This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Women, Food, Power … and Books!, first released on November 21, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
ANGELA SAINI: There are communities in the world in which women hunt the way that men hunt. For example, the Martu tribes, Aboriginal tribes in Australia, women hunt for sport. They hunt feral cats for sport. The Nanadukan Agta in the Philippines, which, sadly, that community has pretty much disappeared now. But in that community women hunted routinely just the way that men did, the same things that men did. So it’s not the case that hunting was always the male preserve.
CYNTHIA GRABER: I am so excited that we’re having Angela Saini on the show—that’s Angela’s voice you just heard, telling us that women hunt. Not only is she my friend, but she wrote an absolutely fantastic new book.
NICOLA TWILLEY: Which we are going to talk to her about. And then we’re going to talk to the author of another great new book. And both books are about women and food and power.
GRABER: And either or both of these books would make fabulous holiday gifts! This is our version of a holiday recommendation episode. Buy these books! After you listen to the show.
TWILLEY: And the show, for those of you who stumbled upon us by accident, is Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. And this week, we’re first heading back thousands and thousands of years in evolutionary history with Angela to try to understand what role those early women played in feeding their families and their communities. And why we should care about that today.
TWILLEY: And then we’re bringing women’s relationship with food up to date—or at least into the twentieth-century—with a look at what food can tell us about Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as how food signals class and shapes gender dynamics on both sides of the pond. Plus, Cynthia learns about the Twiglet.
TWILLEY: Back to Angela.
ANGELA SAINI: I am a science journalist based in London and my book is called Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story.
GRABER: Angela’s book takes a really big-picture look at how science has interpreted women and the biological differences between men and women, and how science has gotten both the biology and the differences wrong.
TWILLEY: So let’s take a step back in time. Not thousands of years—just back to April 1966 at the University of Chicago.
SAINI: So this is when a conference happened and it was titled “Man, the Hunter.”
GRABER: This conference was a huge deal. The biggest names in anthropology were all there. And they were discussing what has been called “the hunting hypothesis.”
SAINI: At that time in history, anthropologists and scientists—I think everybody, probably—thought of hunting as a male activity, almost exclusively a male activity. I think that’s probably reflected in The Flintstones. When we watch The Flintstones, we imagine this is how life always was, that, you know, the man went out and brought home the bacon, and the woman stayed at home and looked after the children and made the house pretty. And this conference kind of reflected that.
TWILLEY: The implications of this hunting hypothesis go well beyond just who got to use the bows and arrows.
SAINI: It was argued, and this was quite accepted wisdom at the time, that hunting by men is what drove a lot of the traits that we think of as higher human traits. So intelligence, creativity, cooperation—all of these things were important because men were hunting. And women really got left out of the story because, obviously, people assumed they weren’t the ones doing the hunting. So they didn’t really matter. But by corollary, obviously, it makes perfect sense that they were saying them that women weren’t contributing to higher human intelligence and creativity and cooperation.
GRABER: Like Angela says, the belief was that male cooperation during hunting drove creativity and it even ultimately led to the invention of human language. And this hunting theory also led to the idea that men invented technology, because men invented hunting tools.
TWILLEY: In other words, men had been responsible for the invention of everything: intelligence, technology, language, and culture
GRABER: But women in the field weren’t fans of this theory.
SAINI: I don’t know how it was—what the feeling was like at the conference itself. I really wish I could have been there. But very shortly afterwards women started asking, what is going on? What the hell are these people saying? They’re kind of airbrushing women out of evolutionary history, all those thousands and thousands of years and women don’t feature. What were the women doing while the men were out hunting? An anthropologist called Sally Linton wrote a paper about this, asking the vital question: What were women doing? And, actually, have they got it wrong?
TWILLEY: And it wasn’t long before these scientists pointed out some major holes in this “man the hunter” hypothesis. For one thing, people started to argue that hunting tools—flint arrowheads, stone tools—these weren’t actually conclusive evidence that men were the original inventors
SAINI: Well, very often if we look at the archeological records, what survives? It’s things like stone tools, flint tools, the kind of tools used in hunting. But actually again, if you look at hunter gatherer societies, some of the most common tools that you see are slings. And very often these are used by women. So women use slings to carry their babies, to carry food and provisions that they’ve hunted or foraged for, on their backs. So it’s possible, and an argument has been made by some anthropologists, that the sling was the very first invention and it was likely to have been a female invention.
