“ . . . food is the best antidote for anything life throws at you.”
I’d been wanting to read this book since it came out back in . . . . oh, April 2010, I believe. Kim Severson was a food writer for the New York Times for six years (she’s now Atlanta bureau chief for the paper). One of the best things I’d ever read in the Times was her “Festiveness, Stacked Up Southern Style,” about the cake ladies of Southeastern Alabama, a screaming good read. It was about these ladies in Alabama who make these tremendous layer cakes, some of them 16 layers. I am not making that up.
(I highly recommend searching out this article, if for no other reason than great quotes such as this one: “That’s just the way it comes out. One time I got 17. Of course, I weren’t trying,” about how many layers one of the cake ladies achieved. Or this one: “If you get down and out, just get in the kitchen and bake a cake.” Enchanting. But I digress.)
Severson’s memoir covers her time as a journalist in Alaska, to her turn as a food writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, to her move to the New York Times as a food writer. THE New York Times, I tell you! (Yes, I am an East Coast, New-York-Times-loving liberal. So sue me.).
Let me tell you something about this book: it is a very good story. With humor, grace and unflinching honesty, she talks about her successes and failures with this really endearing self-deprecation that resonated strongly with me. If you’ve ever enjoyed highs and lows in equal measure and been riddled with self-doubt through both, this book will likely resonate with you too. Not to mention, the writing is perfection.
An alcoholic who stopped drinking three months before she took the San Francisco Chronicle job, she notes, “This was the great cosmic joke of my life. A major newspaper offered me a job writing about food in one of the world’s great wine regions just about the time I figured out that my long, deep and destructive love affair with alcohol and drugs was about to kill me.”
The way she talks about alcoholism in general, and her alcoholism in particular, is deeply informative for anyone who has ever loved an alcoholic, worked with one, or been exposed to the disease in any way that makes you feel baffled by the behavior of the person drinking. Having loved one and worked with a few, her telling gave me new insight, i.e., there’s no reason to take an alcoholic’s wanting to spend most of their free time with the beloved booze personally, because it ain’t about you, honey. Thanks, Kim. ; )
I grant you this might not sound like a recipe for a real fun read, but it is. Some of the passages where she delves into her partying behavior will have you laughing out loud, and make you want to give her a high five for getting beyond it all.
For example, this:
There were wine tastings where I’d start the evening by keeping careful notes, rejecting bottles with quiet arrogance and commenting on the best of the lot with what I felt was brilliant and original insight. By the end of the night, my notebook would have fallen into the toilet and the few other drunks left at the party would help me polish off the bottles we had hours earlier declared swill. Then someone would call their drug dealer.
The book focuses on her addiction early on, and weaves it throughout the narrative, delicately and insightfully, but this is not a story of wild drug-induced and drunken encounters on the way to sobriety. Nope, it’s really a story of how her encounters with eight cooks – some of which you will have heard of and some not – helped turned the ship around for her, and the lessons she learned along the way. Of course, she did the work. You know, both figuratively and literally. She figured out how to right herself. But each cook provided a valuable lesson that made it possible.
There’s Marion Cunningham, Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl, Leah Chase, Edna Lewis, and even Rachael Ray. Yep, that Rachael Ray. Offering wisdom born of the kitchen, applicable to daily life. For example, her time with Ruth Reichl teaches her one of the most important lessons she learned over the years: not to let yourself be tortured by the “popular girls” by comparing yourself to someone you think is prettier, more successful, or “better” in some way. In Rachael Ray, she sees a lot of herself, and learns that being your authentic self is where you’re the strongest. From Marion Cunningham, that it’s never too late to start over.
And hey, there are good recipes here, too. Meyer Lemon Meringue Pie, anyone?
I love this book tremendously, so much so I recently read it for the second time. If you’re looking for a funny, wise, insightful and mouthwatering read for yourself or for the cook in your life, this one sure satisfies.
(And speaking of things food-and-wine, if you’d like to know more about food and wine pairing, go up to the top right of the blog and enter your e-mail address in the form there, and I’ll send you 6 food and wine pairing lessons, with recipes, delivered straight to your e-mail inbox!)