In this column, Alexis Coe, Lenny’s historian at large, conducts Q&As with authors and specialists in archives across the country, focusing on one primary source. For this post, Alexis spoke with Laura Shapiro, author of What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women & the Food that Tells Their Stories. Alexis and Laura discuss Dorothy Wordsworth — sister, muse, and companion to the Romantic poet William Wordsworth — in whose diaries Laura found a quiet revelation. (Read Alexis’s previous columns here and here. Read Laura’s piece for Lenny about America’s first celebrity dieter, Fannie Hurst, here.)
Alexis Coe: “Food talks — but somebody has to hear it,” you write in the introduction to What She Ate, and that’s just what happened to you one sleepless night. Hoping it would lull you to sleep, you revisited a Dorothy Wordsworth biography, but had quite the opposite effect! A seemingly mundane note about black pudding, “that stodgy mess of blood and oatmeal,” completely energized you. Why do you think you were ready, at that moment, to hear it?
Laura Shapiro: I’ve been thinking about food my whole life and writing about it practically that long, so there’s pretty much always a corner of my imagination that’s busy wondering about what people are eating and why. It’s like the security system on my computer, performing “background tasks” while I’m working on whatever I’m working on. And then on top of this, the night I was reading the Dorothy biography, I happened to be in that kind of altered state that comes with insomnia. As I sat there with the book, I felt as though all the ecstasy of her life in Dove Cottage was just pouring out of those pages and flooding into me. She was in paradise, plain and simple. And paradise was full of food, lovely and heartrending food — a rhubarb tart baked for William, his bowl of broth, his bitten apple. So when that mention of black pudding came along, it was a real shock. It landed, splat, in front of me like a big nasty blot from a leaky pen.
AC: Dorothy Wordsworth, like too many women in history with proximity to “Great Men,” is generally studied because she served as an eyewitness, not as a being worthy of her own study. Dorothy was valuable because she was close to her brother, William, who wrote “The Prelude,” widely considered to be the greatest poem in English romanticism; she often lived with him, serving as a sounding board as much as a housekeeper, and they corresponded when she didn’t. But (mostly) male historians consider the kind of primary sources Dorothy left behind to be about “women’s work,” like cooking, housekeeping, and child care, and they peruse pages for nothing more than a passing reference to her famous brother. The rest is edited out and generally overlooked. And “women’s work” is what you were after when you sought out Dorothy’s “black pudding” journal entry at the Wordsworth library at Grasmere. What did you find?
LS: What I found, and this was both frustrating and fascinating, was exactly what had been quoted in the biography — “Dined on black puddings.” What I had been hoping for, of course, was much more. I wanted her to tell me everything she was thinking when she looked down at that plate, and I wanted a detailed description of the black pudding, too. Instead, Dorothy simply dropped that brief mention onto the page, along with a couple of other notes on what she did that day. It was utterly impersonal, not a trace of emotion or introspection or beautiful writing. In other words, it was the opposite of The Grasmere Journals, and as soon as I realized that, I knew I had the key to understanding it.