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Laura Shapiro interview (Missouri Literary Festival)

Laura Shapiro--food historian, food critic, columnist, and author of Julia Child: A Life--is one of the many writers participating in the Missouri Literary Festival, a celebration of arts, literature and literacy, Oct.2-4 at Hammons Field and the Creamery Arts Center. KSMU’s Randy Stewart talked with her last week by phone from her home in New York.

Laura Shapiro began her writing career in the “alternative” press in Boston in the early 1970s, when, she says, what’s called the “alternative” press “really was an alternative.” She worked for a newspaper that called itself The Real Paper. The employees there considered it a “writer’s paper” because of the freedom they had to write about whatever they wanted, “at all times, without regard to hear or favor--or,” Shapiro recalls with a chuckle, “even fact!” “But it was a great way to learn.” She enjoyed the freedom of making her mistakes in public, luckily before a very “patient” readership. And what resulted were “a lot of voices and a lot of great coverage about issues of the time.” Shapiro’s beat was the women’s movement, and she says she “had a great time.”

After that Shapiro spent 15 years as a writer and columnist for Newsweek, which she calls “a very dramatic turnaround for me. I suddenly had to not only obey all of the traditional laws of journalism--I had to learn them!” Soon she saw that there was a real benefit to the “straight press,” as people from the “alternative” side called it; she learn a great deal at Newsweek about “how to be brief, how to get to the point, and how to tell a story coherently.”

Shapiro was initially assigned the “arts” beat at Newsweek, namely books, dance, occasionally theater. Wile there Shapiro published her first book on American culinary history, Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century. She says her interest in writing about food evolved from her writing about the women’s movement at The Real Paper, for which she often did research at Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library, one of the country’s foremost collections of women’s history. But they also have a culinary collection with cookbooks and other works about food. It occurred to Shapiro that life in the kitchen was a very important element in women’s lives: “Most women spend far more time” in the kitchen than in the bedroom, but the latter was far better documented and studied! “And from that came my first book, Perfection Salad” in 1986. “Since then, my whole approach to writing about food has always been: who’s doing the cooking, how does that affect what is cooked?”

The publication of Shapiro’s book piqued her bosses’ interest at Newsweek. They decided it was high time they had a food writer. They were a bit behind the curve, says Shapiro. “By that time every magazine in the country had a food writer except Newsweek!” So “they added the food beat to my portfolio.”

Is Perfection Salad more of a social history than a book about food? Shapiro feels it’s really a combination of the two. “I don’t think you can tell the story of food… without also telling a social history… who was cooking, who was eating, and why were they doing it the way they did.”

Asked how food writing and criticism have evolved over the years, Shapiro says there’s so much more writing and thinking about food now than there was 25 years ago. In the 1980s, she says, “food writing was all really about recipes… and not much else.” But as “people have cooked more, and widened their horizons about what they’re cooking, and where they’re going for food, and thinking about restaurants, the writing about food has followed right along in this huge sweep.”

In addition to Perfection Salad, Laura Shapiro has also published Something From the Oven, and Julia Child: A Life, which is what’s bringing her to the Missouri Literary Festival in Springfield in early October. She says nothing makes her happier than the renewed interest in Julia Child brought about by the new Meryl Streep film Julie and Julia. “I love seeing Julia make a comeback” to a generation that may know her name, but really didn’t experience the phenomenon of Julia Child’s influential television career when it was at its peak and may not be aware of Julia’s “greatness--not just her greatness in the kitchen, but her greatness as a character in American culinary history.” Shapiro still marvels at how Julia Child’s “honesty and integrity and humor and intelligence just beamed across… when she was on television. Nobody was immune to that ‘Julia effect’! People turned on their televisions (and) they saw this 6-foot, 2-inch woman who was in her 50s, who did not have any of the sort of traditional ‘blonde babe’ sort of television looks… and she started talking about what she was going to cook, and you were riveted and charmed, and you fell in love.” Virtually from her first TV appearance in 1963, stations were deluged with letters saying, “We love her! Bring her back!”

Indeed, Laura Shapiro is coming to the Missouri Literary Festival specifically to talk about her Julia Child biography. She says “the happiest assignment in the world is to talk about Julia! She had an incredibly interesting life. She’s one of the rare food people who deserves the many books that have been written about her… there will be more, and there should be more, because she is just a great big interesting character.”