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05.28.10

A Life in Food

A food critic and journalist has just penned a memoir telling her life story through the chefs she admires and how they helped her. John Douglas Marshall talks gumbo and Alice Waters with Kim Severson.

There have been pear tarts and plum assignments galore as Kim Severson honed her craft as the food writer with the most prestigious newspaper gig on the West Coast (San Francisco Chronicle) and then the East Coast (The New York Times). She has written about farmers and fishermen, chefs and restaurateurs, food controversies and quandaries and the impact of Hurricane Katrina on culinary life in New Orleans. But through a dozen years of prominent food articles and a growing reputation, Severson still had not answered: Did she have what it takes to go longer and concoct a tasty success between book covers?

Severson answers that now with her engaging debut memoir, Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life. Its subtitle suggests more than a smidgen of publisher hype, but Severson’s unlikely personal story contains many challenging ingredients—dire problems with alcohol and drugs; recurring thoughts of suicide; years of isolation as a young gay person who kept that secret from family and friends; a vast reservoir of insecurity even as her career started to skyrocket, plus sobriety requiring daily prayer. Finally, there was this new challenge: No more hiding behind the journalist’s observer-only mask.

Reichl "opened up food writing to a world in which love, angst, joy—essentially all of life—could be played out over a good, steamy pot-au-feu.”

“For a memoir to be authentic, you have to be truthful, so I had to tell all this embarrassing shit about me,” Severson says in Seattle. “But as a journalist, it is kind of weird being your whole source material . . . My biggest challenge with the book was my editor asking repeatedly, ‘How did that make you feel?’ At the Times, they don’t give a shit about how I feel. In fact, I usually try not to let them know that, so all this talk of my interior landscape is still hard for me.”

book-cover---marshall-cooks
Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life. By Kim Severson. 242 pages. Riverhead. $25.95. ()

Spoon Fed may feature Kim Severson as the main course, but it also includes insider side dish on such female food stars as Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl, Marcella Hazan and, surprisingly, Rachel Ray, these profiles enriched both by Severson’s personal interviews and later friendships with some of her subjects. Waters, the force behind Berkeley’s influential Chez Panisse, is described by Severson as “the most ridiculously uncompromising, true-blue person I have ever met in the food world.” Reichl, who went from Times’ restaurant critic to Gourmet editor and bestselling author, receives this summation: “Although many people still have a deep dislike for her, both for what can seem an imperious aura and for her elastic treatment of fact, plenty of people (me included) admire that she changed the nature of restaurant reviewing in this country permanently and for the better. She opened up food writing to a world in which love, angst, joy—essentially all of life—could be played out over a good, steamy pot-au-feu.”

Spoon Fed includes a separate life lesson gleaned from each of Severson’s eight kitchen “heroes” (including her mother whose cooking honored her Italian heritage), as well as a treasured recipe. This approach verges toward memoir-marketing construct, especially since Severson concedes many lessons only came to her while writing the book. Spoon Fed eloquently champions the importance of cooking and the family table even in the microwave age. It also highlights some worthy approaches to life. Leah Chase—an 80-year-old dynamo who had her landmark New Orleans’ restaurant (Dooky Chase) devastated by Hurricane Katrina and endured a torturous restoration process—tells Severson: “I just think that God pitches us a low, slow curve. But He doesn’t want us to strike out. I think everything he throws at you is testing your strength . . .I tell you, I think I had more tears in the gumbo pot than I had gumbo. But you just cry and you keep moving. It’s not fair to put your hurt on somebody else.”

The most compelling character in Spoon Fed is Severson. The 48-year-old writer comes across, in the book and in person, as an enviable companion—funny, skeptical, profane, self-aware, down-to-earth, serious, bemused, grateful to others. She may patrol the haute foodie world, with its raging egos and sacrosanct trends, but she readily admits fondness for potato chips and dip made from Lipton’s onion soup mix. Her title is “food writer” yet Severson considers herself a muddy boots reporter. Her “most memorable” experiences on the beat reflect that.

“I remember going out with a shrimper after Katrina, a real Bubba Gump moment,” Severson says. “He lived in a crowded one-bedroom with his family. This good ol’ boy had the only boat out in the Gulf then, smoking a Kool and pulling huge loads of shrimp and blue crab from the water. We were eating them raw on the boat while his life was hanging by a thread. I always think at such moments, ‘What kind of job I have! This is where I get to be!’ Or writing about an 80-year-old woman who has a special recipe for a 16-layer chocolate cake—it’s a privilege to be with such people.”

That Severson started down this career path on a fluke makes her ascendancy even sweeter. She was a social issues reporter in Alaska when she volunteered to cover restaurants (“being the restaurant critic in Anchorage is not unlike being the best ballerina in Lubbock, Texas”). She quit abusing alcohol and drugs more than 11 years ago and also left behind midnight visions of suicide—momentous developments on the eve of her departure for California where she made her name. Severson has worked for the Times since 2004 and is settled into married life in Brooklyn with Katia Hetter, a writer for Newsday, and their 2-year-old daughter.

Much has changed, but much remains the same for Severson. As she writes, “I have a state school education, a drinking problem and I like girls, not boys. I don’t tan well, and I’m always 15 pounds too heavy. I’m not so great with money and I sometimes act before I think. But I’m also (most days) a helpful citizen of the world. I’ve got a pretty good sense of humor and a decent softball arm. And I have gotten pretty good at being a daughter, a wife, a friend and, lately, a mother.”

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John Douglas Marshall is a critic for The Daily Beast. He was the longtime book critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until it ceased publication in March.