Laura Shapiro’s new book, succinctly titled What She Ate, explores the lives of six very different women through the intimate and sensuous optic of food.
We learn about these women from their gustatory appetites and aversions. Why Eleanor Roosevelt, a deeply unhappy first lady, served the worst food in White House history, and why the otherwise iconoclastic Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown watched over her 105-pound figure with an anorexic angst. There is a profoundly moving profile of Dorothy Wordsworth, the classic unselfish spinster of English letters, who, after spending a life in service to her beloved brother, William, descended into an old age ravaged by dementia, obesity, and raging tantrums for butter; and a sympathetic one of Rosa Lewis, the cockney scullery maid who rose to become the king’s favored cook, but whose lavish culinary style of gravy-soaked quail pies couldn’t survive the First World War. An offbeat but delightful inclusion is the largely forgotten writer Barbara Pym, whose delicate novels draw us into an English pastoral of vicarage teas, blancmange, and boiled chicken served in a “muffling” of soft, cold, white sauce.
But the most curious name on the list is that of Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun.
Braun is, by any measure, a startling member of this club of “remarkable women” – to quote from the book’s subtitle. She gets the reader’s attention at once, even as one guiltily questions her tabloid allure over the others’ far more impressive achievements. After all, isn’t it somewhat flippant to focus on the dietary whims of Hitler’s mistress when millions starved to death because of him?
The answer is, not when you have an accomplished food writer like Shapiro for a guide. At the very outset, Shapiro highlights the “moral distance” between Braun and her other five subjects. She sets the story of Braun’s appetites – and Hitler’s food oddities – against that of the war and Holocaust, intertwining the two narratives into a penetrating essay that neither romanticizes nor gratuitously indicts Braun.
A bourgeois teenager from Munich, Germany, Braun was uninterested in politics until one fateful morning in 1929, when her employer, a devout Nazi in whose photography studio she worked, asked her to run out to buy some beer and Leberkäse (a Bavarian sausage) for an important guest who had just walked in. Braun, who was only 17, returned with the food and drink and served it to the guest, a 40-year-old man with “blue eyes and a scrubby mustache.”
“Guten Appetit,” she said.
“They were the first words she ever spoke to Hitler,” writes Shapiro. “Then she blushed.”
Within a few years of that meeting, the blonde, blue-eyed and slim-hipped Braun had become first lady of the Third Reich. Utterly in thrall to her mustached lover, she complained constantly to Dear Diary that he wasn’t spending enough time with her (he was busy rearming Germany and drafting the pernicious Nuremberg Laws). A suicide attempt to get his attention worked wonders. Hitler set her up in a spacious Munich house accoutered with monogrammed linen, a maid, special deliveries of freshly plundered Ukrainian bacon, and a cellar bubbling with Moët et Chandon. Champagne was “the celebratory leitmotif” of the occupation of France, writes Shapiro. “It was the social fuel of the Reich.”
Despite her lover’s largesse, Braun had to live with the ignominy of not being allowed to be seen with him in public. (Hitler wanted to be portrayed as a Spartan singleton wedded to the cause of Deutschland über alles.) The only time Braun could appear on his arm as “chief consort” was when she was playing host to his inner circle, usually at their exclusive Alpine retreat, the Berghof. There, she blossomed.
Presiding over these intimate luncheons and dinners became the most treasured part of her day. The food itself was unimportant to her. It was prepared by a cook — Braun was no hausfrau fretting over the dumplings. It was the social recognition she hankered after. At these meals, she could take her rightful place as heroine of the national pageant she was otherwise banished from, and revel in her role as – to quote from her rapturous diary – “the mistress of Germany’s and the world’s greatest man.”
“What emerges most vividly in Eva’s relationship to food,” writes Shapiro, “is her powerful commitment to fantasy. She was swathed in it, eating and drinking at Hitler’s table in a perpetual enactment of her own daydreams.”
