Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life

Overview

A memoir sharing a lifetime's worth of lessons from a generation female cooks.

Somewhere between the lessons her mother taught her and the ones she is now trying to teach her own daughter, Kim Severson stumbled. She lost sight of what mattered, of who she was and who she wanted to be, and of how she needed to live her life. It took a series of encounters with female cooks-including Marion Cunningham, Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl, Rachael Ray, and Marcella Hazan-to reteach her the ...

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Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life

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Overview

A memoir sharing a lifetime's worth of lessons from a generation female cooks.

Somewhere between the lessons her mother taught her and the ones she is now trying to teach her own daughter, Kim Severson stumbled. She lost sight of what mattered, of who she was and who she wanted to be, and of how she needed to live her life. It took a series of encounters with female cooks-including Marion Cunningham, Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl, Rachael Ray, and Marcella Hazan-to reteach her the life lessons she had forgotten, and many she had never learned in the first place. Some were as small as a spoonful, and others so big they saved her life-at any measure, the best lessons she found were delivered in the kitchen.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this 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. Moving from Alaska, where she wrote for the Anchorage Daily News, to San Francisco to be a food writer for the Chronicle, Severson quits her destructive habit of excessive drinking, and when she first interviews Marion Cunningham, the beloved California food writer, the two share their similar fears and vulnerabilities. Severson's refrain that “I was a fraud and an alcoholic and I was scared to death I would fail” runs through this narrative like a dirge, while her successive culinary acquaintances reflect her insecurities: Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters represents an admirable, however “ridiculously uncompromising” model of perseverance; Ruth Reichl, her intimidating predecessor at the New York Times, reminds her of the leader of the “popular girls” at school into whose realm she never fit; and Southern food writer Edna Lewis's unconventional living situation with the young gay cook Scott Peacock inspires Severson to recount her own difficult early years of coming out as a lesbian in the face of her family's disapproval and discomfort. Some of the portraits verge on the fawning (e.g., Rachael Ray has a “charisma that is as God-given as a star pitcher's right arm”), but Severson's goal of finding “a connection” to her Italian mother dying of Parkinson's rings brave and sincere. (May)
Kirkus Reviews
A salmagundi of memoir, cookbook and self-help bromides by New York Times food writer Severson. Gradually delineating her many troubled years, the author writes about how she recognized and accepted her lesbianism, struggled with alcohol and substance abuse, survived fractured love affairs and coped with feelings of personal insufficiency. She made transformative job changes-from Alaska to San Francisco to New York-and tried to understand her ambivalence toward her own family, a complex attitude that ignites some of her somewhat sophomoric epiphanies near the end of the book. Severson punctuates her journey with stops to reflect on some iconic cooks who influenced her. "My heroes," she writes, "are women who never abandoned the kitchen. They use cooking as a source of strength." Each segment ends with a relevant recipe. Among the notables she visits, and reveres, are Marion Cunningham and Alice Waters (in the Bay Area), Ruth Reichl (New York), Leah Chase (New Orleans), Edna Lewis (Atlanta) and-perhaps surprisingly-Rachael Ray ("I mean, who doesn't like to feel a little close to a celebrity?"). Severson begins and ends with her mother, who emerges as a lodestar as the text progresses. Throughout, the author is a fiery advocate for the importance of home cooking and family meals. Cooking for, and with, those you love, she writes, is one of life's great pleasures. The recipes range from gumbo to sour cornbread. Though Severson characterizes herself as a hard worker, she did not work hard enough on her diction, which leaps back and forth from cliche ("a New York minute") to treacly Wayne Dyer-isms ("The most valuable thing I have is who I am"). Too much sugar, not enough salt.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594485022
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/1/2011
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,148,087
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Kim Severson

Kim Severson has been a food writer for The New York Times since 2004. Previously, she was a food writer and editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, where she received four James Beard Foundation Awards and the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

Somewhere between the lessons her mother taught her and the ones she is now trying to teach her own daughter, Kim Severson stumbled. She lost sight of what mattered, of who she was and who she wanted to be, and of how she needed to live her life. It took a series of encounters with female cooks (including Marion Cunningham, Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl, Marcella Hazan, and Rachael Ray) to reteach her the life lessons she had forgotten—and many she had never learned in the first place. Some as small as a spoonful, and others so big they saved her life, the best lessons she found were delivered in the kitchen.

An emotionally rich, funny, multilayered memoir and an inspirational, illuminating series of profiles of the most influential female cooks, Spoon Fed is Severson's story and the story of the women who have changed her life—and ultimately, a testament to the wisdom that can be found in the kitchen.

