Dorothy Wordsworths black pudding, Eleanor Roosevelt and clams, Barbara Pyms tinned spaghetti … What does the food these women devoured or detested tell us about their lives?
Tell me what you eat, wrote the philosopher-gourmand Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, and I shall tell you what you are. Its one of the most famous aphorisms in the literature of food, and I thought about it many times as I was probing the lives of the six women in my book What She Ate. 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. Tell me what you eat, I longed to say to each woman, and then tell me whether you like to eat alone, and if you really taste the flavours of food or ignore them, or forget all about them a moment later. Tell me what hunger feels like to you, and if youve ever experienced it without knowing when youre going to eat next. Tell me where you buy food, and how you choose it, and whether you spend too much.
Tell me what you ate when you were a child, and whether the memory cheers you up or not. Tell me if you cook, and who taught you, and why you dont cook more often, or less often, or better. Please, keep talking. Show me a recipe you prepared once and will never make again. Tell me about the people you cook for, and the people you eat with, and what you think about them. And what you feel about them. And if you wish somebody else were there instead. Keep talking, and pretty soon, unlike Brillat-Savarin, I wont have to tell you what you are. Youll be telling me.
One of the reasons I began writing about women and food more than 30 years ago was that I was full of questions like these, and I couldnt find the answers that would satisfy my well, hunger. Plainly women had been feeding humanity for a very long time, but for some reason only the advertising industry seemed to care. History, biography, even the relatively new field of womens studies werent producing what should have been floods of books on female life at the stove or the table.
I couldnt figure it out. Surely women spent more time in the kitchen than they did in the bedroom, yet everybody was studying women and sex, and nobody was studying women and cooking except the companies selling cake mix. Maybe because I was a journalist, not an academic, it struck me as obvious that everyday meals constitute a guide to human character and were a prime player in history; but I began to see that food was a tough sell in the scholarly world. The great minds were staunchly committed to the same great topics they had been mulling over for centuries, invariably politics, economics, justice and power.