Book Review: Spoon Fed by Kim Severson

Remember when the Anchorage Daily News was thicker. Those days are gone but the News’ former food editor Kim Severson is well and now the Atlanta bureau chief for the New York Times. She’s just published a memoir-cookbook that includes an interview with celebrity television chef, Rachel Ray. Kim finishes each culinary interview with recipes like aioli and even spaghetti and meatballs. Severson talks about her struggle to overcome addictions and reconnecting with mom who accepts her lifestyle. I caught Severson a few weeks ago at the Alaska Press Club conference. She peppered her talk with meeting the famous, including Chuck Williams of Williams- Sonoma. I remembered she was my son Elliott’s advisor for Perfect World, the now defunct teen page in the Daily News.

Kim was your typical post-war kid. Her dad James worked for Uniroyal, moving the family around until finally climbing the corporate ladder to Grosse Pointe, Michigan.The ubiquitous martini was always in hand as Kim hints. Kim’s mom, Anne Marie, grew up an Italian farmer’s daughter, later becoming a housewife with five kids, names all beginning with K. James and Anne Marie eventually retired to Colorado as did family celebrations. Kim tells of one holiday when her brother, also gay, brought his muslim boyfriend to Christmas dinner. In front of the Spode Christmas dishes, dad sounded off. Boomers like Kim often reconciled with the changing social climates faster than their parents.

Kim takes her readers to Castel de Sangra in Italy, the village her grandmother Florence lived in before coming to America. Kim went looking for the origins of the family spaghetti sauce, the metaphorical glue of the family. Grandma Zappa always had a pot of spaghetti and meatballs ready after church. Every Severson /Uniroyal move culminated with a spaghetti dinner. The reader learns that oregano is an Italian-American concept. Severson concluded “…there is no single iconic red sauce in my grandmother’s village.”(Severson 122).

When Kim left college, Anne Marie gave her daughter The Classic Italian Cook Book by Marcella Hazan. Years later as a New York Times editor, Kim would fly to Florida to interview Marcella. After accepting the job of restaurant critic at the Anchorage Daily News, Severson bought the cheapest SUV and drove the Alaska Highway to career advancement but also to booze and drugs. But our hero Kim has star quality and in spite of being stoned landed a job with the San Francisco Chronicle to work in the city that invented chop suey.

Before the reader comes to know accomplished Kim who will ride in Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward’s Prius, we follow the recently sobered Kim to a cramped Berkeley apartment as Severson spends those first weeks in California lonely and teary-eyed with her dog Lucy (Severson 40).

While at the Chronicle, Kim interacted with Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse and credited with our organic food craze. Severson also interviewed Marion Cunningham, another recovering alcoholic and cook who would become her mentor. Marion was hired by James Beard after her husband thought sober Marian was boring and they divorced. Marion eventually re-edited The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Kim’s interview with Marian turned into a friendship, the kind where you can spill out your guts. “Dear you seem pretty terrific to me (Severson 33) !” …was all it took to give Kim confidence and propel her to stardom.

Kim muses about the popularity of Lipton onion soup dip and raves about her discovery of Meyer lemons; whenever she smells them she is back in San Francisco. Severson found true love with girlfriend Katia about the time she landed at the New York Times, no herb gardens like at the Chronicle though. Feeling apprehensive about her impending move to the East coast “…I was going to abandon the Pacific Ocean … for eight million people who refused to say good morning to each other (Severson 102).

Severson is at her best describing the small neighborhood groceries with the dusty canned tomatoes and corned beef hash near her Brooklyn apartment and her first days at the Times with its dangerously worn carpeting. While looking for the cafeteria, Kim found the trophy case of Pulitzer prizes dating back to 1918. Severson got stuck picking up restaurant tabs before she learned to work the expense account system. One of her early power lunches was at the Four Seasons, Henry Kissinger was at the next table. Kim describes her lunch of Nantucket Bay scallops, “…each one a little sugar bomb, with an overarching whiff of seawater” (Severson 108).

Severson persuaded The New York Times to let her cover hurricane Katrina. “… I thought the paper needed a food writer there…food and music are what made New Orleans…” (Severson 142). She met cook Leah Chase, an African-American who had survived Jim Crow and just lost her famed restaurant, Dooky Chase. Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington ate her Creole cooking.

Kim’s life seemed to come together when Anne Marie had a staph infection after a knee replacement and Kim flew to her bedside. Conversations centered around mom’s acceptance of Kim’s relationship with Katia and their new baby Sammy. Nell Newman, daughter of Paul and Joanne, owns a farm and sent Anne Marie a get-well crate of Babcock peaches. Severson’s coveted copy of The Classic Italian Cook Book had replaced spaghetti sauce as her family glue. Make Marion Cunningham’s waffles as you laugh and cry to Spoon Fed by Kim Severson.

Marion’s Raised Waffles

½ cup warm water
1 package of active dry yeast
2 cups of milk, warmed
½ cup butter, melted
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 eggs
¼ teaspoon baking soda

  1. Use a rather large mixing bowl–the batter will rise to double its original volume.
  2. Put the water in the mixing bowl and sprinkle in the yeast. Let stand for 5 minutes, until yeast dissolves.
  3. Add the milk, butter, salt, sugar and flour to the yeast and beat until smooth and blended.
  4. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let stand overnight at room temperature.
  5. Just before cooking the waffles, beat in the eggs, add the baking soda and stir until well mixed. The batter will be very thin.
  6. Cook on a very hot waffle iron, adding about 1/3 cup batter per grid. Do not use a Belgian waffle maker. Bake until the waffles are golden and crisp to the touch.

Note: The leftover batter will keep for several days if you cover it and put it in the refrigerator.

Yield: About 8 waffles, which keep nicely in a warm oven until they are all cooked and ready to serve. Of course people like them hot off the iron, too.

Jean Bundy is a writer/painter living in Anchorage. She holds degrees from The University of Alaska, The University of Chicago and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is a member of AICA/USA. Jean is a PhD candidate with IDSVA. Her whaling abstracts and portraits have been shown from Barrow to New York City.


She can be reached at: 38144 [at] alaska [dot] net
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