GRABER: There’s another tool that’s often used by women, and sometimes by men, in hunter-gatherer societies today. It’s a digging stick. It’s used for digging roots and tubers, or for killing small animals.
SAINI: Now what the sling and the digging stick have in common is that they don’t remain in the fossil record because they’re made of wood and fabric, so they don’t survive. So we don’t have records of them anymore. All we have is what we see hunter gatherers using. We have to assume that they must have used them many thousands of years ago and they probably did, and they were probably the first inventions.
TWILLEY: So that’s one argument in response to this “man the hunter” thesis—that women had not only provided food but also invented tools, maybe the earliest tools. But there was no evidence left.
GRABER: There’s another hole in the “man-the-hunter-invented-everything” theory, and that’s hidden in our brains. Because men and women’s brains are actually really similar.
SAINI: There are no gaps at all in average IQ. Even on things like spatial awareness, which we think of as a predominantly male quality, that men are better at spatial awareness or mathematical reasoning. We, again, in very big studies don’t see big gaps there. So the fact that our brains aren’t very different suggests that we evolved in very similar ways—that we couldn’t have done very different things because we weren’t designed to do very different things.
TWILLEY: And then there’s the nail in the coffin of this theory that men were the hunters and invented everything because they provided all the food. It turns out that men probably didn’t provide all the food.
SAINI: When people went out and studied hunter gatherers and other communities that live the way we might have once lived many millennia ago, before the advent of agriculture and before settlements and cities, women do do a lot of work. Unsurprisingly. And statistically there are even some communities in which they bring back more calories than men.
GRABER: And what’s more, women may have been bringing back more calories more reliably than the men in those ancient communities.
SAINI: Well, when we look at different hunter gatherer around the world, it’s very often that women are the gatherers. So even if men are out hunting, hunting is a very sporadic activity, especially if you’re hunting big game. The chances of a kill are very small, so it’s not a reliable way of bringing home regular calories for your family or for the community. So women were the ones who were foraging for roots and tubers and plants. They were the ones killing small animals, so they were hunting but more reliable kind of prey. And they were the ones bringing that back. If men are out doing big hunting and for a month they don’t come back with anything, then it makes perfect sense that the person who is doing the foraging and the gathering and killing small animals or catching fish is obviously going to bring in more reliable calories.
TWILLEY: So then the next question is, if hunting doesn’t necessarily bring in as many calories, as reliably, why in the hell were men doing it in the first place?
SAINI: There is this theory—it’s quite controversial, but there is this idea out there that also perhaps men go after the big game because it’s an arena for showing off. That catching fish or hunting little animals doesn’t bring as much prestige as bringing back something really big and meaty.
GRABER: What’s clear is that women do hunt. But not always the same animals.
SAINI: Where we do see differences in the patterns of hunting between men and women, it’s often the case in the regions where hunting is a risky activity, women tend to do less. And actually strategically this makes sense because losing a mother is far more fatal to a child’s survival than losing a father. So it makes more sense that if there is a very risky activity that has to be done to allow the men to do it.
TWILLEY: But Angela says that, in other parts of the world, women hunted bigger animals, more like men. And, like men, they gained prestige from it.
GRABER: At the beginning of the show, Angela mentioned two communities. One in Australia where aboriginal women hunt feral cats for sport. And another in the Philippines that’s almost totally disappeared but where women until recently loved to hunt. They’d often use knives and dogs to help, rather than bows and arrows, but they hunted big pigs and deer. And many of them were great at it.
TWILLEY: OK, so if women were likely inventing tools and bringing in calories and even hunting, what does that mean for the rest of the hunting hypothesis—the part about men inventing language and culture?
SAINI: Well, it has lots of repercussions. When we start including women in the story, when we don’t just ignore them and expect them to be some kind of irrelevance on the side, then the story changes completely.
TWILLEY: The story was that men drove our evolution into the big-brained technology and language-using creatures we are today. And now there’s a different story emerging.
SAINI: And there is research now, really compelling research that’s been done that suggests that the reason that humans ramped up intelligence in evolutionary terms the way we did, the reason we became such a big brained intelligent species, may have been not because of hunting, but because of the mother-child or the parent-child interaction. We have our babies very, very early in the development stage. We give birth when our babies are almost entirely helpless. For the first three months, they’re really just like fetuses. They can’t do anything for themselves. So this kind of very specialized, highly skilled parenting that’s required to raise a baby like that is possibly what drove up intelligence.
