Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s aphorism “Tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are” is one of the most overused cliches in food culture, appearing everywhere from the opening sequence of Iron Chef to T-shirts and coffee mugs. But to the culinary historian Laura Shapiro, learning what someone ate is just the beginning of unlocking his or her identity.

“Tell me what you eat,” Shapiro imagines herself asking her subjects, “and then tell me whether you like to eat alone, and if you really taste the flavors of food or ignore them, or forget all about them a minute later. . . . Please, keep talking . . . and pretty soon, unlike Brillat-Savarin, I won’t have to tell you what you are. You’ll be telling me.”

In short, you can’t tell a life story without telling a food story, though it’s astonishing—to Shapiro, anyway—how many biographers try. Food provides a new way to consider people’s lives, not just their activities, but also their needs and how they care for others. This is especially true of women, who have, historically, been called upon to feed others. Shapiro’s three earlier books, Perfection Salad, Something From the Oven, and Julia Child: A Life, all considered the lives and work of women who changed the way Americans ate during the 20th century. Her latest, What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories, is an experiment in straight-up biography: the food stories of six famous women, only one of whom cooked professionally. Some never cooked at all—or ate, for that matter. But not eating is part of a food story too.

Her subjects are Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, diarist Dorothy Wordsworth, Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown, novelist Barbara Pym, and Rosa Lewis, the Cockney scullery maid who became one of the most celebrated caterers and hoteliers of Edwardian London. Each woman left a lengthy paper trail, which Shapiro followed faithfully to the very end, through archives and libraries on two continents. The amount of research that must have gone into this book is staggering: Wordworth’s barely legible early 19th-century diaries through Gurley Brown’s chatty, heavily italicized editor’s letters, with detours through endless menus, memoirs, correspondence, cookbooks, newspaper clippings, histories, and much, much more. Though each chapter is fewer than 50 pages, these aren’t biographical sketches: they are complete portraits.

Naturally, after spending so much time with people, even people who are dead, you tend to feel close to them (as Shapiro, a former alt-weekly journalist, points out, dead people never hang up on you). You want to refer to them informally, by their first names, as Shapiro does. Some, it’s obvious, were more congenial companions than others. Shapiro appears to feel the strongest kinship with Pym, who took notes at restaurants on what other people ate and filled her novels with meticulously described meals. “Tea plays so many symbolic roles,” Shapiro writes, “that another writer would have had to create a whole slew of walk-on characters to say what Barbara says with a cup.”

She also feels a deep appreciation for Wordsworth, who for years selflessly took care of her brother, William, and his family, during which she was determined to find joy and blessedness in every aspect of her life, even a disgusting black pudding. Dorothy discovered the upside of invalidism in late middle age—now everyone had to care for her for a change and, especially, cater to her incessant demands for food to satisfy her feelings of “faintness and hollowness” as she slid deeper into dementia.

This is far more understandable and less reprehensible than how Eva Braun, who became enamored of Hitler when she was just 17 (her first words to him, incidentally, were “Guten Appetit” as she served him Leberkäse, a Bavarian sausage), spent the second half of her life willfully creating her own glamorous reality, in which Hitler didn’t call her because he was a neglectful boyfriend, not because he was busy invading most of Europe and killing millions of people. “For Eva,” Shapiro writes, “who was looking forward to starring in a movie about herself when the war was over—Hitler had promised—life itself was tantamount to a glass of champagne.”

Braun drank champagne because she was on a perpetual diet. So was Gurley Brown, who discovered dieting in the summer of 1959 at the ripe old age of 37. She was a successful ad copywriter, able to pay cash for a Mercedes-Benz 190 SL, but she was a failure as a woman because David Brown, whom she had targeted as the ideal husband, refused to set a wedding date. The Serenity Cocktail (“pineapple chunks, soybean oil, calcium lactate, vanilla, fresh milk, powdered milk, and brewer’s yeast”) did its magic, though—they finally made it to city hall that September—and after that, her greatest joy in eating came from the discipline of counting calories. Her favorite comfort food was sugar-free Jell-O prepared with one cup instead of four so, Shapiro writes, “the dense, rubbery results would deliver the strongest possible hint of chemical sweetening.”

Shapiro is bewildered, but also amused, by Gurley Brown’s refusal to reconcile her girlish self-image with the powerful editor and businesswoman she truly was. (Her chapter is, at certain points, laugh-out-loud funny.) Gloria Steinem once begged Helen “to say something strong and positive about herself—not coy, not flirtatious, but something that reflected the serious, complicated person who was in there, under the wig and makeup.” Helen tried, Shapiro reports, she really did, but the best she could do was “I’m skinny!”

The most poignant food story belongs to Roosevelt. At times it’s also nearly as funny as Gurley Brown’s. This is largely because of Henrietta Nesbitt, the inexperienced and, as it turned out, inept Hyde Park neighbor Roosevelt hired to be the White House housekeeper and who tortured FDR and various guests for a dozen years with overcooked meat and watery prune pudding. Other biographers, such as Blanche Wiesen Cook, have proposed that Roosevelt herself was indifferent to food and that Mrs. Nesbitt was her ongoing revenge against FDR, for both his 1918 affair that destroyed her entire sense of identity and, later, for forcing her to assume the role of First Lady. Shapiro sees it an entirely different way.

“Yes, asceticism was a strong aspect of her personality,” she writes, “but what’s striking about her culinary asceticism is that she practiced it chiefly in context of being wife to FDR. Inside the White House, she was apathetic about what was on her plate. Outside, we get glimpses of a very different Eleanor. . . . It was Eleanor, away from FDR and ensconced with the people she cherished, who discovered the delights of appetite.” Those were the meals, Shapiro writes, that Eleanor associated with love. It’s a devastating commentary on the Roosevelts’ marriage. But it also shows the power of a food story.  v