Book Giveaway: Spoon Fed by Kim Severson

by Sarah Henry on April 15, 2010 · 50 comments

in civil eats,food book giveaways,food books

I was predisposed to like this food and family memoir. I have a healthy respect for the work of Kim Severson, who is a food writer, but also a reporter — in the dogged, determined, old-fashioned sense.

Severson brings her hard-news nous to a beat not always known for serious coverage in food stories for The New York Times, where she’s worked for six years.

She also draws on her experience writing about food at such dissimilar places as The Anchorage Daily News, and in an award-winning spin in my neck-of-the-woods at the San Francisco Chronicle, before she was whisked off to sit at the desk that once belonged to the legendary Ruth Reichl.

I was also a captive audience. Seven hours lying around waiting for your turn in the operating room will do that to you. And, let’s just say, with a surgical procedure looming and an unknown outcome hanging over my head, I was emotionally primed to respond to Spoon Fed, a personal story filled with, well, the stuff of life — and not all of it good, easy, or pretty.

I loved her honesty. I loved the gritty bits. There was a moment when I felt all gossipy — ooh, who knew the Times food critic was once a lush?

Then I checked myself and made that connection, as we all do as humans, when we digest what that must have been like for her, based on our own experience, or watching a loved one struggle. Because, let’s face it, who among us doesn’t have alcohol or some other life-sucking addiction in our inner circle?

And I felt a sense of gratitude that Severson told a story that reveals writerly insecurities — we all have ‘em — the chief one that we’re a fraud and we’ll be found out in short order. This from a gal at the top of her journalistic game. It was, frankly, comforting.

Spoon Fed:  How Eight Cooks Saved My Life is a testament to struggling to discover your sense of self, coming to terms with your sexual identity, dealing with your demons, finding your professional footing, creating a new family, and learning to love and forgive the family you were born into.  All in a mere 242 pages, which I consumed in one hit.

Severson chooses to tell the tale of her particular journey through the kitchen wisdom she learns from eight very different women cooks. She shares simple truths she discovers along the way,  some emerge in unlikely places, at unexpected times, from unexpected people.

The female food mavens who form the heart of Spoon Fed, include Marion Cunningham, who taught Severson that in food and in life it is never too late to start over. Alice Waters reminded her of the need for perseverance and patience and the power of such tenacity. From Ruth Reichl she realized that she need only compete with herself. Marcella Hazen showed her to accept what is — and served as a cautionary tale about expectations.

Through Rachel Ray she gleaned the importance of accepting oneself; from Edna Lewis, the value of family, whether of choice or origin; Leah Chase shared the importance of faith; and her own mother, Anne Zappa Severson, an Italian-American farm girl from Wisconsin who made red sauce to-die-for, instilled in her the belief that the care and feeding of family matters most of all.

The shelf-life of the food memoir must surely be numbered, yet Spoon Fed goes beyond the genre. We get a sense of the roles these powerful women play on the cultural landscape of the American food movement, for starters. And it reminds us how much food — and our time in the kitchen — is a testament to the enduring power of love.

And that sometimes — like when the operation goes awry and you end up in the E.R. pumped full of drugs, followed by a hideous hospital stay, followed by dreary days of recovery, the best thing anyone can do in such a crisis is to feed that sorry someone something soothing. I’m just saying.

What this book isn’t: It’s not filled with whimsical descriptions of outrageously decadent dining experiences, as you might expect from a scribe at the Gray Lady. But then Reichl has that kind of memoir covered.  It’s also not a book where recipes are front and center. There are signature dishes in here but I mostly glanced at them and moved on to the next chapter.

What I took away from Spoon Fed is that food is as much about family as it is about ingredients, tastes, or techniques. I know this to be true in my own home. My son tells me I’m the best cook in the world but my food is very simple. Hell, the kid liked most of his meals raw for years. But I think what he means is he feels nourished, in all ways: I will love you even if you only want to eat tofu unadorned. Feeding as an act of unconditional love.

It’s a lesson younger generations learn by osmosis. My boy came to visit, post-surgery, just because he needed to lay eyes on me to see that I was okay (I was) before he took a road trip with his dad. What did I do? I loaded them up with good things to eat for the car ride.

A few weeks later, when everything went to hell in a handbasket on the health front, what did they do? Showed up on my doorstep with a pot of soup, of course.

Everyone has their own family food stories. Now it’s your turn. Leave a comment below with an example of some kitchen wisdom passed on around your table to be in the running for a copy of Spoon Fed. Entries must be received by Friday, April 23, PT by 10 pm. Winner chosen at random.