GRABER: Before, the theory was that language emerged from the cooperation required to hunt big game. But researchers are now saying that women, and men—parents, trying to communicate with and care for these tiny helpless babies—that might have been what did it.
SAINI: Which really in many ways puts women at the center of the evolutionary story, which is quite interesting. But I do have to add in all of this, we have to remember that these are just theories. And just like the hunting hypothesis was just a theory, these are also just theories. So when we’re thinking about the past, the fact is, we don’t have a huge amount of evidence. And the best we can do is to include all the evidence that we do have and not to ignore any of it, which I think was was done in the past when we ignored women. So I’m not saying this is now fact, or that this fact has overridden previous facts. I’m just saying that the universe of our understanding has expanded.
TWILLEY: And in this new expanded universe of understanding, it increasingly seems like our distant ancestors may well have had a more equal society than our own. In her book, Angela describes recent research showing that decision-making and division of labor in the world’s few remaining hunter gatherer tribes is surprisingly egalitarian. So where did it go wrong for the rest of us?
SAINI: Well, it’s a big question. It’s one I don’t think historians have really answered. You know, how did patriarchies emerge? How? Why did we settle down and start agriculture?
GRABER: One of the theories today for why inequality emerged is that people started farming and started settling down in cities. This led to more rigid divisions of labor and the accumulation of resources—by men.
SAINI: I mean, Engels called it the world defeat of the female sex or something like that. At some point, things changed for women and that change spread around the world. It’s not everywhere. There are certain societies around the world which are matrilineal, in which women have more power, in which people are more egalitarian. But generally most societies around the world are male dominated and we still don’t really have an answer for that. What I do think we can say is that there is no biological reason that we can’t have equality. You know, the fact that the psychological differences between us are small, and the fact that men and women are capable of doing many of the same things or most of the same things, means that we can have equality if we want it. So if we want a more equal and fair society, we can have it. There’s no reason why not.
TWILLEY: And this bigger question of equality is intimately tied to food. That’s something Angela has seen first hand.
SAINI: I mean in the culture that I grew up in—I come from an Indian family, so my parents were born in India and I’ve lived in India—the preparation of food is hugely important culturally and often it’s—there is a sexual division of labor in the production of food. In India, culturally the tradition was you feed the men first and then you eat. Now what does that mean when there’s not enough food? That means a man eats and the woman possibly doesn’t eat, or doesn’t eat enough. And that has huge repercussions. It creates weakness in women. And that feeds in again to the stereotype of the weaker female, the more feeble female.
GRABER: Angela’s book celebrates the ways in which scientists are busting stereotypes and old beliefs about women in a host of ways: women’s intelligence, even their sexual appetite. But Angela says that the science should almost be irrelevant when it comes to treating everyone equally.
SAINI: Personally I don’t think it should make the argument any different at all. We, as humans, as a society, have decided that everyone is equal. And that is a good thing. Regardless of their abilities, regardless of their capabilities, everybody is equal. And that is a really noble aim. I don’t think we should in any way abandon that. And in some sense then the science doesn’t matter. What science says about what we’re capable of doing, what we’re able to do or what we’re naturally designed to do—it doesn’t matter if we’ve decided that we’re all equal. Where I think it does matter is when people turn around and say you can’t do this because it’s against nature or it’s against biology. Which still happens. There are still people out there, many people out there, and many of them in positions of power, who say that women for instance aren’t capable of leadership. Which is one of the reasons Hillary Clinton didn’t get elected.
GRABER: We’ve been hearing people lately saying that women in Silicon Valley aren’t capable of doing technology jobs. And then there’s the Larry Summers scandal. He was the president of Harvard University, and he said that maybe there weren’t as many women in science because they weren’t innately as capable of doing science.
SAINI: And that’s where the science is important. To counter that kind of prejudice that holds back the cause of equality on the grounds of science. We have good science to show that that’s not true. And that’s why I wrote my book. Not to argue that we should have equality because the science says so. But to say that the equality that we’re fighting for should not be held back through biological arguments.
TWILLEY: Hear, hear.
GRABER: Definitely go check out Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story. If you don’t believe us, believe Daniel Radcliffe, who told New York Magazine that he’s reading it right now! Harry Potter loves it, folks.
TWILLEY: After the break, we’re back with some of the worst food you’ve ever heard of—rubbery eggs, Jell-o salads, and boiled chicken. Plus some very famous and accomplished women, and what this terrible food meant to them.
