads for dessert. When they finally cast their dishrags aside and liberated themselves, they apparently no longer needed to eat anything more substantial than sad single-lady salads and cups of prepackaged yogurt. You could not be a liberated woman and also enjoy cooking unless, of course, you happened to be feeding hungry male revolutionaries. (In her book Home Cooking, Laurie Colwin writes about how she found herself on sandwich duty during a Students For a Democratic Society protest at Columbia University in the late ’60s. This ended when the SDS boys had the gall to complain about her peanut butter and tuna fish and she told them they should be eating paving stones like their comrades in Paris.)
Of course there were famous women who cooked—Julia Child, Alice Waters, Edna Lewis—but they cooked in restaurants and television studios and published their recipes in books. The vast majority of the women who cooked did so in the privacy of their own kitchens, quietly and mostly uncelebrated except for the odd recipe passed down through the family or in a community or church cookbook. Why should something as regular and utilitarian as fixing three meals a day deserve special attention?
Laura Shapiro isn’t the only historian who’s spent her career trying to understand what went on in those kitchens. But she was the first and she is by far my favorite.
Her output as a historian over the past few decades has been comparatively small: just four books since her first, Perfection Salad: Women And Cooking At The Turn Of The Century, appeared in 1986. This is likely because she kept her day job as a journalist and because she takes her work as a historian seriously. Archival research is often like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, only you have no clue what a needle looks like. There are piles and piles of papers to go through, lots of it covered in handwriting that’s often illegible, lots of it that’s incredibly boring. But you have to sort through every single bit of it to figure out what story it’s hiding, with all its facts and strange details and contradictions. It’s difficult, painstaking work. Especially if what you find is a story that no one has ever told before and requires you to abandon all the assumptions you may have built your search on.
Shapiro began writing about women and food, she writes in the introduction to her most recent book, What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women And The Food That Tells Their Stories (it could also be considered a manifesto), because she was curious about what she calls women’s food stories, what the food they cooked and ate had to say about the rest of their lives. She found that there were no books that could satisfy this curiosity.
History, biography, even the relatively new field of women’s studies weren’t producing what should have been floods of books on female life at the stove or at the table. I couldn’t figure it out.... Maybe because I was a journalist, not an academic, it struck me as obvious that everyday meals constitute a guide to human character and a prime player in history; but I began to see it was a tough sell in the scholarly world. The great minds were staunchly committed to the same great topics they had been mulling for centuries, invariably politics, economics, justice, and power.... Home cooking was associated with women, which was bad enough, and housework, which was fatal.
Today, Shapiro acknowledges, there’s been plenty written about food politics and food economics and food justice and food power. But there’s a reason Perfection Salad is still in print more than 35 years after it was first published. The stories she told there and in its sequel, Something From The Oven: Reinventing Dinner In 1950s America, were stories no one had ever thought about before. And they were fascinating.
Perfection Salad, as its subtitle clearly states, is about women in the early 20th century who, barred from the male world of hard science, decided to create their own entirely separate sphere of domestic science—nutrition, budgeting, precise measurements, the chemistry of cleaning—and teach it to immigrants to turn them into true Americans. It’s so sad that this is the only way these brilliant women felt they could apply their brains, and it’s twisted that they embraced it to such a degree that in their minds domesticity became the only truly feminine occupation, and it’s a true shame that their greatest innovations (measuring spoons and cups, recipes that explain and educate instead of assuming you already know what you’re doing) have been overshadowed by the atrocities they committed with white sauce and gelatin. (It’s also a true shame that they tried so hard to erase what they considered the impurities of immigrant cuisine: garlic is one of the world’s great culinary gifts.)
Something From The Oven continues this story into the age of convenience foods, where Shapiro cheerfully demolishes the myth of the brainless housewife who obediently followed the lead of cake mix and frozen food manufacturers. The vast majority of women worked outside their homes. They appreciated the extra help canned soups gave them in the kitchen, and they openly revolted against innovations they felt went too far. There’s no evidence that they truly believed that canned soup tasted better than homemade stock. But it is truly amazing how much effort food manufacturers, the advertising industry, and glossy magazines went to in order to convince them that it did.
Some of the best sections of these two books are the ones where Shapiro focuses on individuals. I’m specifically thinking of the chapter in Something From The Oven about Poppy Cannon, a sophisticated writer and gourmand (who was, incidentally, married to Walter White, the president of the NAACP) who became a true believer in the power of canned soups to create a facsimile of haute cuisine at home. The most wonderful thing about this portrait is that Shapiro makes no secret that she believes that Cannon was absolutely misguided, but she embraces all of Cannon’s contradictions and finds the humor and poignancy in her story without disparaging her or her life’s work.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Shapiro’s two most recent books have been biographies: Julia Child: A Life and What She Ate. Julia Child was probably one of the most lovable people who has ever lived and a biographical slam dunk, but Shapiro’s deep research allows her to avoid hagiography. The six subjects of What She Ate are more challenging. They are: the Romantic diarist Dorothy Wordsworth, Edwardian caterer Rosa Lewis, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Nazi and girlfriend of Hitler Eva Braun, novelist Barbara Pym, and Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown. As Shapiro writes in her introduction, “Food talks.” By looking at what these women ate—or, in many cases, didn’t—she could understand them, their place in the world, how they felt about it. “It turns out,” Shapiro writes, “that our food stories don’t always honor what’s smartest and most dignified about us. Most often they go straight to what’s neediest.” The lovely thing is that she doesn’t judge the women for their needs. (Not even Eva—it wasn’t her needs that were the problem, as plenty of young women dream of becoming movie stars; it was the politics and philosophy and also the man she chose to fulfill them.) She writes about them with warmth and humor and sympathy; she refers to them all, always, by their first names, like friends (or, in the case of Eva, a young relative who has made some very, very bad choices).
Everyone has a food story, Shapiro believes, although not everyone’s life is as thoroughly documented as those of these six women. As a final gift to her readers, at the end of What She Ate, she steps out from behind her role as historian and tells her own story, about a year in the 1970s when she was a young wife living in India with her grad student husband who was doing research for his dissertation. The key word here is “wife”: what that word meant to a young woman who had considered herself free and liberated but had left her work and her home to accompany a man she loved halfway across the world, and how these feelings expressed themselves through, yes, what she ate.
This is the power of food stories. They’re not just about our nostalgia for the food Grandma used to make us when we were sick, not if we really stop to listen to what we’re saying, about Grandma, about being sick, about childhood, about our family, about our assumptions of what it means for someone to take care of us. Food does indeed talk. And I’m so glad that Laura Shapiro realized that the stories that unfold in kitchens are far more than domestic drudgery, that she taught herself to listen to what they had to say, and that she taught us, too.