Update: Kim Severson’s book inspired readers to share some wonderful kitchen wisdom, from very simple, practical advice to complex, emotional connections to food. Thank you all for your comments. The copy of Spoon Fed, chosen at random, goes to Rae F. Thanks again for entering this contest and please check back in a few weeks for my May book giveaway.

Update #2: No word from our first winner so the new recipient of Spoon Fed is Kristi. Reminder about my new rule: one week to reply to my email for your snail mail details or I’ll choose an alternative recipient for the book. Thanks again for playing.

[Author Photo: Soo-Joeng Kang]

This post also appears on Civil Eats.

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{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

Amber G April 16, 2010 at 4:43 am

My grandmother always told me the Chinese proverb “Talk doesn’t cook rice” when I would work beside her in the kitchen.


susan varney April 16, 2010 at 5:56 am

always bake your potatoes and cool overnight to make fried potatoes


Alicia Webster April 16, 2010 at 6:49 am

I tend to be an immature baby, so if I am attempting a recipe, and it doesn’t come out perfectly the first time, I tend to toss it in the “I’ll NEVER make that again!” pile. But my grandmother who was the world’s best cook, taught me differently. When she was still alive, I made some sort of comment about how she just had the “the gift” and I didn’t, and that was that. She laughed and explained to me that all of her famous recipes were results of hundreds of attempts in which she added ingredients, subtracted ingredients, eliminated ingredients, etc. She explained that most cooks rarely get a perfect dish on the first try. And I have found over the years, that she was right!


Ann W. April 16, 2010 at 7:10 am

I grew up in Chicago but my mom is from Croatia, so she taught me that REAL cakes don’t have flour or baking soda in them– just rich butter, chocolate, nuts. For years at my childhood birthday parties, only the children of fellow Yugoslavs ate the birthday cakes. All the American kids picked at them, until one year my mom baked a big white cake in the shape of Garfield, and then everyone was happy (if ultimately short-changed).


MarthaAndMe April 16, 2010 at 8:06 am

I”m sorry you’ve had health issues and hope you are feeling better now! I don’t know how you managed to concentrate on the book. I usually find that in situations like those I read without comprehending – turning pages, but not really focusing.

From my grandmothers I have learned that family recipes are treasures. They need and deserve to be preserved and handed down. Food is a huge way to create identity in a family.


Sarah Henry April 17, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Thanks for your kind words, MarthaAndMe. I find reading a great escape from reality — or at least a good distraction, especially if something unpleasant lies ahead. So I was happy to lose myself in this book for a few hours.


Elaine R April 16, 2010 at 8:09 am

In my family home, we were always told by Mom that if all the bowls were empty and our plates were finished off that it would be a good day. I now realize this was Mom’s trick to get us to eat up all our food!


M'Lisa Kelley April 16, 2010 at 8:43 am

My Mother and Father both taught me the value of coming to the table with family and friends with food. Being Depression babies, they both knew how to make the most of the simplest ingredients, often growing, foraging or fishing for the items themselves.

But the value of the table, a place to let your hair down, share your day, nurture your tummies and your souls is the true food of love and what so many families are missing today.


Mary M April 16, 2010 at 12:25 pm

I’ve learned over the years that many successes in the kitchen are not from a combination of ingredients, but of technique — think candy, gravy, etc.
My mother is of the opinion that it isn’t good unless it’s homemade, but I find that, if made with love, semi-homemade will do :)


steph April 16, 2010 at 10:05 pm

This books sounds intriguing, and I’m surprised to see a food book that I didn’t know about. Would love to win a copy!


Mark Frankel April 16, 2010 at 11:18 pm

The “wisdom” instilled in me around the table is one that wasn’t obvious at the time but has “bloomed” over the years, namely the appreciation of fresh fruit and vegetables. I grew up in a foreign country where the concept of the “supermarket” hadn’t quite taken hold. My mother went to the open-air market once a week with her big shopping bags and baskets and would return with fresh produce that, at the time, we took for granted. Now, it’s a whole ‘nuther story, of course. I think I’d go nuts without the half-dozen or so farmers’ markets I frequent these days.


Sheryl Kraft April 17, 2010 at 4:29 am

I love the idea of a book about food…but really about so much more. My times cooking with my sons beside me are among my favorite times, not for what they learn about food, but more about the love and care that goes into preparing a meal together.


Sarah Henry April 17, 2010 at 4:12 pm

My sentiments exactly, Sheryl.


skip to malou April 17, 2010 at 5:45 am

My Papa rarely cooks but there’s just this one day that he actually does: Every 24th of December, yes, a day before Christmas, he would make 10 stuffed chickens to give to his closest friends. The process of preparing his stuffed chickens involves the entire household, whether it’s with deboning the chickens, or buying the ingredients, or decorating and plating and styling the chickens. It was a family effort that said, “our family made this especially for you!” The final touch to this Christmas tradition was that the chickens were personally hand delivered. Lesson my Papa taught me: Special gifts are from the heart and created by your hands.


