Book Review: Spoon Fed by Kim Severson

In some ways, the title Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life is misleading. When I first came across the book on Amazon, I didn’t know who Kim Severson was (I’m not really a foodie and I don’t regularly read The New York Times) so I pictured the author to be someone who had been raised by several nannies, private tutors, boarding school instructors, etc. The old television show Silver Spoons came to mind and honestly I thought this was about a woman who had been raised by other women, silver spoons in hand, spoon feeding her. I was very pleased when after reading the 3rd paragraph in the book my preconceptions were completely shattered. I smiled as I read Severson describe the agony of being passed by a fancy car as she chugged herĀ  rust-bucket of a car up a daunting hill. I instantly knew this was the kind of woman I could relate to because I have definitely been there.

The book is a memoir and includes bites from childhood as well as a few nibbles from the college years, but most of the memoir takes place during the critical time in a woman’s life when she is just establishing her professional career. Severson, who admits to being in love with booze for a portion of her life, spares us the nasty details and coaxes us to trust her, that it was bad. Coming from that sort of tangled past myself, I was sort of hoping for a little more on the subject. However, now that I think about it, I’m not sure I would be willing to uncork that bottle in a tell-all book myself. In fact, as a woman working on establishing my own professional career right now, I know Severson was right to skip the gory details. It shows class.

The book is extremely interesting to me because I am pretty much obsessed with the city of Berkeley and San Francisco, the culinary scene there and Alice Waters in particular. Severson offers several juicy tidbits on what Alice Waters is like in person. I was somewhat afraid to read all of it because Alice Waters is currently my biggest hero. I was worried that I might read something that would bring that all crashing down. Did I? Not quite but it did get a little scary! Alice is after all just a person and this is one of the great points Severson makes in the book. No matter how high a pedestal you put someone on, no matter how much you look up to them or are intimidated by them, always remember that they are just people and that we all started somewhere. No use getting our panties in a wad over semi-celebrity broo-ha-ha when we meet these people. Most likely if your expectations are as high as Mount Everest you will eventually be disappointed. Nobody is perfect.

My second day of reading the book, I found myself using an analogy with my students influenced by a particular part of the book. My students are not culinary students but I think we can all learn many lessons from all thing cooking-related. Severson tells a story about tasting chocolates for four days so that she can write a review on boxed chocolates for Valentine’s Day. After tasting chocolates non-stop the staff has to take a break from their sugar comas to taste a little braised rabbit for another assignment. Severson recounts speaking up that she felt the mustard sauce served with the rabbit was much too strong. She feels proud as her fellow colleagues all agree with her. That is until her boss Michael pipes up that the rabbit needed to be retested in the morning. He tells them it’s not the sauce, it’s their palate. The sugar had altered it. In the morning the rabbit in mustard sauce tastes perfect.

This is a lesson we can all learn from. For my students who are training to be graphic designers, I proposed that their own body of work was the chocolate- their comfort zone. All day, week after week, using the same stand-by colors, the same fonts, all of it begins to taste the same. When they suddenly introduce something new without readjusting their palate or taking a step back, the taste can be shocking. Instead, I suggest they have a little chocolate, but be sure and lay off the chocolate every now and then. Take a break, step back, breathe. Introduce something new slowly. See if it works. Also, don’t judge a new idea blindly. Sleep on it, give it a fresh taste (or “fresh eyes”) in the morning. Don’t be so quick to judge- see what the more experienced people in the room think first. Learn from them.

I learn from the more experienced people in my life everyday. Back to Alice Waters, who inspires me to care about what we eat and more importantly what our kids eat, is a major force behind the White House initiative to get our kids to eat healthy. Severson gives credit where credit is due. As much as I admire the First Lady, it was really Alice that has pushed and pushed for our government to take responsibility for what our kids are eating at school. Before there was Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution there was Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard. I am grateful that so much of this book is dedicated to her and I encourage Severson to write an entire book dedicated to Waters.

Chapter 4 is titled Popular Girls. And what woman did not want to be a popular girl at some point in her life? Severson writes:

I had one brief, glorious run as a popular girl in the early 1970s, when life was all Pixy Stix and slumber parties. Me and my girls ruled Thornbranch Avenue, one of several cul-de-sacs that punctuated a new subdivision on the western edge of Houston. My mom had a tricked-out shag flip that approximated Florence Henderson’s in her later Brady Bunch period. . .I was fully engaged in the carefree life of a child in the 1970s, when a girl could travel without seat belts, play on the street until well after dark and purchase Tareyton cigarettes for her dad without one question from the man at the Stop-n-Go. We felt invincible, running out the screen door every morning with the kind of freedom I would crave the rest of my life. We climbed onto our banana seats, grabbed the chopper handlebars and rode without worry, leaving our bikes on the front lawns when it got dark, knowing they’d be there in the morning.

