In 'Spoon Fed,' 'New York Times' food writer Kim Severson shares how famous cooks helped her

Kim Severson is not used to being on the answer end of the questions, and it feels a little weird to her.

The award-winning New York Times food writer is usually the one poking around in someone else's kitchen or sifting through their memories. But she has turned the tables on herself with her memoir Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life (Riverhead Books), which will be published Thursday. Now Severson is on the phone-interview and book-signing circuit, having to put up with someone else doing the probing.

How hard was it to bare your soul? (Hard.) Were there people who didn't know you had a drinking problem? (Not really.) How did your family feel about sharing the circumstances of your coming out? (Very supportive.) How old are you? (She's 48.)

Though Spoon Fed weaves together Severson's interviews with the most influential women in the American culinary landscape, it is ultimately the tale of a talented writer battling the scourge of the successful: self-doubt. It is a poignant story told with Severson's trademark humor and open-armed love of family and friends. Grab a few tissues, it's that sweet. If you're in need of life lessons, you'll find some to suit you. Spoon Fed pays homage to some remarkable women and whether Severson believes it or not, she is one, too.

"I didn't realize it was going to be so personal until I started writing," she said by phone last week. "It was like unraveling a sweater."

Severson takes us behind the scenes on her interviews to reveal what was going on in her life at the time and how these smart, successful women provided transformative insight. She didn't really know it then, but as she began to collect her thoughts for the book, the theme became clear.

It wasn't just the newspaper readers who had been enlightened by her associations with and stories about famous foodies. Severson met and talked with many but her book focuses on Marion Cunningham, friend of James Beard and the woman who updated the Fannie Farmer Cookbook; Alice Waters, kick-starter of the American food revolution; Ruth Reichl, former New York Times food critic and editor of now-defunct Gourmet magazine; New Orleans restaurateur Leah Chase; Southern cooking doyenne Edna Lewis; the Food Network's Rachael Ray; and Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan. Severson's mother, Anne Marie Severson, completes the eight and it was she who taught her daughter to love cooking.

But Rachael Ray? The omnipresent dervish of TV cooking land?

"Some people may be surprised Rachael Ray is in there," Severson says. But Ray's transition from upstate New York Price Chopper demonstrations to global celebrity struck a chord with Severson. She had become a small swimmer in the vast pond of New York, too. Ray's lesson to Severson? Be yourself.

Lessons learned

After a reporting stint at the Anchorage Daily News in the late 1990s, Severson landed a job at the San Francisco Chronicle, which publishes one of the nation's best food sections. (At the department's most robust, a rooftop herb garden and a 20,000-bottle wine cellar were installed.) It was then she decided to tackle her drinking problem, which created another problem: How to write about food in the land of wine? She figured it out and flourished, getting chummy with Cunningham and Waters. Cunningham, who took on the Fannie Farmer Cookbook in her 50s, was one of Severson's first stories at the Chronicle. Cunningham spoke about never being too old to start over, and for the recently sober Severson, that was an important message.

The New York Times wooed her away in 1994 and opened the door to more culinary trailblazers. She interviewed Chase after her New Orleans' restaurant Dooky Chase was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Chase taught her that sometimes only prayer will pull you through. An afternoon at Hazan's Longboat Key condo, looking out on the Gulf of Mexico, provided wisdom about expectations and some cool ideas about how to get the most out of a tiny kitchen. Someday, Severson says, when she has lots of money, she'll too install shallow drawers for baking dishes where the cabinet kick plates are.

Severson was assigned Reichl's old desk at the New York Times, and that ghost loomed large. To Severson, Reichl was the most popular girl in class and, well, she wasn't. Reichl, who is now working with a screenwriter to bring her food critic memoir Garlic and Sapphires to the big screen, eventually convinced Severson that she was plenty good enough and didn't need to compare herself to anyone else.

For Severson's regular readers, it's hard to imagine that she would be filled with such doubt. In the culinary scene, she is the one with The Job, the passport into the most exciting, cutting edge kitchens in the country.

"Everybody has self-doubt," she says. Though eight women helped Severson wash some away, it still needles her now and again.

"How'd I do?" she says at the end of the interview. Answering all these questions is just a little weird, but she handles them the same way she writes: with ease.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8586.

In 'Spoon Fed,' 'New York Times' food writer Kim Severson shares how famous cooks helped her 04/13/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 12, 2010 7:03pm]

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