Author Q&A: Open Book with Laura Shapiro

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"Julia Child," a Penguin Lives short biography by Laura Shapiro, left the author hungry to pen more about the famous chef.

"Julia's one of the most interesting, lovable, terrific people to write about that you can imagine, so when I finished that book, I thought, 'Oh good, let's write another book about Julia Child,'" Shapiro says.

Alas, publishers weren't as enthusiastic about Shapiro exploring the same topic in another work.

"They don't let you do that, so I started looking for other women who had food lives that would be as gripping as [Julia's]," Shapiro says.

She was disappointed when she couldn't find any Child-esque figures.

"But, of course, it occurred to me that you don't have to be Julia Child to have a relationship with food. We all do. People who don't cook have a relationship with food. People who don't even like to eat, people who don't care about food, we all have a relationship with it. And I thought [about] how interesting it would be to pursue women that we don't associate with food and to pull the food story out of their lives," she says.

"What She Ate" (2017, Penguin Random House) examines the food habits of Dorothy Wordsworth, Rosa Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Barbara Pym and Helen Gurley Brown as a means to reveal more about their characters.

"Food writing is often unrigorous, more emotional than cerebral," writes Jennifer Reese in a review for The Washington Post. "But Shapiro approaches her subject like a surgeon, analytical tools sharpened. The result is a collection of essays that are tough, elegant and fresh."

Shapiro, a longtime journalist, lives in New York City now. But some of her seminal life experiences occurred in the Berkshires. Growing up, Shapiro spent her summers in the county because her father, Harry Shapiro, played the French horn in the Boston Symphony Orchestra for decades.

"[He] had a great stash of Tanglewood stories," Shapiro says of her father, who died in 2014 at age 100.

The author has her own memories of the Berkshires from which to draw.

"You know what it's like, when you're a kid: Wherever you spend your summer, the things that happen in the summer, they just glow," Shapiro says. "They are the most important parts of growing up in some ways. They're just sort of separated from the rest of the year and the rest of life, so I had all those transformative experiences happen in Lenox and Stockbridge — many of them in The Lenox Library, by the way, which is one of my favorite places on Earth."

On Friday, May 18, she will return to the Berkshires, speaking at The Bookstore in Lenox beginning at 5:30 p.m.

"I'm so pleased that this Bookstore event has been organized, and we can go back and walk around those streets a little bit," she said.

Shapiro answered questions by phone in advance of the reading.

Q What is your favorite cookbook?

A There are other cookbooks I use more, but I would say the cookbook my mind leaps to is "The Silver Palate Cookbook" by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins. ... The Silver Palate was a takeout food store, one of the first high-end takeout food places in New York in the '70s. And of that duo who wrote it, Sheila Lukins was the food mastermind. They had all these things that really defined the beginning of the food revolution: great ingredients, far-ranging ingredients, things we sort of don't think about anymore but made a huge splash when they appeared, like raspberry vinegar, or something like that. After World War II, a lot of cookbooks pursued this idea that women didn't like to cook and that recipes had to be very short and very quick to do and easy and [have] supermarket ingredients. Sheila Lukins didn't think that way. She thought maybe women did like to cook and that they would enjoy bringing new ideas into their kitchens. She also was a great recipe writer. This is so important. When you follow those recipes, you come out the other end with exactly the dish that she wants you to come out with and, again, this is not something that all cookbooks can do. So, it's a wonderfully usable cookbook. Some of the food, you would have to say, is out of style now. We sort of don't do that anymore. But many of them aren't, and I, like millions of other people, make chicken Marbella. [I] make it all the time and that's probably my idea of a perfect recipe: totally simple and always good — never out of style.

Q What is your favorite food-related book?

A I actually have this on my bedside, and I often read it at night — just a little bit of it — because it just makes me happy. This is a book called, "Books and My Food: Literary Quotations and Original Recipes for Every Day in the Year," and it's written by Elisabeth Luther Cary and Annie M. Jones. We don't know very much about either of those people ... 1904, that's the date of this book. They just go through the calendar, and for every date, they give you a recipe from literature, a little quote from literature. So, naturally, when I first saw this book and fell in love with it head-over-heels, I went to my birthday, which is June 20. And the quote was, "A dish of thick bread and scraped butter, a plate of hard biscuit, a teapot and a glass milk jug." The author of this quote is Annie Thackeray, who I think was a daughter of [William Makepeace] Thackeray, from a book that nobody has ever heard of. ... Then there's a recipe for hard biscuit, and it's the most wonderful recipe. I actually made it once. After two hours, it's become so hard that you really can't bite into it and save your teeth. But the whole book is like that. Some of the recipes you probably could make. What I love is that they're bringing food and literature together in the most direct possible way, and they themselves just have this wonderful sensibility. I love the way they write. This book just makes me happy.