LAURA SHAPIRO: I took six women and I looked at them as if food mattered. It occurred to me that traditional biography just never tells you what people ate. And it seems to me that that is a great lens to look at someone’s life.
GRABER: Laura Shapiro wrote a great book called What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories. She was inspired to write this book after she finished writing one on Julia Child.
SHAPIRO: It occurred to me that you don’t have to be Julia Child to have a relationship with food. We all do. We all have a relationship with food that starts the minute we’re born and it goes until we die. So it could be any woman. But it can’t just be any woman because most women don’t leave a record of what they ate.
TWILLEY: There is nothing that makes Laura angrier than someone who writes in their diary that they had lunch and doesn’t say what they ate. She hates it! And so many women forget to mention what was actually on their plate.
GRABER: But Laura did find those details in the diaries, notes, and stories about six women, some of whom many of you will have heard of.
TWILLEY: We picked two of them to focus on this episode: one American for Cynthia and one Brit for me.
GRABER: First, the American—one of the most famous American women of the 1900s. Eleanor Roosevelt. Who was also famous for her horrible food.
SHAPIRO: Well, Eleanor herself said that she didn’t care about food, didn’t care what she ate, had no palate. And her family members and close friends, they all kind of agreed. And then there was this terrible food at the White House, which they blamed on her kind of lovingly because everyone loved Eleanor. But they just said, you know, here is this great First Lady. She was the most active, most productive First Lady we have ever had. And food just didn’t interest her. So if people complained about the dinner, it just didn’t matter. Her mind was on other things. I read this and that just didn’t ring true to me. Eleanor was a very thoughtful friend. She was famous for her generosity and her sympathy to people. I just couldn’t see her sitting there, ignoring the fact that her guests were sort of toying with these horrible things on their plates.
TWILLEY: By all accounts, the food in the White House while Franklin Delano Roosevelt was President and Eleanor Roosevelt was First Lady was the worst in White House history.
GRABER: Eleanor wasn’t cooking that horrible food herself. All the food was overseen by their housekeeper, Henrietta Nesbitt. Whom Eleanor did hire. And Henrietta’s culinary repertoire wasn’t the most creative.
SHAPIRO: So she would have creamed chipped beef on toast. She would have creamed kidneys on toast. She would have a thing called shrimp wiggle, which was shrimp and canned peas in a white sauce on toast.
TWILLEY: Shrimp wiggle!
SHAPIRO: And these things show up day after day. She had sweetbreads and innards because they were inexpensive. FDR used to say if he saw another dish of sweetbreads, he was going to go mad. He begged Eleanor to stop letting the housekeeper give him these sweetbreads day after day. They just kind of ignored him. So that was a lot of this very economical cooking. There was a dish called eggs Mexican which was rice with bananas on top of it and fried eggs on top of that. I’m not sure where the flavor of Mexico actually came through. But it was an unusual dish. So these were some of the highlights of that table.
GRABER: Franklin wasn’t the only one complaining about the food.
SHAPIRO: Well, Hemingway went to dinner at the White House in 1937. Afterwards he wrote to his then mother-in-law. He said this was the worst dinner he had ever had in his life.
TWILLEY: The journalist Martha Gellhorn, who brought Hemingway to dinner: she was a little better prepared. She ate three sandwiches before they arrived—she told Hemingway that everyone in Washington knew the rule: when you’re invited to the White House for dinner, eat first.
SHAPIRO: Even her dearest friends walked away just kind of blanching with horror at what they had been given.
GRABER: Everyone did love Eleanor—and Franklin. Just not the food.
TWILLEY: So why was it so bad?
GRABER: The first thing to remember is that Eleanor presided over the White House from 1933 to 1945.
SHAPIRO: This was the Depression and then it was rationing and the war years. So she told their housekeeper…
TWILLEY: The infamous Henrietta Nesbitt of shrimp wiggle fame…
SHAPIRO: To make sure that everything was just simple, and abundant enough so that people had enough to eat but no frills. She said nothing out of season, no hot-house grapes, no signs of luxury.
TWILLEY: But cheap food can be well-cooked and delicious. The menu at the White House during the Roosevelt years was neither. Something else was going on.
GRABER: Meet Eleanor’s mother-in-law, Sara Roosevelt. She had controlled Franklin’s life up until his marriage, and she still held the purse strings. He never became financially independent of his mom.
