Food writer Kim Severson appeared at Borders on Thursday.
Friday, May 21, 2010
Food writer Kim Severson, who in the past has written for the San Francisco Chronicle and currently writes for the New York Times, spoke at Borders Bookstore Thursday, May 20, about her latest book, Spoonfed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life, her circuitous career, Sarah Palin, food writing, including Army MRE's and Thomas Keller's father, the Aquarium's Cooking for Solutions event and more.
With wit and alacrity, ("I'm a little bit of a ham," Severson confessed) she entertained the capacity audience of mostly middle to older women with stories of her early career, including a stint working as a food critic in Anchorage, Alaska, prior to Michael Pollan and the revolution in food writing.
"Being a food critic in Anchorage is like being a ballerina in Lubbock, Texas."
Talking to a TV anchorman for an interview, she told him that she didn't feel comfortable doing TV because she was "slouchy and chatty."
"That's radio, honey," he told her.
She never had a TV show, but her writing career had a meteoric trajectory thanks to her well-received writing ("People Magazine gave Spoonfed four stars," said one audience member) and fortuitous circumstances, like the broadening scope of food writing and a break getting into the San Francisco Chronicle.
In 2004 she went to work for the New York Times. She's written a cookbook, but said that she prefers newspaper features and articles because she "likes to write quickly," she said, snapping her fingers.
One day, she said, she was talking to her agent about the "dying generation" of food writers like Marion Cunningham, who worked with James Beard, Diana Kennedy, Ruth Reichl and others, telling stories and anecdotes, when the agent had a revelation.
"'Those are great stories,'" she told Severson. "'You should write that.'" That idea spawned Spoonfed, a memoir about her relationships with and culinary guidance from eight women, from Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters to Rachael Ray to her mom.
"I don't know how I wrote [Spoonfed]," she said. "I would wake up in a panic. 'I'll just give the [advance] back. I can do that, can't I'"
But write it she did. "It's a lot cheaper than going to therapy," she told the audience, triggering laughter. Though her own newspaper's review by editor Paul Levy is measured, the St. Petersburg Times called it a "poignant story told with Severson's trademark humor and open-armed love of family and friends."
Severson's mother, Ann, father, Jim ("My next book is going to be called 'Fed Up: The Jim Severson Story'" she quipped) and brother, Keith, were in attendance at her talk and signing at Borders. Her mother said that all five of her childrens' with names begin with "K"—as did their dog, Kookie.
Talking about her two-year-old, whom she's raising with her partner, she said that her home cooking, of late, has "not been pretty."
She talked about the Aquarium's Cooking for Solutions event, where she spoke on a panel earlier in the day on the "real cost of food" in terms on its impact on the environment, carbon emissions, labor practices, shipping, etc. She described her fellow panelists as "egghead people much smarter than me," and mused funny on catching glimpses at the fish in their tanks while talking about seafood.
Another food writer in the audience, Lia Huber (nourishnetwork.com), seconded Severson's notion that Cooking for Solutions is a keystone event in the evolving world of sustainable food.
"This is my third year [attending]," said Huber, describing the experience as "intimate" and "powerful."
In addition to the highly knowledgeable experts, she said the event spawns stories in many directions, and that the audience plays a vital role in disseminating its ideas. Huber also said that she's encountered Severson several times on the "food circuit."
Severson's next project, she told the audience during an indulgent Q&A, was on "pot smoking chefs," a group of young people including David Chang, who use marijuana in their kitchens.
"Cereal milk. You know the milk that's left over after you've eaten a bowl of cereal?" Severson said. "You have to be high to come up with that one."