Kathy B April 17, 2010 at 5:49 am

Grandma’s secret always made the gravy simply fantastic when I was a kid. So when I started cooking as an adult I asked for Grandma’s secret. But neither my great- nor my grandma would tell me. (By that point I knew it was in a bottle and that was it. I tried at the store but there was no such thing). Later on, I asked mom. “It’s Kitchen Bouquet,” said mom. “Why did we call it Grandma’s secret?” I asked. A good reason. My great-grandma always got raves about her gravy and she didn’t want anyone to know that she added to the gravy; my grandma did the same. Now, forty years later, living in another country, I still have “Grandma’s secret” on hand…just in case.
And, of course, I’ve passed it on to my kids (they rarely – never? – make gravy but have “Grandma’s secret” and their great-great-grandma’s story…just in case).


Susan Odell April 17, 2010 at 6:58 am

When I began taking cooking classes in earnest, it was because I wanted an escape from my corporate job. I also wanted a skill to call my own, being tired of the ‘jack of all trades’ moniker when it came to hobbies, sports and the like. Fifteen years later, after graduating from Le Cordon Bleu and teaching cooking classes for most of this time, I realize I don’t care about being the expert anymore. I care now about helping other people learn the value of cooking as it relates to health and well-being. I care now about bringing the pleasures of the table, and with it the healthfulness of home cooking, to as many people as I can reach. Kim Severson is one of my food writing heroes – no nonsense, dry wit, informative. I learn from her every day and I can’t wait to read what she learned from some of the grande dames of cookery.


Jean Craciun April 17, 2010 at 8:08 am

I have had so many great cooks in my life to admire, my nona, my mother, my life partner Amy, my friend Kim Severson. Her book reminds me that I too can and should cook. Believe it or not I have stayed away because I feared too many great cooks in one room is well too much.

But I made her Meyer Lemon Meringue Pie last night — the one in Spoon Fed — for guests and quite frankly it was perfecto! I’m going to start cooking again and asking the silly questions…So if my store only has “small” meyer lemons and I need “large” do I then use 3 or 4?


Jacqueline Church April 17, 2010 at 10:56 am

Growing up, I learned the power of food and cooking as ways to convey what could not be said in words. Dumplings: “welcome to the family, thank you for loving my daughter.” A birthday meal of our choosing made us feel special. Even a birthday meal for a friend whose own family didn’t make her feel special on her day. I have so much respect for Kim’s work, smart and entertaining. Can’t wait to read her book.

Also glad to find you blog thru Kim’s tweet! Nice job.
- Jacqueline


Sarah Henry April 17, 2010 at 4:14 pm

Nice to meet you too, Jacqueline.


MyKidsEatSquid April 17, 2010 at 12:19 pm

Sounds like a fabulous book. I think my best cooking advice came from my brother. When I first started trying to cook I wanted to immediately improvise and toss out ingredients, add a few things. Well, he reminded me that my mom had been cooking for a long time. He told me to stick to the basics–and the recipe–until I had more experience. Now I improvise all the time, but I’m glad I have a solid background in basics.


Rae F April 17, 2010 at 6:41 pm

There are very few times that life has served up such happiness and fulfillment as the first time my son called home to ask how to make something. The fact that I was in Montclair, New Jersey and he was in Paris only added sweetness. Nineteen years later I can feel the warmness now as much as I did then.


Alexandra April 18, 2010 at 7:21 am

My father, born in St. Petersburg, came to the USA in 1924. With his first real paycheck, he bought a typewriter. He hoped to become a screenwriter in LA, where he roomed with a Pole. They were both out of work and starving. The Pole taught my father to make kasha. I think it was often their only meal each day. When I was growing up, we had kasha, as a grain, with dinner. Steak, green peas, and kasha. That was the menu when Dad cooked and the one meal I remember clearly in its entirety. He taught me his recipe. When I cook kasha now, I always remember those hard times, when my dad had nothing to eat, how they can sneak up on you without warning as part of the life experience. I guess the wisdom/life’s lesson is be grateful for the food on your table ….


valerie mabrey April 18, 2010 at 10:25 am

My mom had this rule: Always break eggs in a separate bowl before adding them to a recipe, so no shells and no bad eggs ruin all the rest of the ingredients.


