Kim Severson, one of the New York Times’ best feature writers (I hope you’ve been reading all her great stuff, not only in the Dining In/Dining Out section but also on the front page once in a while), has a new food memoir out, called Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life.
I got to read an advance galley, I got to read an advance galley, neener-neener!
It’s a trip! It’s funny, sad, warm — like a long, great dinner. In it, Kim tells the story of finding her way in the highly competitive snakepit of food writing, in the intense, hyperfoodie era of elevated American eating culture that really started to take hold in the 1990s and 2000s. It’s also about: growing up in a big family, growing up gay, and overcoming alcoholism. It’s told through the stories of eight women who helped Kim see the importance and wonder of good food. These include Marion Cunningham, Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl, Leah Chase, Rachael Ray and others, and especially Kim’s mom. As a bonus, each chapter ends with a thematic recipe.
I loved it because I don’t read a lot of food books — memoirs, recipes, manifestos, whatevs. Since I haven’t read heaps of material about Alice Waters already, I’m a good target reader for Spoon Fed. I did love Bill Buford’s Heat, but most of the biggie bestseller food books pass me by, until or unless they become movies, like Julie and Julia.
[Tangent: Check out this piece in Newsweek, that posits (half-successfully, I'd say) that the publishing culture has a certain gender bias about food writing: Food books by women must involve emotion, eat-pray-love stuff as a rule. Food books by men, on the other hand, must be balls-to-the-wall, big cock, renegade cooking. Duh, yes, but also: Hmmmm.]
So what’s that you smell wafting from my blog oven? Smells like Hank’s trying to get you to buy one of his friend’s books again, doesn’t it? Well, yes and no. Kim and I are more friendlike, in the modern social-networking style, and we share a brilliant literary agent. Mostly I’m a fanboy.
But way before the Internet introduced everybody to everybody else, in ol’ 1995, Kim and I met at a very weird, sort of awkward National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association sub-committee meeting in Washington, DC.
Basically, the still somewhat nascent NLGJA started to realize that they had failed to recruit many members from the scary hinterlands. All the members were essentially centered in NY, LA, DC — whaaaa? Big shock. So they invited Kim, who worked at the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska (and helped invent this nifty little entertainment guide that was tall and narrow shaped, like half the size of a newspaper page), and me, back when I worked at the Albuquerque Tribune. We were asked to attend a weekend-long workshop session at a Dupont Circle hotel, where we would, in theory, help enlighten the big-city gays with ideas for outreach, recruiting, and meeting the needs of us yokel gays.
Kim and I were asked to give a presentation on “hip” ideas to attract the Gen Xers that the NLGJA so needed. We were a couple of gigglebutts. I’m sure we thought our presentation was hilarious. Now, according to the confessional parts of Spoon Fed, I am presented with the possibility that KIM WAS DRUNK THE WHOLE TIME. So what was my excuse? We bombed (no pun). Our major suggestion, which I still think that useless organization should implement, was to switch the L and the G in the acronym to NGLJA, so that the group could call itself “Negligee.” (Most people wound up calling it that anyhow. Gays are clever.)
I only remember two other things from that weekend, other than it was an utter waste of time: It’s where I met Ron Reason (a big plus); and it’s where Gail Shister hissed and snapped at me in front of everyone for having the gall to read the Post Style section during one of those endless planning meetings.
All of this happened almost exactly 15 years ago, because I was rescued from the whole affair by the Oklahoma City bombing. I left a day early and headed back to New Mexico, so I could then drive to OKC and get busy.
Annnnyhoo, Kim went onto increasingly bigger things — and I think she’s stayed in better graces with the Negligee people than I surely have. I’ve always admired her work on the subject of food, but in Spoon Fed I’ve discovered that I also love reading her on life and family, and especially on journalism and newsrooms and editors and such.
I dug this one part in her book where she writes about her arrival at the New York Times, which resonated strongly with me, because I am fascinated by those precious few people who jump to the Times and manage to carve out a voice and a writing style in a place that, let’s be honest, has an institutional tendency that discourages it.
But David Carr overcame it. Mark Leibovich has more or less done it, too. David Segal totally did it. Kim did it about five years ago, when she left what sounds like an incredible gig at the San Francisco Chronicle‘s vaunted food section for a job at the Gray Lady.
I would not be able to do it. (And I’m not saying I was ever offered the chance to work at the Gray Lady, but I’m not NOT saying I was ever offered the chance to work at the Gray Lady — got it? That newsroom scared the bejeebus out of me, if I’m even saying I ever visited it while wearing a Hugo Boss suit. I don’t mean the pretty newsroom in the Renzo Piano building, I mean the old 43rd Street joint, which looked like it had been turned upside down, Poseidon Adventure-like — pipes and duct work and debris and corpses and Shelly Winters swimming by. Not that I was ever in there, because I’m not saying I even was in there in 2003 or whenever. Maybe, maybe not.)
Long story short (er, too late for that), I admire how Kim broke through all that Gray Lady culture and made a big name for herself. But it wasn’t easy, as she writes in Spoon Fed:
When I finally got down to work, the writing didn’t come easily. The breezy, straight-ahead writing style that had worked so well at the Chronicle was considered sloppy and sophomoric at the Times. The funny little asides and goofy structural gimmicks just didn’t fly. In the beginning, even the good stuff got killed. It wasn’t like anyone was ordering any major rewriting. Rather, there were so many editors, each shaving a little here, grinding off a bit there, that it was death by emory board. Explanations were awkwardly thrust into the middle of otherwise perfectly good, short sentences. Contractions were eliminated.
But mostly, I had lost my confidence, and it showed. My editors and friends back in California said I just didn’t sound like myself anymore. I had lost my mojo. …
Oh, reader, you already know how this chapter ends — she perseveres and triumphs, a hundredfold, a basket of perfect peaches, a plate of delectable cheeses, a life as crispy as as a fine plate of pommes fritte.
Ah, food. I loved the book, and I’d love to make some of the recipes in it.
Now let’s involve YOU. For a long time, I’ve always made it a policy to buy two copies of books written by friends — or people I just wish were friends. One copy is for me and one is for someone else. It could be you! Just send me an e-mail by April 25, 2010 to hank [at] hankstuever.com and give me a great reason why you want a copy of Spoon Fed by Kim Severson, and I will mail it to the best entrant, FREE. It’s not signed, but it’s definitely delicious.