So I just got through reading Spoon Fed, the quasi-memoir by New York Times food writer Kim Severson. It’s an interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying experience. Spoon Fed is a memoir of Kim Severson’s life and the eight cooks that influenced her. It tries to achieve a balance between talking about the women who impacted Kim Severson and Kim Severson herself. It ends up falling a little short on both ends.
Where the book is strongest is when Kim shines a light on herself and especially her writing process. The narrative thread is strongest there. Severson is great at talking about what influences her and how she approaches a piece on a particular person. One challenge is that the book jumps around from influence to influence and time period to time period. It ends up being hard to know how the things relate to each other because of the tangled chronology.
I’ll take this review chapter by chapter because there’s such an evenness that some chapters shine and others struggle.
This is one of the better chapters where Severson goes in-depth on her battle with substance abuse and her personal journey in becoming a food writer. We really see her journey to find herself and her writing voice. You can clearly see Marion Cunningham’s influence on her as a former alcoholic herself. You get a sense of Marion’s reach into the food world by sheer force of her nurturing personality. One weakness is that Severson just drops one tiny chink in Marion’s armor about her relationship with her children and backs way off on delving into it, probably because that’s not something Severson herself knew much about. What ends up being a huge joy for this Bay Area resident is her ode to the food of the Bay Area, particularly Meyer lemons (I have a fruitful tree in my backyard). But also she talks about food writing itself – how to describe food in interesting and compelling ways that gives the reader a sense of her life as a food writer.
And this is one of the weaker chapters. I think Severson doesn’t know what to do with compelling and complicated figures. In what turns out to be a frustrating pattern, she’ll sing Alice’s praises as a groundbreaker and vanguard and say that “other people” say that Alice is a beeyotch. She uses that a lot. “Other people” have criticisms of Alice but Kim remains resolutely neutral. And Alice Waters is most certainly someone who you cannot be neutral about. The other challenge is that Alice Waters has been written about (and has written enough herself) that everything Severson writes about Alice ends up sounding like boilerplate because Severson doesn’t actually put her own opinion out there.
Oh blech, definitely the weakest chapter in my opinion. She talks about Ruth Reichl being a kind of head cheerleader of the food world. This is in the context of Severson herself, moving to New York to write for the very paper that employed Reichl. And once again, Severson employs that “other people criticize” method. Severson can’t seem to say anything bad about anyone herself so she lets “other people” do the dirty work – whether that be about Reichl’s fictionalized journalism or Reichl’s own personality. And one other thing, Severson really hates food bloggers. She constantly talks about the blogging community as a huge bitchy monolith. She never says a nice thing about any food blogger, which I am finding frustrating because the line between FOOD WRITER and blogger is blurred beyond comprehension at this point.
The second weakest chapter. She turns Leah “Dooky” Chase into some kind of Bible spouting Saint. This whole chapter is about Severson’s spirituality and Chase’s spirituality. It’s all about how they need God and how God tests you and how God gives you strength. My own biases come into play here and the fact that Severson tiptoes over the extreme inequities and emphasizes Chase’s “God will provide” attitude just makes the story of Katrina sound like a 700 Club mailer. Its devoid of politics which is is central to how New Orleans was impacted by Katrina.
Ah the best chapter. While peripherally about Edna Lewis, the renowned Southern cookbook writer, this chapter is really about Edna Lewis’ devoted gay (the poetically named) Scott Peacock. This was where Kim Severson talks about her lesbianism and her family and Scott Peacock’s devoted relationship with Edna Lewis. The hot story that I only heard intimated was about how this sweet gay man became the devoted caretaker to an old black woman who’s the pillar of Southern cooking. It’s really entertaining because it gives you a long look at Kim Severson’s childhood and Scott Peacock’s relationship with Edna Lewis and boy is that a bit of dirt (LITTLE RASCALS!)
This was a decent chapter. Severson gives you a sense of her totally star F$&;%^ing when it comes to Ray. She talks a lot about her admiration for Ray and Ray’s fame. She also delves in a bit more with notes on Ray’s family, childhood and rise to fame. It feels like a complete story.
Severson has the good sense to dish a bit more dirt in her last profile of Marcella Hazan. Severson frames the whole piece by waxing poetically about the impact Hazan and one of her cookbooks has on Severson. That book was a gift from her mother and it becomes a treasured icon. Then Severson is called to interview Marcella and her husband. Rather than being some transcendent moment, the interview is awkward. Severson writes a well reviewed article about the Hazan’s that includes a bitchy comment from Judith “homewrecker” Jones (Knopf cookbook editor) about Marcella’s tastebuds being killed by cigarettes and whiskey. And then the nasty emails come from Hazan’s husband. Severson lets loose and totally outs Hazan’s husband for being mean and petty. This gives her a realization that there are not perfect food moments. It’s hilarious to see the Hazans all twisted about one comment in one article.
Spoon Fed ends with a story about Severson’s declining mother but really who cares. We all wanted more dirt on the Hazans.