Sharon A April 18, 2010 at 3:57 pm

My grandmothers instilled in me that food creation and the sharing of those creations are the heart of a family.


emily l April 20, 2010 at 4:30 pm

A watched pot never boils. ;)


Melanie Haiken April 20, 2010 at 5:45 pm

My Dad was a transplant from Brooklyn, and arrived in California thrilled by the abundance of fresh veggies and fruits, many of which he’d never even heard of as a child. I will always remember him arriving home from Castroville with a huge bag of artichokes he’d picked up at a farm stand. So that’s what I took away from my childhood — a wonder I still feel at farmers’ markets and and when I see a hand-painted sign on the road by a farm – just have to stop!


Barbara April 21, 2010 at 2:25 am

I don’t know if this is or is not a “kitchen wisdom”, but from my mother I learned that the recipes that are prepared in a kitchen, transmit love: love for husband, children, families and, more simply, for those who the dishes were prepared.


Jason April 22, 2010 at 12:31 pm

I was always told to use baking soda in a kitchen fire instead of water. Nobody really had faith in my cooking ability.


Ed Nemmers April 22, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Mom and Grandma taught me diligence and organization from watching how to do a huge Thanksgiving meal!


Ambre W. April 22, 2010 at 5:03 pm

Some family kitchen wisdom I have learned is to not be in a hurry when cooking.


Colleen S April 22, 2010 at 5:25 pm

“Always cook for one more person,” has served me and unexpected guests well over the years.


Elizabeth April 22, 2010 at 8:05 pm

Don’t salt your food without tasting it first.


Zara April 23, 2010 at 6:44 am

From my mother I learned there are no short cuts. You use fresh products and do everything yourself, no help from a can.


susan April 23, 2010 at 7:36 am

Use chicken stock to make rice more flavorful.


Kris April 23, 2010 at 9:14 am

My mom passed on both healthy and unhealthy kitchen wisdom! I’ll share a healthy one: always keep a bowl of sliced fruit or veggies on the counter. This way, it’s easy for people to grab a piece as they go by, making sure that they’re getting plenty of fruits/vegetables into their diet.


Lentil Breakdown April 23, 2010 at 7:48 pm

My mother, who recently passed away, taught me that:

1) Mothers have carte blanche to tell their children when to eat (even when they’re adults) and

2) Always carry a baggie in your purse.


Veronica Garrett April 23, 2010 at 8:53 pm

My mother always told me waste not, want not. It was amazing what she could do with leftovers and use everything in the kitchen.


Gianna April 23, 2010 at 9:00 pm

Always use the best ingredients to get the best tasting meals.


Anne April 24, 2010 at 4:34 pm

My grandmother made everything from scratch ~ketchup, chili sauce, jams, preserves. The garden was the center of her universe.

The process of learning how to make the perfect pie crust and cakes were instilled with me at a young age. It always amazes me that the ‘trendy’ foods we enjoy today were part of her heritage and dining table: dandelion greens, watercress, ramps, wild mushrooms, rhubarb. Lastly, this woman could make a dinner out of anything, even when it looked like there was nothing in the house to eat. She would also use kitchen remedies for ailments and illnesses. Need a hot compress? Make pancakes by dozens and put them between kitchen towels. Seriously! Stuffed nose? A tablespoon of vinegar. And guess what. It works.


Kristi April 25, 2010 at 7:39 am

In the hospital where I work, families often ask if they can bring food. Of course, I answer, Food is love.


Cheri April 28, 2010 at 8:02 am

In our house, the Spanish proverb, “The belly rules the mind” is what becomes priority!


Adrien April 28, 2010 at 2:16 pm

Oh, there are so many:
‘peanut butter is also dessert’
‘almost anything + an egg (whipped into it or poached and on top) = a better meal’
and this great technique to saucing pasta by using a couple tablespoons of the pasta water, boiling it and adding a little oil/butter and then a handful of something green and maybe some chopped tomatoes
cooking = the sure way to be eating what you’re hungry for
when you try something new that you love, take the time to name what you taste. thinking like a cook opens up a whole world of sensual delight.


Dottie Wilson May 2, 2010 at 12:11 pm

My father had pretty strict rules for manners at the dinner table, such that any one of the five of us kids could only sneak an occasional peek at the comic book we kept hidden on our laps. We dared never verbally reveal it was there at the dinner table, for we knew our favorite comic would then be confiscated for all time.
But for some reason he and my mother always let us “initiate” any of our friends who were new to the Jamison kitchen table (a huge round one with an equally huge round Lazy Susan placed in the center). We kept the steaming hot bowls of food, bread and the condiments on that Lazy Susan. Once it was loaded down with our dinner goodies, five pairs of hands could keep that thing in perpetual motion.
A timid new guest would reach out to take a food item or the ketchup off the Susan, and one of us was sure to give it a quicker spin just before he/she could secure the desired item. Finally, mother would give us “the look” when our young — and hungry — guest still had an empty plate half way through the meal. We knew the fun was all over.


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