But though she smiled tirelessly into the camera and twirled around in her Ferragamo heels and diamond jewelry, Braun couldn’t mask the isolation and insecurity that consumed her. One person who saw through her brittle façade was Albert Speer, Hitler’s star architect, who developed what he called “a liking for this unhappy woman, who was so deeply attached to Hitler.” In his memoirs, Speer, who was a regular guest at the Berghof, described the ritual of pre-lunch drinks on the terrace. Liveried attendants with impeccable manners would hand out champagne, cognac, vermouth, soda and fruit juice to the ladies stretched out on reclining chairs. (A home movie captures one of these evenings.) When Hitler’s entrance was announced, a frisson would pass through the group. Having made his guests wait for hours, the Führer would appear, paunchy and affable, hamming up his Dear Leader role, asking after everyone’s kids. Then he would lead the way to dinner, alone, not with Eva on his arm. But at table, she always sat on his left. This was her moment of glory.
The talk at table never descended to anything as coarse as mass murder, but circled around the theater and opera. Once, writes Shapiro, “an argument broke out at the table about the best way to make Bavarian meatballs. The Führer urged all the ladies to go right into the kitchen and prepare their own versions so that the men could compare them. Soon the table was laden with meatballs, some of them rolling about haphazardly.”
This cozy idyll of bucolic bliss makes for a smarmy vignette, underpinned as it is by the genocide being simultaneously rolled out in a manner that was anything but haphazard. Shapiro contrasts the Berghof bounty with the “saga of starvation” that defined the Third Reich, searingly evoked in the images of “concentration camp prisoners, skeletal on an allotment of filthy soup and scraps of bread.” The repast the Nazi elite dined on bore not the slightest hint of privation. At the Berghof, guests were treated to individual pats of butter, fresh salads, different kinds of sausage, white bread, roast pork, braised beef, omelets, apple strudel, and imported oranges, all washed down with rivers of champagne.
Ironically, though, the hosts barely touched these rich foods. Hitler had a special vegetarian tray brought to him, while Braun was always watching her weight. “She treated food as a kind of servant whose most important job was to keep her thin,” writes Shapiro. “Indeed, the only aspect of Hitler’s life that she found repulsive was his heavy vegetarian diet.” (When she met him, he had not yet switched to his meatless diet). Emollient on almost every other front, she was unbending when confronted with mashed potatoes and linseed oil. She was equally turned off by Hitler’s gluttonous capacity for sweets – he was known to eat up to two pounds of pralines a day to calm his nerves.
But if Braun shunned the pork and pastries, she readily indulged her love of champagne. Champagne was the sparkling drug that nourished her delusions. “Passive, faithful, and decorative,” she lived in a world of “make-believe morality,” writes Shapiro.
How much did she know of the camps and the ovens? It’s hard to tell. She lived in a “comfortable bubble,” and bubbles, though thin-skinned, are shame-proof. When the bubble threatened to burst, a magnum of Moët steadied it. Braun drank champagne every day and everywhere – with her sister every night, in her dressing gown with Hitler in his study, at the Berghof lunches, and finally, on her wedding day, the day before she died.
The wedding ceremony took place in the early morning hours of April 29, 1945, in Hitler’s underground bunker. As the Russians closed in and Berlin crashed and burned around them, Hitler was a quivering mess, desperately eating cake to keep calm, but Braun remained completely serene – and loyal to the last. On April 30, lunch was served – spaghetti and tomato sauce – but she ate nothing. She was busy changing into what Hitler’s secretary called “the Führer’s favorite dress, the black one with the roses at the neckline.” Finally alone, the newlyweds sat together on the sofa. Hitler shot himself. Image-conscious Braun, who wanted her corpse to be beautiful, chose a less disfiguring device. The last thing she swallowed was a cyanide capsule.
“Eva’s food story,” writes Shapiro, in an astute and empathetic last line, “is how often, and how easily, she died.”
Nina Martyris is a journalist based in Knoxville, Tenn.