About a dozen years ago, food writer Kim Severson had the opportunity of her career: a chance to write for the San Francisco Chronicle in the backyard of America's wine country. But she also had a secret: She was a newly recovering alcoholic.
Severson's book, "Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life," now out in paperback, chronicles her journey from early sobriety to stability and from the San Francisco Chronicle to The New York Times. She tells of the effect eight women had in her life, including her mom; the food world's den mother, cookbook author Marion Cunningham; the Food Network's Rachael Ray and former Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl.
Severson, 49, who has won four James Beard Foundation awards - the Pulitzer Prizes of food journalism - is now the Atlanta bureau chief for The New York Times. She lives in Decatur, Ga., with her partner, Katia, and 3-year-old daughter, Sammy. She sat down to talk about her book and the changes she has witnessed in the food world while in town last week for Orange County Literacy Council's Writers for Readers event.
Severson started our conversation with this statement: "I do really believe you can tell any story through food. You know the way the pita bakeries in Egypt are going to develop or not develop now that [President Hosni] Mubarak is gone. You can tell that revolution through food. ...You can tell real estate collapse stories through food. Any stories that are happening, I think food is a great entrance."
Q: Since you started as a food writer, how has the food world changed? I started writing about food before Michael Pollan was Michael Pollan.... It was the late '90s when [the organic laws] got written. That was a big revolution. Now here we are: Organic issues are international trade issues. ...You have Michelle Obama and the head of Walmart saying, "Vegetables. Local food. We really want those to happen." You couldn't even imagine that under the Bush White House and under that era, that time. It seems like it's not changing. It seems like everybody is eating McDonald's and we're all getting fatter. But I think really it is. It's been a short period of time that this has happened.
Q: Where did the idea for the book come from? It started because I wanted to write about older cookbook authors who I thought were going to be lost in the Eater, Grub Street churn that we were in. I thought I would write a profile of Marion Cunningham who did the Fannie Farmer cookbook and was sort of the mother-confessor to all the California cuisine people. People like her and Paula Wolfert. ... Then I thought: Well, maybe that's not quite enough to sustain a book. So I thought: Who do I know? Who have I met? Who would I like to write about? That's how it started.
Q: What reaction has the book gotten? Ruth [Reichl] initially was taken aback by what I wrote. We came to a place where she said: "I realize your truth is just as valid as mine."
What is amazing to me is I get a lot of parents who have kids in recovery or have drinking problems or kids who are gay. They buy [the book] for them. They come up to me and they are like, "I'm buying this for my daughter. We haven't been able to talk to her about her life." That's been incredibly moving. It's kind of a humbling thing. ...Then I have had a lot of people in the food world - high and low who go, "How did you know you had a drinking problem?"
Q: Other than Ruth's, what was the reaction of the subjects in the book? I let [my family] read it. I said, 'Let me know if you want to change anything.' ... My mom did. She wanted me to soften the story about her dad. She didn't want her brothers or sisters to feel embarrassed. She said, 'I didn't know you were going through all that, and why didn't you tell me?' which is a classic mom reaction. My dad was like, 'So I was a crappy parent, huh?' I said, 'No dad. You're good.' It brought me closer to my parents.
Rachael Ray was really funny. She's just such a mensch. She had me on her show. She said, "I didn't read the chapter on me. I never read it. I never read it." Then later she said, "You know it was the only thing I read in that book."... People are really like "Why did you put her in?" But the way Marion Cunningham taught a lot of people to cook, she has taught a lot of people to cook. The girl's heart is way in the right place. It's amazing the amount of money she gives away. ... I have a huge amount of respect for her.
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