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How these famous women used food as social status

Every food story is an economic story, says author Laura Shapiro. In "What She Ate," Shapiro offers tales of female empowerment or self-definition by way of the kitchen and dinner table, cooking up portraits of Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Helen Gurley Brown and others. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Now a slightly offbeat conversation this week from our economics correspondent, Paul Solman.

    It’s about a new culinary history and kind of biography that ties to class and socioeconomics.

    Let’s have Paul connect the dots, part of our weekly series

    Making Sen$e


  • Paul Solman:

    So, you see everything through the lens of food?

  • Laura Shapiro:


  • Paul Solman:

      And I see everything through the lens of economics.

  • Laura Shapiro:

    Every food story is an economic story.  I mean, it starts with affordability, but it’s also — it’s about class, it’s about social standing.  There is always a money story behind every food story.

  • Paul Solman:

    And if ever there were a story of food and economics as class or social standing, it would be one of the several tales in Laura Shapiro’s new book, “What She Ate,” that of Rosa Lewis, with whom PBS die-hards may be familiar.

  • Laura Shapiro:

    “The Duchess of Duke Street,” which was a PBS series that ran in the ’70s, was loosely based on her life.

    Rosa Lewis was born into a working-class family in London.  She went out to work at the age of 12 as a scullery maid, and she cooked her way up the ladder.  She saw that the lords and ladies noticed good food and that you had a way to kind of reach their level, or so she hoped.

  • Actor: 

    Disgusting.  Will you please go to the scullery and help wash up?

  • Actress: 

    No, I will not.  I didn’t come here to wash up.

  • Laura Shapiro:

    She managed to learn French cooking in the highest style, the Escoffier style, which was what was going on in the kind of “Downton Abbey”-type households of the time.

    And she became one of the best-known caterers in London of that era, late Victorian, early Edwardian era.  Became so rich that she bought the Cavendish Hotel in London.  And she prided herself on having the most noble titles in the land as her friends.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, she’s an example of mobility or the beginnings of mobility in otherwise stratified to the point of petrified class England?

  • Laura Shapiro:

    Well, this was England during the Industrial Revolution.  And there, as here, it was a time of social mobility.  You could be born poor and you really could change your class in those days.

    Rosa was flying high in her new class identity with the rich, with this beautiful food, right up until World War I, and then the whole structure came crashing down for everyone.

  • Paul Solman:

    The next war, the next vignette in Shapiro’s book.

    So, Eleanor Roosevelt, she becomes infatuated, in fact, with the movement of home economics, right?

  • Laura Shapiro:


  • Announcer: 

    What is home economics?

  • Laura Shapiro:

    The idea was that women could be trained to function like modern managers, and if they cooked right and cleaned right and lived right, and raised their family right, they will be making this enormous contribution to the welfare of the country.

  • Paul Solman:

    And this is the same time as scientific management is happening.  These were time-motion studies that were done in factories in the 19-teens and ’20s.

  • Laura Shapiro:

    Exactly.  They were doing these same kinds of scientific time-motion studies in home economics departments.  Eleanor Roosevelt sees this stuff in action and she falls in love with it because she felt that she’d been failure as a wife and mother.  Her husband had strayed.

    Her children were really more comfortable with their grandmother than they were with her.  Home economics was going to present a definition of femininity that someone like Eleanor Roosevelt could glom onto and really believe in.

  • Paul Solman:

    And the book, after all, is called, “What She Ate.”

    So what did she eat and what did she force her husband and then everybody who came and visited the White House to eat?

  • Laura Shapiro:

    The food in the FDR White House was renowned for being the worst in the history of the presidency.

    People would sit there and sort of, you know, shove the food around on the plate, and you would sort of drop your napkin over it, so you don’t have really touch it.  It was the Depression, remember?  And then it was war, and it was rationing.   She didn’t want the White House to be known as this place of luxury and extravagant eating.  She wanted plain, simple cooking that didn’t cost very much.

  • Paul Solman:

    The polar opposite of her contemporary enemy counterpart, Hitler’s first lady, Eva Braun.

    It too much of a stretch to read economics into her story?

  • Laura Shapiro:

    There’s always an economic story, and it’s also true at Hitler’s table, where Eva Braun used to preside at Hitler’s side during the really weeks and months that he spent at Berchtesgaden, which was his Bavarian mountain retreat.  It was really his favorite place to be.

    It was a fantasy built around the dinner table.  Outside, Germans were on rationing, they were not eating white bread that they prefer, they were not getting butter, there were short rations of meat, sugar was in short supply.  None of these rules were followed at Berchtesgaden.

  • Paul Solman:

    The fantasy of a 1,000-year land of plenty.

    And the fantasy of food ushers in Shapiro’s last vignette.

    So, the most explicitly economic chapter of the book is the last one.  That’s Helen Gurley Brown, the woman who created essentially a publishing empire all by herself.

  • Laura Shapiro:

    She said, “I always knew that I wanted to marry money.”

    And, in fact, she did.  But she ended up becoming money.

  • Paul Solman:

    It all started with her 1962 mega-seller “Sex and the Single Girl.”

  • Laura Shapiro:

    The book was a how-to on how to be just like me, how to be Helen Gurley Brown, how to be thin, most important, how to be young forever, how to be sexy always under all conditions, in any circumstance.

  • Paul Solman:

    And that’s what she sold to turn around the then-failing “Cosmopolitan” magazine.

    So what does she tell her readers to eat or not to eat?

  • Laura Shapiro:

    “Cosmopolitan” was full of food stories, and there were two kinds.  Here is a classy little buffet dinner you can make for your friends, and it would be a bunch of recipes not that different from what you would find in any other magazine.

    Then, there would be dieting stories, each more crazed than the last, and all of them packed with diet pills and chemical sweeteners.  She once said, “I think maybe you have to have a little touch of anorexia to be really beautiful.”

    With that one word just tossed off somewhere, she has probably done as much damage as, you know, the whole Hollywood, modeling, dieting industries put together.

  • Paul Solman:

    To Laura Shapiro, food tells these women’s stories.  To me, so does the economics of food.

    For the PBS NewsHour, this is economics correspondent Paul Solman, reporting from New York.

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