ABOUT KIM SEVERSON

Kim Severson has been a food writer for The New York Times since 2004. Previously, she was a food writer and editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, where she received four James Beard Foundation Awards and the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • Kim Severson's personal trajectory is hers alone, but the life lessons she learns in the book can, in fact, apply to a broad number of people with an array of lifestyles and personal stories. How do these lessons apply to you? Which struck you as the most true or useful?
  • The most important lessons she learns from these cooks turn out not be cooking lessons, in fact, but larger lessons about how to live: don't compare yourself with others; be yourself; start over when necessary; have patience and perseverance; etc. Is it significant that many of these lessons come in the presence of food? That they are learned in the context of preparing or sharing food? Why?
  • Severson compares the family dinner to a "modern-day tribal fire" (p. 26), though she and one of her mentors, Marion Cunningham, also agree that "the simple act of cooking and eating together seems to be increasingly rare" (p. 25). What role does the ritual of dinner play in your family dynamic? Is the home cooked meal essential to the family dynamic, or can it be replaced by some other ritual? Are modern eating habits reshaping American families?
  • When Severson first becomes a food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, she must learn to articulate what she likes and why, a task more difficult than it might seem. One thing that complicates this task is "taste memory" (p. 49)—Severson likes Hershey's not because it's quality chocolate, but because it reminds her of her mother's chocolate cake. Another difficulty is taste hierarchy—some foods might require a more sophisticated palate than others. Then again, Severson gives us this James Beard quote: "A hot dog or a truffle. Good is good" (p. 48). How do acquired tastes like truffle and wine compare to the "unadulterated joy" (p. 47) we experience when eating a Hershey's bar or a hot dog? Is it possible to separate taste from memory?
  • Alice Waters, one of Severson's mentors and often considered a founder of the modern food movement, insists that the American public school curriculum should—and can—be revolutionized to teach kids about agriculture and utilize local produce in the lunch program. Severson finds Waters's idealism both maddening and inspiring. Does unwavering optimism, even about unrealistic demands, help or hinder the achievement of goals? Should one ever compromise on one's ideals?
  • Do you agree with Severson's belief that one can "tell any story, large or small, through food" (p. 101)? What, if anything, can dining habits tell us about a person? Does the saying "you are what you eat" hold true for Severson?
  • Severson travels to her family's village in Italy to find her ancestors' original red sauce recipe. What is the deeper purpose of Severson's culinary journey? What does she hope to discover by tracing the "red sauce trail" (p. 132)?
  • Throughout her memoir, Severson uses the word "faith" in various contexts. There's the faith she has in God, to whom she prays to maintain her sobriety. There's the faith she experiences when she marvels at the existence of golden beets and cacao pods, the beauty and diversity of life. Severson even believes that faith is implicit in cooking, because of the trust required when executing a recipe and the communion that a shared meal brings. Is hers a religious definition of faith? What do Leah Chase and Hurricane Katrina teach Severson about faith?
  • Severson's friend Scott Peacock, a young gay chef, becomes the unlikely friend and caretaker of Edna Lewis, the grand-dame of Southern cooking. Their relationship challenges traditional notions of family, as does Severson's own marriage to her wife. What, for Severson, constitutes a family? Can family be determined by shared belief and understanding as much as by ancestry? Do we have automatic duties to our blood relatives?
  • Severson identifies with Rachael Ray because of their common small-town roots and enormous ambition. What does success mean to each woman? For Severson, how do professional success and public approval relate to personal satisfaction?
  • How would you characterize Severson's relationship with her mother at the end of the memoir, and how does it differ from their earlier relationship? What changes or compromises must they each make to reach this point? What have they each learned?
  • Ultimately, why does food play such an important role in Severson's life? Why is Severson more receptive to the wisdom of these eight female chefs than to the advice of her family and friends? Why does Severson choose to end her book in a scene not with one of the chefs, but with her mother?
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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 16, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Lacks Nutritional Value

    Being someone who has read Marcella Hazan's Memoir, Amarcord, I was looking forward to reading Spoon Fed, by Kim Severson. A chance to read how one author's life was touched by successful women who each had their own life's story. Spoon Fed, however, was a disappointment. I found this book to be bitter, mean spirited and an obvious vehicle for the author to feel better about herself at the expense of belittling others. In particular, I found the author's chapter, "What's Done is Done," about Marcella Hazan, very immature.

    In the book the author makes reference that the Hazan's needed her . Really? The Godmother of Italian Cooking needs this journalist? I believe it went the other way around. By exploiting the experience with the Hazan's this author found an opportunity to market herself at their expense.

    It surprised me, as the reader, that when given an opportunity to actually be welcomed into Marcella's home this author chooses to focus on superficial matters, come across spiteful in describing the experience and be blinded by her own needs not getting met. It was apparent that the agenda by this author was an attempt to bring Marcella Hazan down.

    Also surprised as the reader, the author did not emphasize Marcella's story as depicted in Amarcord. Instead this author focused on "digging for scandal" and portraying a negative depiction of Marcella and Victor Hazan. There were major opportunities missed by the author to provide insightful perspectives.

    I was astonished that the author did not learn more about the woman whose parents went out of their way return to Italy from Egypt to help their daughter save her arm. There was no insight into Marcella's life in Italy as an adolescent during the rise of Fascism or even her surviving WWII---living with the sounds of bombs and uncertainty of her existence on a daily basis. To not provide any significant reference in the book that Marcella left her country and her mother, started a new life with the man she loved in a foreign country, completely reinvented herself and has been writing books into her eighties was appalling. Not to mention the author's juvenile mocking of Marcella's accent was distasteful.

    There was obvious anger by the author toward Marcella ("mother") seen throughout the chapter that obviously clouded the experience. An example is when the author responded to not getting what "she" wanted from Marcella by "not going down without a fight." The author then comes across as a high school "Mean Girl" describing how the author called Rachael Ray on the phone for Marcella to talk with. "A fight" with an 84 year old woman who welcomed the author into her home, served her lunch and trusted her. " A fight" where Marcella Hazan is put on the spot to talk with Rachael Ray...did we as the readers miss something? I would have to say that this is not a book I would recommend to others.

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