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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Interview with Spoon Fed Author Kim Severson

Posted By on Tue, May 11, 2010 at 2:47 PM

Kim Severson's byline is well known in the San Francisco food world. Before moving on to the New York Times, where she covers national food stories, she was at the San Francisco Chronicle, her reportage graduating from the food section to the front page. This April, Severson published Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life (Riverhead Books, $25.95), a memoir that weaves together profiles of eight cooks who have changed her life ― her mom, natch, as well as less obvious personalities like Rachael Ray and Ruth Reichl ― with tales of how they have helped the author grow as a food writer, a recovering alcoholic, and most recently, a mother.

Severson's book tour is bringing her to Omnivore Books on Monday, May 17 (as well as a TimesTalks event on May 18, but that's sold out). In preparation for her reading, SFoodie interviewed Severson, just off the plane from Louisiana, a little about the book and a lot about her perspective as someone who has written about food on both coasts.

SFoodie: I read somewhere that your book started out as a story about a generation of food writers who preceded you. People like Marion Cunningham, who made it into the book, as well as Paula Wolfert, who didn't.

Severson: Diana Kennedy, too. That generation of cookbook authors who would go really deep into one subject, travel, write cookbooks about it, and then teach people in America how to cook. In the pre-Food Network generation, these cookbook authors were the authorities. I was worried that they were going to be lost, that everyone was going to focus just on Julia Child, and not profile the other women of that generation.

Several of women you write about ― Marion Cunningham, Alice Waters ― are Bay Area cooks. Are there any others you think have shaped our own food scene?

I'd have to say Judy Rodgers, though she's not quite of that generation, and Madeleine Kamman, to a degree. Patricia Unterman. Personally, I learned a lot from that Bakers' Dozen group; [group leader] Flo Braker, who wrote a column for the Chronicle, is another one of those women who took one subject and wrote lots of cookbooks. That group of women doing cooking classes, who were a generation before me.

One of the many things I appreciated about your book was the way you defended Alice Waters. I've seen you interview her, and you poke-poke-poked at her high-mindedness; you really captured my own frustrations. But then in the book, you called attention to how much she has done.

She's a maddening person on many levels. But this anti-Alice backlash of the last few years, it's like kids rejecting their parents, not appreciating what the generation before has accomplished. Alice does live in a rarified world ― I don't disagree with that ― but she's really done it, had her hand on the rudder for a long time.

How did you see San Francisco food culture change during your six years here, and how has it changed since you left for the New York Times in 2004?

Well, I'm a huge fan of Northern California food. That was where I was getting shaped as a food writer, though I was predisposed to like the West Coast. I went to school at Michigan State but did an internship at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. I moved into this house where my roommates were cooking whole salmon. I had no idea of the West Coast way of cooking. I had never seen a Dungeness crab.

I liked that style of cooking, and the seasons that seemed to change every two to three weeks. I liked grilling, and I'm not embarrassed to say I have a gas grill, and love to grill fish and meat and vegetables for dinner outside. People say, you know, Kim. Olive oil isn't a sauce. And I say, if it's good olive oil....

While I was at the Chronicle, we saw the rise of food politics outside the Chez Panisse canon. I mean, Michael Pollan wasn't Michael Pollan yet. Now, we see Michelle Obama saying that what we eat matters to our health and that organic vegetables matter.

Then there are all the crazy dirt wizards and people who want to farm for a living, and the pickling maniac thing ― people who are really into home ec. It's happening here, too, but I notice it more among younger friends who are cooking in the Bay Area.

How does your time in the Bay Area shape what you write about at the Times? How have your topics changed when you moved to the East Coast?

I guess [what I write] is less cooking-oriented than it used to be and

more culture-oriented. In New York food becomes like music, theater,

fashion ― here everything is a churn of thought and ideas, a culture

expressing itself. Here I write more about how food fits into a

cultural moment, whereas in California, it was more about the food

itself, where it came from, what made it good ― in a way, food was more

integrated into life. I think fit in more on the West Coast than I do

in the East Coast.

So tell it to me straight: Does everyone else in the country believe our hype?

Yeah, everyone who cares about food wants to go to eat in San Francisco. San Francisco is a little smug about that, but it has reason to be.

What do you think we spend too much time talking about here?

Worrying about what everyone thinks of you.

Ha! [Sigh.] When I was Seattle, people used to get

excited every time New York paid attention to us, then criticize the

coverage for getting it wrong. San Franciscans, well, we act like New

York is supposed to pay attention to us.

San Francisco does feel that inferiority complex, but secretly, New York knows that San Francisco has it going on. Just

get over it, San Francisco. You're the gorgeous younger sister, and

everything goes your way. New York is the frustrated, put-upon older

sister ― maybe wealthier, maybe more accomplished, but she knows that

everyone's attracted to the good-looking younger one.

Not that I'm recreating my own family story here.

Follow us on Twitter: @SFoodie. Follow me at @jonkauffman.

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Jonathan Kauffman


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