What She Ate: Eleanor Roosevelt

• Sep 26, 2018 •

In the irresistible What She Ate, Laura Shapiro examines the plates, recipe books and shopping trolleys of six extraordinary women, from Dorothy Wordsworth to Eva Braun.

Delving into diaries, newspaper articles, cook books and more, Shapiro casts a different light on the usual narratives of women’s lives. Finding meaning in every morsel, and looking through the lens of their attitudes towards food, she masterfully reveals the love and rage, desire and denial, need and pleasure, behind six remarkable appetites. Did you know that Eleanor Roosevelt dished up Eggs Mexican (a concoction of rice, fried eggs, and bananas) in the White House? Read more about Eleanor’s eating habits here.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Hot Stuffed Eggs with Tomato Sauce Mashed Potatoes
Whole Wheat Bread and Butter Prune Pudding

—Lunch at the White House, March 21, 1933

Eleanor Roosevelt didn’t care what she ate. She had no palate, she wasn’t interested in food, it gave her no pleasure—or at least people have been saying these things ever since she became a public figure in the 1920s. “Victuals to her are something to inject into the body as fuel to keep it going, much as a motorist pours gasoline into an auto tank,” her son James once declared, and nobody among her friends or relatives seems to have dis- agreed. Eleanor herself joined the chorus: she used to say she was incapable of enjoying food. It’s too bad, then, that she never had the chance to study her own paper trail. It’s as long and rich as you might expect from one of America’s most prominent politi- cal activists, and it would have surprised her by delivering quite a different verdict. An intense relationship with food ran right through Eleanor’s life, darting into her work, her feminism, and her deepest relationships. “I am sorry to tell you that my husband and I are very bad about food,” she wrote in response to a query from the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1929. “I do not know of any particular dish which he likes unless it is wild duck.” FDR did like wild duck; he also loved steak, lobster, heavy cream, caviar, and cocktails, but she wasn’t about to admit any of that to the Journal. Instead, she chose to lie, which was sometimes her favorite way to discuss matters of appetite—especially, as we’ll see, FDR’s appetite. But the art of the cover-up, which Eleanor practiced diligently all her life, was difficult to maintain when it came to cooking and eating. Eleanor wrote so often and so copiously about herself, in memoirs and letters and articles, that the truth had a way of spilling out. Over the years, she became a reliable source on a subject she would have insisted she knew nothing about—her own food story. And it isn’t a story about a woman with no palate for pleasure.

Still, it’s easy to see how Eleanor acquired her bleak culinary reputation. By all accounts, the food in the Roosevelt White House was the worst in the history of the presidency. Longtime White House staff began noticing a change right after FDR’s inauguration in 1933. Eyeing the luncheon buffet Eleanor had ordered, the chief butler called the table “sick-looking”—it featured two kinds of salad, bread-and-butter sandwiches, and vast quantities of milk. A few weeks later California senator Hiram Johnson was invited to dinner and told his son afterward that the most ordinary meal they had at home was “infinitely supe- rior” to what he had been served at the White House. “We had a very indifferent chowder first, then some mutton served in slices already cut and which had become almost cold, with peas that were none too palatable, a salad of little substance and worse dressing, lemon pie, and coffee.” Mutton was not on the menu that night; Johnson had been eating dark, dry, overcooked lamb. Ernest Hemingway, invited to dinner in 1937, told his mother- in-law it was the worst meal he had ever eaten. “We had a rain- water soup followed by rubber squab, a nice wilted salad and a cake some admirer had sent in. An enthusiastic but unskilled admirer.” The visit had been arranged by the journalist Martha Gellhorn, who was a good friend of Eleanor’s and often stayed overnight at the White House. As they waited for their flight in the Newark airport, Hemingway was surprised to see Gellhorn intently eating sandwiches, three of them, and asked her what on earth she was doing. She said everyone in Washington knew the rule: When you’re invited to a meal at the White House, eat before you go.

Paperback edition of What She Ate is out now. 

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