SHAPIRO: And she really wanted to control his marriage and his family. So, for instance, early in their marriage when they were living in New York, Sara Roosevelt built a kind of two-home brownstone in New York on the east side. There would be two houses that were side by side with adjoining doors on every floor so that she could go in and out from his house to her house as much as she wanted. This drove Eleanor crazy, but she was helpless to do anything. And Sara Roosevelt was a great food lover and took pride in setting up a beautiful table with wonderful food, she had great cooks.
TWILLEY: We’re talking thick juicy steaks and heavy cream sauces and lobsters and delicious puddings and custards.
SHAPIRO: So Eleanor, who had much more austere, progressive, political, ascetic ideas about food, by nature, she was not going to be a luxury living kind of person, ever—food became a way in which she could just kind of draw the line between herself and Sara Roosevelt.
GRABER: There’s another relationship that spoiled Eleanor’s interest in preparing delicious food at the White House, and that’s Franklin’s affair with his former social secretary Lucy Mercer.
TWILLEY: Eleanor found out about the affair thirteen years into their marriage, in 1918, and she never forgave Franklin.
SHAPIRO: That betrayal and that pain went very, very deep. So she had agreed to stay married to him. But that was not a happy marriage. It was not a trusting marriage. She was not happy in the marriage.
GRABER: And Franklin loved food. As we just said, his mother fed him all sorts of rich, delicious dishes, and he craved them.
SHAPIRO: Eleanor was not going to feed him that. And so, as one of her biographers put it: food was Eleanor’s revenge.
TWILLEY: It’s basically the most passive-aggressive relationship and the food is the real victim.
GRABER: Part of this story is that Eleanor always proclaims that she doesn’t like food, she barely tastes it, really. But Laura found out that’s not true. In Eleanor’s letters and memoirs, there are lots of little details and notes that show that she did actually enjoy food.
SHAPIRO: It wasn’t going to happen inside the White House. It wasn’t going to happen in those four walls. But if she were traveling, away, she would say “Oh well I ate so much at that Chinese restaurant! The food was just great!”
TWILLEY: Laura discovered Eleanor’s account of a trip she took to Albany in the mid 1930s, to help her former bodyguard settle into his new house.
SHAPIRO: And she writes letters to her friend saying, you know, we set up the kitchen, and I made popovers. She’s so excited about learning these things! And yet she’s so self-effacing about claiming any credit for it. But she says she made biscuits one day. She made an applesauce cake. And she was doing it. She had that in her life. She could do it. But it was miles from the White House. FDR was nowhere near. This is another circle. It’s people that she loves and care about cares about and she’s putting her two hands into the food and cooking and serving them.
GRABER: After FDR died, Eleanor cooked all sorts of delicious foods for her guests—hearty flavorful ones, Laura says, ones that Eleanor herself enjoyed. And during this time, Eleanor is still an important political figure in her own right.
TWILLEY: She represented the US at the United Nations and traveled the world as a diplomat
SHAPIRO: She goes to Paris, she loves the food in Paris. She goes to the Middle East, she’s crazy about the food in the Middle East. You just see this other person. A person with a genuine appetite. It’s so great. If you love Eleanor Roosevelt, you’re so happy that she had a wonderful relationship with food sometimes. She had it outside the White House.
TWILLEY: All of this—her food story—it all adds up to a new picture of Eleanor, a side to her that we hadn’t seen before.
GRABER: Eleanor wrote columns and memoirs, and there have been multiple biographies written about her. But the tensions and complications of her relationship with food—they’re a window onto the woman behind the achievements.
SHAPIRO: We have a huge amount of information so we can get to Eleanor Roosevelt from many different perspectives. And she is worth the getting to. There is more. I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface of Eleanor. There’s going to be more. I bet you she pulled off a lemon meringue pie in there and we don’t even know about it yet.
TWILLEY: Let’s leave Eleanor on this happy note, and move forward a few decades, as well as over to my side of the pond. The second story we wanted to share was that of Barbara Pym.
GRABER: You all might be wondering who Barbara Pym is. I was wondering that, too, until I read Laura’s book.
SHAPIRO: Barbara Pym was the most wonderful writer. She was a British writer who began publishing in the 50s.
TWILLEY: And she wrote a very particular kind of novel about a very particular England, one that has kind of vanished now. The England of my spinster great aunts, basically.
