One of our favorite food memoirs of the year was Kim Severson’s Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life (Riverhead), which PW’s starred review called a “frank confessional memoir... Severson, food writer for the New York Times since 2004, attributes her culinary confidence to the tutelage of eight maternal figures, from the legendary to the not-so-famous.” The paperback comes out next March, and Severson, who has since left the New York food beat to be the paper’s Atlanta bureau chief, plans on touring her new region to talk about her book.
You could’ve written a chronological memoir, but instead, the book jumps back and forth, framed by eight “life lessons” you learned from cooks you met along the way. In the end, we do get a complete picture of your life that’s actually more satisfying than a linear biography might have been. Why did you decide to structure your book that way?
When I first started thinking about a book, I wanted to write about Marion Cunningham, and then I started thinking of other cooks who were going to fade from memory, who weren’t going to get their due. I thought I could write a book about them, but then I thought, maybe that’d be a nice long magazine piece. You know how sometimes you meet somebody at just the right moment? I realized each of these women were important to me, and I talked to my agent, Heather Schroeder at ICM, and she said why don’t you write about that? I’m very much a reluctant memoirist.
The cooks you write about are, generally speaking, highly regarded by the foodie establishment, except for Rachael Ray. I gather you think she may be misunderstood?
The food world needs heroes and villains and it’s convenient to dismiss her. But she’s a pretty darned good home cook, is energetic and prolific, and a lot of people learn to cook from her. I don’t love all her recipes by any means, but I do think she’s misunderstood. I spent some time recently with Paula Deen. As she pointed out, somebody said to her, ‘How can you advocate [cooking unhealthy food]?’, and she said, ‘It’s television, y’all.’ I think Rachael’s shtick is very similar. She’s appealing to a segment of the population that Anthony Bourdain doesn’t appeal to.
It is true that there is only a certain amount of her that one can take at any time. But there’s also an authenticity to her. She came over to dinner at my house and my dishwasher had broken the night before. She was the first one who got up from the dinner table and she did all the dishes.
You write about telling Ruth Reichl that she was going to be in your book, but what about the other women? Any noteworthy reactions?
Marcella [Hazan] was not happy with it, I’ll say that. We got a request from her daughter-in-law to review the book, saying ‘We will tell the other side of the story.’ And Ruth [Reichl] actually had a little bit of a thin skin. She at first was taken aback by my portrayal of her but then she read the whole book, and called me and said, ‘You know, your truth is as good as mine.’
You write about the somewhat disappointing experience of interviewing Marcella Hazan, considering she was someone whose books you prized. Do you think there’s a danger in interviewing someone who you deeply admire?
When I’m [interviewing someone] with my Times hat on, I’m representing the institution. As much as I admire them, I really take that role seriously. It’s a great kind of shield. But when you’re writing a memoir you have to examine your own feelings. There’s a shift when you put on a memoirist hat. It’s easy for me to put on the hat that says I’m a member of the press. It’s way different when it’s a memoir.
How was it meeting readers on your book tour?
It’s amazing to me how many people came up to me and said, ‘My mom just died,’ or ‘I need to get sober,’ or ‘What’s Rachael Ray like?’ Those were the three things I got most often.