|Kim Severson of the New York Times|
The first time I saw Kim Severson, she held an audience of food bloggers and photographers in the palm of her hand, critiquing story ideas and acting like the editor we all needed. She even told one brave writer, after dismissing her story idea, “I’m tearing you down to build you up.”
That was in January at the FoodBlog South conference at Woodrow Hall in Birmingham, where she was the featured speaker, the big draw in a weekend program that included noted cookbook authors, food stylists and photographers. Severson was the author we waited all day to hear. Some, like me, had read her memoir, “Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life” (Riverhead, 2010) and were looking forward to tales of her food writing career in San Francisco, where she worked at the Chronicle, and New York, at the Times. I think we were all a little surprised, and happily, when she gave a perfectly nice speech about her book, then removed the microphone from the stand and, pacing across the stage and walking into the audience, she questioned us and presided over an impromptu editorial meeting.
“Spoon Fed” is a collection of profiles of eight female cooks, some of them writers, whom Severson has known throughout her life and career. She begins with Marion Cunningham, best known as the writer behind the revised Fanny Farmer Cookbook, (she was also James Beard’s assistant). Other chapters are devoted to Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, former Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl, Italian cookbook author (and authority) Marcella Hazan, Southern cooking legend (and late-in-life Georgian) Edna Lewis, New Orleans restaurateur Leah Chase, Food Network’s Rachael Ray and Severson’s mother, Anne-Marie Zappa Severson. As Severson tells their stories, her own life is revealed - struggles with alcohol, teenage experimentation with drugs, failed relationships, coming out to her family, career insecurities, spiritual questioning, and ultimately acceptance and a successful relationship with her partner, with whom she has a young daughter.
Severson is out of the daily food writing game – since November, she’s worked as the New York Times bureau chief in Atlanta, on the national desk. During this time, she’s written about the lack of internet access in rural Alabama, abandoned civil rights buses, and, memorably for Atlantans, the recent controversy over Chick-fil-A’s contribution to a conservative marriage workshop. Yes, the Jesus chicken story. I spoke with Severson by phone a few weeks ago and we talked about her switch from food writing to hard news and telling the story of her life so far.
A Cook’s Question: Do you miss writing about food? How do you like working the national desk?
Severson: Even though I’m writing straight news, I’m putting food in my stories. I include food because it is part of our lives. And I do see straight food writing in my future.
A Cook’s Question: Before you worked at the New York Times, you were a food writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. This seems like a foodie’s dream job. Was it intimidating to taste and give your opinion?
Severson: I keep wondering why I leave these great jobs! We had these smart young interns from the culinary school cooking great food that we got to taste.
[In the tasting] You would hold back at first; it takes a rare and brave person to step up and speak first. After awhile, you start speaking up and find your voice. It’s a freeing thing. It is just food, after all.
A Cook’s Question: I noticed in your stories from “Spoon Fed” and also in your work for the New York Times, an affinity for old people. For example, the Spoon Fed stories about Edna Lewis and Marion Cunningham, and the NYT piece you wrote about Chef Thomas Keller and his aging father.
Severson: You know, I see my own parents aging. You think they don’t know anything and then you realize that they know everything, and that ok, life is complex. As a writer, I have an obligation to capture stories before they pass on. For the Thomas Keller story, it was writing about someone at the top of his game and seeing another chapter in his life. (The piece tracks the reunion of Keller with the father who abandoned his family when the chef was a child, and their relationship until the end of his father's life.)
A Cook’s Question: "Spoon Fed” traces your relationship with eight cooks, one of them family, the others famous women in food. Along the way, you tell your story. Did you intend to tell your life story, too?
Severson: The book I started out to write was to make a record of these women who influenced me. They have a big role in how we eat today. But I learned lessons along the way - people come into your life when you need to learn something.
A Cook’s Question: Were you uncomfortable about telling so much about your personal life?
Severson: My editor told me that to tell a good story, you have to tell the truth. For about two weeks (after she’d sent in the manuscript), I was in agony. It was much more personal than I intended. I thought “Oh my God, what have I done?” Then my friend Frank Bruni (current NYT reporter, former Times restaurant critic), who had just written his memoir of growing up fat, “Born Round,” told me, “You took the check, you wrote good work, now put on your big girl panties. And so I did.”
A Cook’s Question: How did you like the transition from straightforward journalism to memoir? Can we expect more books from you?
Severson: I realized that I was my own resource and it was freeing. I liked it after awhile. I may write fiction in the future. And right now I’m working on a cookbook with my friend Julia Moskin.
Further reading: Each chapter in "Spoon Fed" includes a recipe - I attempted Gumbo Z'herbes from the essay on New Orleans' Leah Chase.
Atlantans, note: Severson will be the guest author at Restaurant Eugene’s seventh author dinner on Tuesday, May 3. The evening will begin at 6:30 p.m. with a cocktail and hors d’oeuvres reception. Chef Linton Hopkins will prepare a four-course menu, with pairings, inspired by the cooks in “Spoon Fed.” Severson will attend to read from her book and sign and answer questions. $100 per person, includes a copy of Spoon Fed. Reservations are required, call 404-355-0321.
Text copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.
Images are from KimSeverson.com.