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Memoirs about Food

A food writer for the “New York Times,” Kim Severson takes a different look at the subject of food in this memoir. Approaching it from the life lessons hidden in her journey through a career immersed in food, it is perhaps just as much biographical as autobiographical. That is, she writes with candor about many of the important women in food who have influenced her life. These are real flesh and blood portraits, with flaws fully exposed.

No one’s life comes under finer scrutiny in “Spoon Fed” than Severson’s own, however. She begins the story when her food writing career takes off. Newly sober after a long battle with alcoholism, Severson embarks on a career at the “San Francisco Chronicle,” more than a little ironic perhaps because of the local food scene’s emphasis on the wine culture of Napa and Sonoma. Severson is also struggling in her personal relationships (she is a lesbian in a new relationship), as well as trying to find her place within her own family, who like many cut from Midwest cloth, just don’t talk about sex, much less homosexuality.

Facing her demons and the challenge of moving to an innovative food and wine-centered location after years of living in Alaska, Severson succeeds despite her own expectations. She eventually goes on to win several James Beard Awards for her food writing and lands a plum spot at the coveted “New York Times,” a dream that perhaps surpasses her goals. Along the way, she’s awed and intimidated by the doyennes of the food business: Alice Waters, Marion Cunningham, Ruth Reichl, and Marcella Hazan, among others.

Severson is able to gain insight and knowledge from each of eight featured women, including her first cooking inspiration-her own mother, who along with her own sisters (Severson’s aunts) finds herself competing over whose version of Italian red sauce in the family is best. What the author is able to take away from these women, even more than their collective cooking expertise, are lessons about living.

Cooking, here, is both a way to enjoy life and a way to handle what life throws in your way to happiness. Simple messages (staying true to yourself, persevering when it seems impossible, being able to reinvent yourself, and others) are illustrated through the grit and determination of these women who have managed to rise through the largely male-dominated business of fine food.

The lessons shared with Severson’s readers in “Spoon Fed” seem to come effortlessly, wrapped in writing so homey and sincere that it’s hard to imagine the rarefied setting that all this insight emerged from. That is to say, Severson has a true gift for boiling it all down to human frailty and hard work, to making these hard-driven women who never gave up on their way up the ladder to success seem ordinary and humble. Whether it’s Alice Waters creating a food revolution in Berkeley or Rachel Ray creating a multimedia empire by providing dinner in 30 minutes, each is made human with Severson’s touch.

“Spoon Fed” is about cooking (recipes included), the food industry, and making the most of the life lessons you need to build a world that’s perfect for you. These industry giants have more to teach than the secrets of food, they appear to have some lessons about life as well.