"Cooking, eating, feeding others, resisting or ignoring food -- it all runs deep, so deep that we may not even notice the way it defines us," says Laura Shapiro, who has written several books -- Perfection Salad; Something from the Oven and Julia Child: A Life -- that focus on cooking and its role in women’s lives. This week, Shapiro publishes What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Foods That Tell Their Stories. If you’ve ever been intrigued by culinary references in, say, the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, who cooked for her brother William at their home in Grasmere, or in the post-war British novels of Barbara Pym, who felt, Shapiro writes, that food was a friend, you'll be delighted by this deeper look at what food reveals about the authors' inner lives. Shapiro adds to the mix first lady Eleanor Roosevelt (reputed, perhaps unfairly, to "have no palate"); Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun (a constant dieter who indulged in Champagne); Rosa Lewis (an undertaker's daughter who cooked for Edward VII) and finally, Helen Gurley Brown, longtime editor of Cosmopolitan and author of the scandalous advice book, Sex and the Single Girl. Viking has generously allowed the Amazon Book Review to reprint an excerpt of Shapiro's chapter on Gurley Brown. Read on: you’ll be amused -- and perhaps slightly alarmed -- by this formidable woman’s attitude toward eating.
Real food or diet food, splurging or starving—no matter what was on the table, Helen made it a point of honor to cast her public relationship with food in rapturous terms. Everything she ate had to be “delicious” or “scrumptious” or “luscious,” especially when she was evoking a zero-calorie bouillon cube or a breakfast of protein powder stirred into diet orange soda. Again and again she described to readers and interviewers what she voraciously consumed each workday (tuna fish; cottage cheese with mozzarella chopped into it; one apple) or ate on vacation (“an incredible salad bar I simply rolled around in every night”). A writer from Esquire once asked her for a Christmas recipe, and she said she had invented a new version of hot buttered rum: “I substitute fake ingredients for all of the fattening ones, and it’s delicious.”
Skinny Hot Buttered Rum
Into a mug or cup put:
1 tablespoon “butter” made from Butter Buds
1 packet of Equal
1 oz. rum
Put a teaspoon into the mug. Fill to the brim with boiling water. Add a few
cloves on top. Savor.
Back when she wrote Sex and the Single Girl, Helen was forty years old, five feet four inches, and slim, accustomed to a carefully monitored regimen of diet and exercise that kept her at 109 pounds. As soon as she started work at Cosmopolitan, however, it was apparent that she was a middle-aged woman in the land of the young, and vigilance was the price of survival. She decided she could afford fifteen hundred calories a day and not a single extra; if she gained a pound, she imposed a drastic calorie reduction or a total fast for at least a day. Exercise began first thing in the morning -- “Thirty minutes on the body and 20 on the face” -- and continued later in the day, whenever she had time to do a few leg lifts. “Age to me is a disease to be fought back like cancer, multiple sclerosis and typhoid,” she told a reporter. “I’ll do anything if it works.” Her weight dropped to 105, then 97; when it reached 95 her hair started falling out. “I may have carried it ‘too far,’” she admitted in her second-to-last memoir, The Late Show, and called herself, at the age of seventy, “a grown-up anorectic.” The term “grown-up” would have been harder for her to utter than the word “anorectic.” As she once remarked, “I think you may have to have a tiny touch of anorexia nervosa to maintain an ideal weight…not a heavy case, just a little one!” Nonetheless, she allowed the scale to creep back up to 102. But eating normally never became a habit. A reporter who treated her to a champagne cocktail one afternoon described what it was like for Helen to confront an article of food that threatened to make her fat. “She carefully fished out the calorie-laden brandy-soaked sugar lump, took a couple of polite sips, praised it extravagantly as the most delicious thing she’d ever had, and went back to Perrier water.”
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Helen loved the way she looked: her flat stomach and tiny dress size made up for every brownie she didn’t eat. It was impossible for her to believe that she might have been badly served by decades of calorie counting and several rounds of plastic surgery, even when she read harsh remarks about her looks in the press. “Her face is strangely pinkish and immobile, and her stick-like arms make you wonder if she hasn’t rather overdone the dieting,” a reporter observed in 1980. USA Today once published the results of a survey in which respondents named the famous people whose looks they most admired and least admired. On the list of the least admired, the top four were Janet Reno, Roseanne Barr, Tipper Gore, and Helen. She was enraged—couldn’t anyone recognize self-discipline? When friends begged her to eat more, when doctors urged her to gain a few pounds, when strangers came up to her in the street and told her she looked skeletal, she concluded they were jealous. “I get seriously aggravated by people who hate me because I’m thin,” she complained. “I think I’m an affliction in some people’s lives.” She resented being teased for constantly ordering plain broiled fish in restaurants or refusing to taste the birthday cake at an office party. Helen rarely expressed vituperation in print about anyone; she made a habit of being nice to people under nearly all circumstances. But at the thought of hostesses trying to force her off her diet, she erupted. “Mostly the pushers are your ‘friends,’” she wrote bitterly. “‘For God’s sake, have a roll and butter, have dessert…you can afford it!’ Listen, if you ‘afforded’ it, you would be fat like they are.” Once, she wrote, a hostess handed her a cup of Sanka and waited until she finished it before announcing with a chortle that Helen had just consumed some chocolate chips, which had been slipped into her cup back in the kitchen. Remembering this betrayal, Helen was still livid. “Bitch!”
From WHAT SHE ATE: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories by Laura Shapiro, to be published on July 25, 2017 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Laura Shapiro.
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