Friday, July 9, 2010

Spoon Fed with Kim Severson

ROBERTA: If you read the Food Section of the New York Times on Wednesdays, you will surely recognize the name of food writer Kim Severson, who has written about farms, chefs, cooking, and more, for the Times since 2004. A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that Kim was scheduled to speak about her new book at my local bookstore, RJ Julia. So I trotted downtown with my neighbor and settled into the front row. We learned that Kim's not only a good writer, but hysterically funny and down to earth, plus chock full of tidbits about celebrity chefs and food writers--an irresistible combination! And she agreed to visit with us today to talk about food, her new memoir, SPOON FED: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life, and answer questions from Jungle Red food enthusiasts. Welcome Kim!

Let's start right in with the book, which features your experiences with eight cooking women, ranging from Rachel Ray to Alice Waters to your own mom, and the life lessons they taught you. Give us a thumbnail sketch of how you came to write it and how you chose the women who are featured.

KIM: The women were people I had written about for the San Francisco Chronicle or the New York Times. I originally thought about doing a book just about Marion Cunningham, or maybe about the women who taught America to cook back before the Food Network and celebrity chefs. I was interested in making sure they didn’t get forgotten. I’m talking about women like Paula Wolfert and Diana Kennedy. Anyway, I started to think about who I wanted to write about, and who meant something to me. I realized there were reasons I was attracted to the women who ended up in the book. I chose them for profiles, I realized, because they had something I needed to learn. And in order to explain why I needed to learn lessons, I needed to explain what was happening to me at the time.

Anyway, one thing led to another and pretty soon I was spilling my guts.

ROBERTA: And now I'm wondering how you were able to get these women to talk so openly with you. Were they aware you would be writing about them? And what have been their reactions to your book?

KIM: I don’t know that they knew I was going to write a book about them, but they certainly knew I was writing newspaper pieces about them. The book came later, but it was all based on interviews I had already done or independent research. I think some were very touched, others a little uncomfortable and some, like Marcella Hazen, not so happy with it. But she wasn’t happy with the story I wrote for the Times, and the chapter about her is the back story more or less.

ROBERTA: Actually, I thought the chapter about Marcella Hazen was fascinating. Here's my sad story about dining at Alice Waters' restaurant in Berkeley, Chez Panisse. About six years ago, I secured a reservation for my husband, stepdaughter, and two of her lacrosse teammates. In spite of their pleas, the coach held them late after practice. By the time they arrived, we'd been ousted from our table. So it's still on my bucket list! Closer to home, what are your top picks for restaurants in New York City? (Let's say Manhattan proper and no fancy pants, super-expensive places please.)

KIM: That is a sad story. I’m sure you’ll get back one day. As far as NYC restaurants that’s a tough one! There are 30,000 restaurants. And it really depends on neighborhoods, style of food etc. Do you want pizza or deli or trendy or fish or ….I mean, give me a few ideas and I will send out some suggestions.

ROBERTA: And one last question. Supposing you were having the Jungle Red gang over for dinner (cheeky, I know!) What would you fix for us?

KIM: Well, depends on the time of year. If it's fall or winter, I would make you a big, proper spaghetti and meatball dinner. But if the weather was great and it was high summer, we'd have to have a great grilled skirt steak with some salsa verde and bunches of perfectly in season vegetables. Or maybe a good pasta dish. Or maybe some cod or halibut with shiitake mushrooms and fennel or ... well, the list can go on!

ROBERTA: Kim, mmm that all sounds wonderful. And we're so glad you agreed to visit with us--thank you! You can read more about Kim at her website and she'll be stopping in today to answer questions.


  1. Hi, Kim --

    Loved your post and I've ordered the book. I am a major foodie, love to cook, and have often thought about the food writers and people in my life who gave me an appreciation for good food. Especially Michael Fields, who died too young and whose books I devoured. My parents who went to Paris in the early '60s and along with the rest of America discovered French cuisine. My grandmother who was a terrible cook ("spaghetti" was overooked pasta w/ketchup and a pat of butter) but she made great chopped liver (start by rendering chicken fat) and fabulous cinnamon cookies (thin crispy ones that I've never found a recipe for).

    Any great restaurants in Bay Ridge? We love all kinds of food, and both of my daughters just moved near there.

    - Hallie

  2. Dear Kim,

    You are wonderfully expressive about your love of food and the meals you have prepared and shared with friends, family and the women who have inspired you.

    I am a foodie who never learned how to cook. Most of the time I live in Manhattan, and the never-ending lure of new and exotic restaurants is irresitible.

    My weekend house has a great kitchen and is near many farmers' markets with beautiful produce. How do you recommend that I start from the ground up, so to speak, in learning how to compose and prepare meals at home that I can share with friends?


  3. Oh Hallie, that spaghetti does sound awful:). Can't believe you had a noncook in your family tree!

    Lyn, so glad you stopped by JRW. My suggestion is to have Kim over to anoint your kitchen with some fabulous meal...

  4. Hi Kim--enjoyed your interview, and your pieces in the Times, and looking forward to the book! Here are a couple questions--are you seeing a lot of movement towards local and/or organic food, and what about towards local/grassfed/free range meat? Do people in your chef circles talk about the effect of meat and climate change issues? I'm just wondering if you are starting to pick up on a big sea change in our culture? I hope so! Thanks, Susan Cerulean

  5. Hey, Kim! I'm such a fan..thanks so much for joining us. (Although now I'm starving.) ANd we're on the Acela on the way to NYC--so gotta figure out dinner!

    I was thinking the other day about fod trends--dinner parties I gave in the 70's often included fondue. Or boeuf bourguignon. I had a brief flirtation with chicken kiev and pasta alfredo. NOw, I probalby wouldn't serve any of those.

    What do you see as the next big thing? (And please pass the skirt steak and veggies. yum!)

  6. Diffiuclt to type on the train, sorry.... food, not fod. You know what I mean.

  7. Wow! You all have been busy today! I just got off deadline so I can tackle a few of these questions.

    Hallie, those cinnamon cookies sound terrific. Sometimes all it takes is one good food memory to erase a lifetime of bad spaghetti.

    Try Tanoreen in Bay Ridge. My pal Sam Sifton, the Times restaurant critic, loved it:

    And Lyn, I suggest a good, simple book. Actually, Alice Waters has a new one out called "In the Green Kitchen: Techniques to Learn by Heart." It's a collection of easy methods from some chef friends of hers that will show you how to make the best of a few market ingredients. Just start slow!

    And to answer you, Susan, where meat comes from is a big topic. I am not sure the connection between climate change and food will ever totally catch on with cooks, who are more motivated by taste than politics. Besides, there is nothing that kills a good meal more than trying to figure our its carbon footprint. But luckily, the best food is usually the most local and from smaller producers.

    And Hank, (you folks do travel around a lot!) I think clean, well-sourced protein and veg really are a trend unto themselves. People want to be able to tell the story of the food at the dinner party. ("And this chop comes from a pig we met just this afternoon!") I also think lots of canning and pickling is happening, and cake making. It's like a grandma-chic movement.

  8. I love food and I love books. What a great post! I'm getting this one.Thanks Kim and Roberta.

  9. And thank you Kim for being our guest on Jungle Red! Dinner was delicious:)