EDITOR'S NOTE: Tonight's reading has been canceled. Kim Severson, who is the New York Times' Atlanta bureau chief, has been dispatched to cover Hurricane Irene. The reading will be rescheduled at a later date.
Kim Severson, the seasoned journalist who replaced the beloved dining writer Ruth Reichl at the New York Times, will talk about her memoir, “Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life,” tonight at in Little Five Points.
The eight cooks who “saved” her are not just any old gals stirring a pot at the stove. Reichl is among the eight.
Others include food superstar Rachael Ray; Alice Waters of the famed Chez Panisse restaurant in Northern California; Marion Cunningham, author of the Fannie Farmer cookbooks; and Edna Lewis, who died in 2006 in Decatur at age 89 and was much admired for her flavorful and authentic Southern dishes.
Before she landed at the New York Times, Severson worked at a newspaper in Anchorage, then as food writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle. In the early chapters of her career, she struggled with alcoholism and identity issues. For one thing, she had to come out as a lesbian to her Italian-American mother, and that did not go well. She wrestled with self-confidence. She wasn’t convinced she could even keep things together enough to stay alive.
During the course of interviewing prominent “foodies” such as Ray and Lewis, Severson found that these and other culinary talents had wisdom and experience that could help her overcome insecurities that were at the root of her struggles and demons. Along the way, there was much bonding over wonderful food.
According to Severson, the top-drawer cooks “know that the best thing to do in a crisis is feed people something soothing — a cup of tea, a spoonful of warm polenta and mushrooms, a perfect roasted chicken stuffed with Meyer lemons.”
While “Spoon Fed,” which earned rave reviews and is new in paperback, is focused on stories involving specific high-profile cooks and their life influence on Severson, it is also laced with some choice recipes. There’s “Rachael Ray’s Family Caponata” and “Marion Cunningham’s No Fear Pie Crust.” And there’s “Our Favorite Sour Cornbread” from Scott Peacock. Noted chef Peacock lived and worked with “Miss Edna Lewis” in her later years and was asked to contribute a recipe that was symbolic of their cooking life together.
Severson, who recently moved to Decatur and is now the Atlanta bureau chief for the New York Times, points out in her book that Lewis had “come to rely on Scott to record and keep alive her knowledge of Southern cooking.” But he also needed her. “I was a success as a chef before Miss Lewis,” is a quote from Peacock in Severson’s memoir, “but was a failure as a human being.” Through his love for Lewis, Peacock gained “the power he needed to get over his fears and anxieties.” And that’s just what “Spoon Fed” ultimately deals with: a mutual love and respect for food that brings people together. Food helps break the ice and creates a bond, then folks are inclined toward helping each other in ways both small and profound.
“My heroes are women who never abandoned the kitchen,” Severson writes. “They use cooking as a source of strength. Their recipes have helped save their communities and kept families together.”
We asked Severson what, in a nutshell, she has learned from Rachael Ray.
- “She taught me to be my authentic self no matter what anybody else says. The idea of what other people think is none of your business or concern. And she also taught me the value of working hard, that hard work really will pay off. I can’t think of anyone who works harder than Rachael.”
- From Alice Waters, Severson has learned that “perseverance and tenacity can pay off. She teaches us to stick with our own ideas and beliefs. She has always stayed true to her original philosophy. I mean, she hasn’t started up Chez Panisse Las Vegas.”
- From Ruth Reichl: “Oh, I was always intimidated by her. Such a great food writer and there I was, sitting at her old desk and thinking I was up the creek and there was just no way. But once I spent time with her, I learned the importance of not comparing myself to others. Compare and despair. That’s what I got from Ruth.”
Severson will talk for about 30 minutes at Charis, then answer questions and sign books, which will be available for purchase (Riverhead, $16 in paperback). What does the author hope the event will deliver to those who attend?
“I hope they will think about the people in their lives who have taught them lessons, and I hope they will go away inspired to cook up something delicious.”
If you go: Kim Severson, author of “Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life,” 7:30pm Thursday, Aug. 25. Free. Charis Books, 1189 Euclid Ave. NE, Atlanta, GA 30307; 404-524-0304, firstname.lastname@example.org.