SHAPIRO: She wrote about women who were kind of modest and humble and self-effacing. They’re wearing these cardigans. They wear sensible shoes. They help out in the church jumble sale. They’re constantly having the vicar to tea. That’s their external life. But we are inside them. They are the narrators and the heroines. And we see that they are hilariously funny. They are so sharp-edged. They skewer these fat-headed men around them with just a turn of phrase, so subtle that the man himself never knows he’s been skewered.
GRABER: Laura has long loved Barbara’s books. But Laura writes about food, and so she especially adores Barbara for that.
SHAPIRO: She saw the world as if she were a food writer. She wasn’t, she never would have thought of herself as a food writer. But she had a kind of natural fascination with food. She went everywhere with a little notebook and she would look around and she would see what people were eating. She would just jot it down. Here’s a woman in furs and a nice hat and gloves and she’s pouring ketchup over a plate of fish and chips. Barbara Pym jots that down. That is the start of a character, then from that comes a plot, and then afterwards comes a novel.
TWILLEY: Barbara included all this food detail in her novels partly because she loved food, but also because the food communicated something.
SHAPIRO: Food to her was a key to character. It was an indicator of class, of situation, of gender relations.
GRABER: Barbara writes these scenes where a couple orders the same dish, and the woman gets one egg and two slices of bacon, and her husband gets two eggs and four strips of bacon. Men get the good stuff, and more of it.
TWILLEY: The vicar especially. Always the first slice of cake at the church tea. But food—like everything in England—could also communicate class differences, really clearly. If you’re British.
SHAPIRO: So there’s a class event going on whenever a meal is served. You always know exactly who’s eating it and why.
TWILLEY: For example, one of Barbara’s upper-crust heroines is served a mug of sweet, strong, milky tea, the kind I’d call builder’s brew. And she takes one sip, just to be polite, and no more. And you know, without needing to be told, exactly what she is thinking—she’s a fine china, Darjeeling-drinking lady, and the distance between those two cups of tea is an unbridgeable gulf.
GRABER: Laura says that food in Barbara’s books also can tell a story about the character herself. She describes one cardigan-wearing, sensible-shoe sporting vicar’s daughter named Mildred.
SHAPIRO: She one day makes a little lunch for herself and a kind of glamorous guy who lives in her building—he lives in the flat downstairs. She has a little crush on him, which she shouldn’t have because he’s married
TWILLEY: She makes a little salad—a simple salad with fresh lettuce—and she puts out decent cheese and good bread, and a little fruit.
SHAPIRO: And she’s looking at it and she says, you know, this is the kind of thing people sort of eat in the French countryside—I wish I had a bottle of wine, which she didn’t. So the food—it tells us something else about Mildred. It tells us that cardigan is only on the outside.
TWILLEY: Yay Mildred, keeping the dream alive with decent cheese. And the decency of this cheese—this is also important. Because I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the food of my country people has a bit of a reputation.
SHAPIRO: Well, the idea that we have of British food in the decades after World War II is very strict and clear. It’s a big mountain of Bird’s custard powder. It’s Marmite. It is over-boiled cabbage. Over-boiled everything really.
TWILLEY: Quick defense of Marmite here, which is actually delicious and one of Britain’s great culinary achievements. But Laura’s point still stands: British food was terrible. Or, at least, that’s what everybody believed.
SHAPIRO: And Barbara Pym knew it and when she saw it or ate it, she recorded it. What’s fascinating to see in the novels, and in her own diaries and things, is that that is not the whole picture. There was a real spectrum of food in those years in Britain. There was a lot of really good cooking. People were making boeuf a la mode. They were making risotto. They’re rolling out the dough to make ravioli by hand. There really was very good cooking.
GRABER: These dishes Laura’s describing, they’re not what you would think of as classic British dishes. Could it just be that British cooks could turn out a fine Italian dish now and then but the local native dishes were revolting?
TWILLEY: Not according to Barbara.
SHAPIRO: Boiled chicken and white sauce was the classic British dish—it’s the thing that you’re supposed to make when the new curate is in town and you invite him to lunch. You would boil a chicken, or at least you’d call it a boiled chicken, and serve it with white sauce. This was so classic that when Julia Child was in England for the first time, she—years later, she looked back on this trip writing to her friend and she said she couldn’t believe it— the food was so exactly the stereotype. It’s just what you thought it was going to be. We stopped at this kind of olde worlde inn and and sure enough it was a boiled chicken. She said it still had the hair on. Apparently it had not been plucked too perfectly and was drenched in this white sauce that was basically library paste. She said it was really flour and water and that’s it. She carried the same assumption about British cooking that everyone carried, that it was terrible.