Q What were some of the best books you read during your research for "What She Ate?"

A As always, the primary sources are the things that really draw me into a project and keep my attention long after the project. For instance, I read Dorothy Wordsworth's journals. I had read "The Grasmere Journal," which is the famous one, years earlier, but I really studied it this time. And then [there is] all the Wordsworth stuff [that] is published or online, so you can read all the letters and all the journals. So, I got to build a picture of this person. Again, it doesn't count as a book really, but the other primary source that I loved in this project was reading the papers of Henrietta Nesbitt, who was the kind of lame — not literally lame — who was the pathetic housekeeper in the White House and the woman most closely responsible for the fact that the food was so terrible during FDR's presidency. Her papers are in the Library of Congress, and she saved every White House day's menus for that entire time that she was there. Reading those menus, typed out by a secretary in Henrietta Nesbitt's office, brings your right back into that moment where she thought up those peculiar dishes and put them together with other peculiar dishes. Again, these don't quite count as books, but they were the glories of that research.

Q What were some of the best books you read during your research for "Julia Child?"

A Well, Julia Child wrote all of them. The great pleasure of doing that book was that, because it was a Penguin Life, they're very short. It's a standard format, and they're quite short. You basically tell the life story as you want to tell it. It has to include all the important stuff, but you can shape it exactly the way you want. I pulled that book right out of the Julia archives, which are at the Schlesinger Library in Cambridge, [Mass.], and used Julia's letters and all of her other papers — the notes that she kept for her various writing projects — all this stuff, it's all there. She's one of these people that never threw out a piece of paper, so the archive is enormous. And as you read through those things, carton after carton, this image of Julia, it's like it rises up out of the cartons and keeps you company every day while you're doing that research. I had known Julia very slightly, as most journalists did in those days because she was very friendly to the press and you could always talk to her, but I really got to know her when I lived in those archives and read her words. That was the real — that's where that book came from. And then of course, I'd have to say poring over "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," in part, for the recipes, but for me, it was for Julia's personality that comes out of that book. You really see it; you see it in the headnotes and in the introductions. It just seeps through everything.

Q Which of your favorite books would people who know you be surprised by?

A My eye falls on one right now. It's a history of vegetarianism, and people who know me understand that I feel very strongly about food rules that limit what you eat. Obviously, in terms of your health, you have to choose your food; you might rule out many, many things because of health. But any other prescriptions really drive me nuts. So, this is really an excellent book on vegetarianism called "The Bloodless Revolution" by a writer named Tristram Stuart. It's an excellent book. You walk through the entire history: every philosopher and wandering hermit that ever was a vegetarian gets their say in this book, and I was just riveted [by] it. At the end, I had the same thought I always had: "Why on earth do people do this?" But this guy actually tells you.

Q What was your favorite book as a child?

A There's a British writer of children's books named E. Nesbit — Edith Nesbit — she wrote a zillion things. Many people have read "The Railway Children," which is a famous series that she wrote. I read a book called "The Wouldbegoods," and then another one in the same series called "The New Wouldbegoods," and then there was another one in that series called "The [Story of the] Treasure Seekers," about a British family of children who just had adventures. They had them in Britain, which seemed so entrancing to me. Things were spelled differently, and all the bits of local culture and the way they thought was so different. E. Nesbit specialized in creating children who were very literary. I think children of that class, of course they were very well-educated, even as children, so they're all talking like books and talking through books and enacting their favorite scenes from books. I loved that. I lived in books myself, and they did, too, only they were completely different books because they were from closer to the turn of the century, and they were British books. It was like being transported into another world that was just the friendliest, funniest, most charming world I could imagine. It's one of the reasons I wanted to go to London as soon as I got old enough to travel and go anywhere. I wanted to go to London. I wanted to be in that world. By then, it was quite different from the one she had written about.

Q What books are currently on your nightstand?

A Well, my nightstand, as I [said], I have "Books and My Food," and then the other one that — I just moved it from my nightstand to the "give this to some deserving person" pile — is Ann Patchett's "Commonwealth." I'm late to it; I think everybody else had finished it long ago. She did a fabulous job. [It's] just so absorbing about families and about women. I'm a big fan of hers, anyway, and I love how this moves through family life. ... It's like you're just on a boat sailing around in and out of these little inlets. It's all the same story, but you see it from so many perspectives, and you're never jolted into anything. You stay in the same sensibility the whole way, which is a wonderful way to read. Anyway, I just loved it. It's one of my favorite novels that I've read recently.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.

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