Culinary historian judges people by their plate in a new book, including a first lady

Author Laura Shapiro
Author Laura Shapiro

You are what you eat.

Laura Shapiro, a culinary historian, believes this so sincerely that she writes biographies about famous and sort-of-famous people based on the food they consumed, served and in some cases avoided.

It’s an unconventional approach. But in “What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women & the Food That Tells Their Stories” (Viking, $27), it works — deliciously.

By studying a woman’s taste buds, you apparently can understand her psyche and her soul. Who knew?

Shapiro profiles an eclectic group: Helen Gurley Brown (Cosmopolitan editor), Dorothy Wordsworth (sister of poet William Wordsworth), Barbara Pym (novelist), Rosa Lewis (Edwardian-era caterer), Eleanor Roosevelt (first lady) and Eva Braun (Hitler’s mistress).

The most entertaining chapter is about Roosevelt, who was notorious for serving the worst food in White House history.

“She looked on approvingly as the White House kitchen turned out platter after grim platter of creamed codfish, chipped beef, chicken a la king and stuffed-prune salad,” Shapiro tells us. “Everyone in Washington knew the rule: When invited to dine with the Roosevelts, eat before you go.”

But consider the politically savvy reason for a humdrum menu: “Eleanor didn’t want the public to think that the new administration was staging some sort of bacchanal in the midst of the Depression.”

Also new in bookstores

“The Painted Queen” by Elizabeth Peters and Joan Hess (William Morrow, $27.99). Peters, a trained Egyptologist, died in 2013 before finishing her last Amelia Peabody adventure. Hess, a close friend, completed the tale, which involves an iconic bust of Nefertiti.

“Deadfall” by Linda Fairstein (Dutton, $28). Last year’s “Killer Look” closed with a cliffhanger: prosecutor Alexandra Cooper cradling the body of D.A. Paul Battaglia, who was assassinated. This book picks up just hours later, with a case in which Coop is actually a suspect.

“The Wildling Sisters” by Eve Chase (Putnam, $27). Start with four sisters spending the summer in an English country house (where five years earlier a girl went missing). Add two desirable boys, teen crushes and sibling jealousy. Inevitable result: a murder cover-up.