Omnivore - Food writer Kim Severson on food, heroes and family in Spoon Fed

The <i>New York Times</i> writer appears in Decatur tomorrow evening to promote her new book.

"I really admire your work," I say at the beginning of my 8 a.m. phone interview with Kim Severson, New York Times food writer extraordinaire and author of the new food memoir Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life. Although it's true — I do greatly admire Severson's work — it's also supposed to be a joke of sorts. In the book, Severson explains that she learned from her brother to say those words when encountering someone famous.

Severson doesn't get the joke."Oh, thanks ..." she says, somewhat uncomfortable. I get the feeling she just wouldn't think that someone might consider her exciting enough to pull out the famous-person catch phrase. Okay, perhaps I'm just a food-writing dork, but it's a common theme throughout Severson's book. Even after working for the San Francisco Chronicle, meeting and befriending some of the most influential cooks, chefs and food writers of our time, and then landing a job at the Times, Severson saw herself as the awkward interloper when compared to such luminaries as Ruth Reichl. And although the book follows Severson from an alcohol-soaked and dark (both literally and figuratively) period in Alaska to her current position as a sober, successful and well-known writer who has formed a loving family, the theme of insecurity stretches almost to the final pages.

At first glance, this insecurity might seem odd, even phony. But over the course of the book we get to know Severson as someone other than the celebrated writer who has won a stack of James Beard awards. We see her as a middle child from a family that moved so often she had no real sense of a geographical home. And we see the deep and abiding pain caused by Severson having to hide a part of herself — her homosexuality — from her family, and particularly her mother.

We also get a look at some remarkable women from the food world. As Severson says in the book's introduction, "My heroes are women who never abandoned the kitchen." These heroes include Alice Waters, Leah Chase, Ruth Reichl and Rachael Ray.