I’ve only read a few other authors who, when I read their words, a movie instantaneously plays in my head. Hunter S. Thompson comes to mind. Severson, here, is on the same level. Maybe it’s because I can relate (Severson is a good 10 years older than me but because I was raised in Nebraska, always a decade behind the times, our childhoods were similar). But the stories here are ones that make me nod my head, smiling to myself, and the lessons learned make me wish I would have read this book in my 20s and not my 30s.

I’m always on the lookout for stories coming out of post-Katrina New Orleans and there is one included in this book. Severson talks about Mrs. Chase and the 2-year shutdown of her famous restaurant, Dooky’s. To this day, I really don’t think people realize just how bad Katrina changed that great city. And what’s more heartbreaking is that I don’t think many people actually care about the aftermath or progress. Severson describes what it was like walking around New Orleans soon after Katrina happened. She introduces us to Mrs. Chase, an amazing woman who is the most “glass half full” person I have ever read about. she’s truly inspiring. Anybody that can see the positive in such a disaster is truly an amazing person. Reading about Mrs. Chase’s opinion on Katrina and its aftermath is incredibly inspiring.

Throughout the book, it almost seemed as if somewhere, somehow, my path must have crossed with Severson’s at some point. Maybe it was the day I walked past the San Francisco Chronicle when I was visiting my brother in 2002. Maybe it was when she was interviewing Miss Edna Lewis in Atlanta, Georgia and I was there traipsing around Buckhead on one of my day trips from Montgomery. Perhaps it was at the Minneapolis Airport when she was flying in to visit relatives up around her homeland of Cumberland, Wisconsin. Maybe that’s what I like so much about this book. We’ve been to a lot of the same places, have a lot in common and admire the same people. All it seemed except maybe one. . .

I was a fan of Rachel Ray for about a month. Then it seemed like she turned into this behemoth overnight- new show, lots of new books, cookware line, olive oil line, etc., etc. It’s hard for me to trust what someones motives are when it is so much so quick. I’m the last person to jump on a fad bandwagon. In fact, if something is popular I tend to resist it on principle. The somewhat “last straw” for me with Rachel Ray happened when I was watching her show and I noticed that every time something “exciting” happened on the show (look at how this dish turned out!) the same male voice would yell, “WOO!” or “YEAH!” and then the audience would follow. I immediately associated it with canned laughter and realized it was most likely a floor director or perhaps even a straight-up hired yelp man whose job was simply to drum up fake enthusiasm. I realize it’s TV and all but still, it seems a little dishonest, shallow or fake. I just couldn’t get over it and therefore stopped watching. Don’t get me wrong, I think she’s an honest gal, I just don’t think the theatrics are necessary. But I guess I never realized where and what Rachel Ray came from. After reading her background in this book I have to admit, my opinion of her has changed. I think she deserves it all. She’s worked for it.

Summing up what I’ve read is easy. It’s an excellent book. Juicy tidbits, great story-telling, yummy recipes as an added bonus at the end of each chapter. . . it’s everything I desire in a book. Most importantly, it’s about strength. The strength to get over these hang-ups we women sometimes face. For example, I was completely nervous when sitting down to write this review. I worried about reviewing a book written by someone who writes for The New York Times. Then is dawned on me that if I was nervous about that then the entire point of the book was lost on me. I was forgetting what Severson was saying so clearly- quit worrying about being good enough. Stop trying to keep up with the Jones’. No more comparison between you and that person you really admire! You will only drive yourself insane! You look up to them and they look up to someone else and them to someone else and on and on . . break the cycle! Be yourself, be free and you will be happy.

2 Comments

  1. chiquita
    Posted April 8, 2010 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    Great review! Although I grew up in 1970s Japan and 1980s UK, so had a rather different upbringing, I, too, have memories of a more carefree world, and that short passages makes me want to read it. I’m going to see if they have it at the library. Thanks!

  2. Posted April 8, 2010 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    You’re not a foodie but you are obsessed with Alice Waters and the culinary scene in SF and B? Non-foodies don’t know who Alice Waters is.

    I liked your review though..very much. Love the book myself!