GRABER: What Julia Child ate does sound pretty gross, frankly. My partner Tim’s mom made something she called white sauce that was also literally flour and water and it was genuinely disgusting.
TWILLEY: But I grew up eating white sauce, made by my Mum, who is an excellent cook, and it can be delicious! And Barbara Pym agrees.
SHAPIRO: Well that same dish appears in Barbara Pym’s first novel, And it’s about two sisters who live in a village, and they have the curate to lunch. And they make a boiled chicken with white sauce. It is a beautiful little dish. It is delicately cooked. The white sauce is a cream sauce, with a little touch of lemon in it. I went looking around for possible recipes. There are wonderful recipes for things called boiled chicken. They shouldn’t call it boiling. I don’t know why the British insist on that term—it was simmered, gently simmered chicken. And it was a beautiful little dish. So there was bad cooking but there was good cooking. And you see both of it in that one dish.
TWILLEY: Barbara’s personal food habits spanned the best and the less excellent aspects of British food. Laura spent hours going through her papers at the Bodleian library in Oxford, looking at her shopping lists and her dinner party menus.
SHAPIRO: She’s buying butter. She’s also buying margarine. She’s buying a cake. She’s also buying the sugar and the self-rising flour because she herself was a good baker. You see everything. She’s buying cornflakes and Marmite and something called Twiglets, which the British seem to be very fond of—I’m not quite sure what that was.
TWILLEY: Twiglets! I haven’t had a Twiglet in forever! But, for non-Brits, they’re essentially Marmite-flavored Cheetos and they are freaking excellent.
GRABER: They sound totally addictive! I love Marmite. I am going to find some Twiglets my next trip to London.
SHAPIRO: But then she’s buying shrimp and steak, she buys veal to cook for their friends. She makes summer pudding, one of the most delicious British desserts of all time. So she’s all over that spectrum.
TWILLEY: Barbara’s picture of British food is quite different from the one most people believed—the Julia Child-endorsed message that there was no hope for the English.
SHAPIRO: It’s as if she were writing a revisionist history of British cuisine in those years. She wasn’t. She was just recording what what she saw going on, which is why I believe in it. But the food that appears in the novels really makes you rethink British cooking in those years.
TWILLEY: If you haven’t read Barbara’s novels, you should also add them to your holiday shopping list. Not just for the food, but for the food too.
GRABER: Laura’s larger point is, in both Eleanor’s personal life and Barbara’s fiction, food adds a layer of complication and nuance.
TWILLEY: We think we know Eleanor Roosevelt, we think we know what kind of sad spinster lives Barbara Pym’s heroines are leading, and it turns out we don’t. Food helps us get a fuller picture.
SHAPIRO: Food, in this book, it touches on power and it touches on love. And when you put those two things together, it’s kind of a scary combination.
GRABER: Take Dorothy Wordsworth, one of the other women whose food story Laura tells in her book. She’s the sister of the famous poet William, as well as a fine writer herself.
SHAPIRO: She adored her brother William and she cooked for him with the greatest love in the world. and that love, the food that emerged from that love, was in a way her her power in the household. It gave her a place in the household. When he married, she was displaced. Her sister-in-law shared the cooking. So the power slipped away and her life changed very dramatically.
TWILLEY: Or take Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress. She used food to help create the fantasy world she lived in. Another of Laura’s six women, Helen Gurley Brown, the editor of Cosmopolitan—she made herself into the perfect wife by denying herself food.
SHAPIRO: So food and love, in that weird combination, I think, become these instruments of power in strange ways.
TWILLEY: Food, power, and women: it’s an amazing combination. As you know if you listen to this podcast, about food, made by two women, and—well, we haven’t taken over the world yet, but with your help, we surely will!
GRABER: That’s right! Tell your friends to subscribe! Send us their names, and win swag! It’s all part of our plan for world domination. Gastropod.com/share
TWILLEY: And while you’re on our website at gastropod.com, why don’t you also click on the links to Angela Saini’s book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research that’s Rewriting the Story.
GRABER: And Laura Shapiro’s book, What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories.
TWILLEY: As you can tell, we loved them both.