I’ve had the box for ten years now, but haven’t made many dishes from it. I haven’t even read all of the index cards. I save them for when I want to get a big whiff of her personality. Her folded dinner party and brunch notes, tucked in back, get to me every time with their post-party reminders, which are often cryptic—“Too much of everything! Do not let anyone tell you what is needed!”—and sometimes grim: “A flop! Made the [raw vegetable platter] the night before – it turned dark – everyone avoided it.”
Sometimes practical: “Moravian sugar cakes not so popular here.”
I love reading her jaunty, familiar script; I can almost hear her voice and the way she hummed when she cooked. She rarely wrote down measurements and frequently made introductory remarks: “There are many different ways of preparing spaghetti sauce, just as there are so many ways of doing potatoes…” or “even the least interesting fish done this way comes out like deviled crab. Delicious!”
From the many notes my mother jotted down about her parties and food, I gather she had a dream of writing a cookbook or maybe a book about entertaining, but she lacked the confidence to undertake such a project. Which leads me to women who write about food and three new books about the wisdom that can be found in the kitchen.
Kim Severson, former food critic for the New York Times and now its Atlanta bureau chief, will appear at Outwrite Books on March 10 at 7:30 p.m. Anyone has ever considered writing about food should go. Also, anyone who’s in recovery. Severson packs some hard-earned life lessons into her clear-sighted and touching 2010 memoir, Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life (Riverhead Books, $16), just out in paperback.
This book began so undramatically that I nearly set it back down. Severson’s background reads like an American idyll straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting: She comes from a large family, Norwegian on her dad’s side, Italian on her mom’s. Hard-working, no-nonsense stock. Nothing out of the ordinary in the kitchen or in any other room in the house. She was the middle child, “resilient, freckled…athletic and social.” From Michigan, she headed to Alaska, where she began her journalism career. From Alaska, she took a job with the San Francisco Chronicle. On page 12, she casually mentions that she has known since childhood that she liked girls. On the facing page, she mentions a drinking problem that by all rights, she says, should have killed her.
This was maybe more Grant Wood than Rockwell; she had my full attention. Even more so when she described her first assignment in SF, an interview with the venerable Marion Cunningham, of Fannie Farmer Cookbook fame.
As she pulls into Marion’s driveway in the suburbs, Severson is already so nervous that she leaves her headlights on and after the interview, will have to have her car towed. She still isn’t sure why the Chronicle has hired her—“I was absolutely convinced there was no way I had the tools to actually do the job”—and is sure the interview will flop.
Marion, as Severson calls her, seemed nice, but still:
I followed her down the long hallway to the kitchen, making fast mental notes of the snapshots that hung crooked and dusty in a long series of cheap frames. Marion and Ruth Reichl. Marion and Danny Kaye. Marion and Alice Waters. Marion and Edna Lewis. Marion and James Beard.
I am so screwed, I thought.
But Marion turns out to be so easy-going, so unassuming, her kitchen so unremarkable, that she puts Severson at ease immediately. When, after the perfectly great interview, Marion casually admits that she quit drinking at 51, Severson throws down her own deep dark secret: “I was a fraud and an alcoholic and I was scared to death I would fail. Fail the interview. Fail the job. Fail my life. I would be a disappointment.” Nonplussed, Marion disagrees: “Dear, you seem pretty terrific to me!” she says. And with that, they became friends, and Marion her “instant champion.”
In addition to Cunningham, Severson profiles Marcella Hazan, Alice Waters, Leah Chase, Ruth Reichl, Edna Lewis and Rachael Ray. Each has something Severson wants: fame, or influence, or popularity, or faith, or a sense of self. But because she is a natural storyteller, the “life lesson” part is secondary; we absorb the messages in these chapters because she’s funny, and an inveterate secret-sharer who dishes on everybody (herself included):
Alice Waters … “She and her unlikely band of Free Speech Movement loyalists spent the first decade of Chez Panisse getting high, discussing politics and sleeping with one another.”
Ruth Reichl … Severson confesses Reichl was her “kryptonite,” the popular girl who always made her feel clumsy and stupid. She also notes that Reichl’s breakthrough food writing gig came from her soon-to-be lover, Colman Andrews, later editor of Saveur. And she wasn’t all that popular, at least not with the people she wrote about at her old job at the New York Times.
Scott Peacock (long-time associate, friend and caretaker for Edna Lewis) … “We both knew we were big ol’ homosexuals early on. He wanted an Easy Bake oven. I wanted a catcher’s mitt.” In one of the most moving chapters in the book, Severson details Peacock’s relationship with Lewis, especially during her decline; the two of them used to watch Little Rascals episodes together, the one thing he discovered she could still recognize and enjoy after dementia set in.
Rachael Ray … “The best part is she is unapologetic about her own culinary skills and her reliance on shortcuts: ‘I have no formal anything,” Rachael tells Severson cheerfully. “I’m completely unqualified for any job I’ve ever had!’”
On one level, Severson is always looking for her mother in all the kitchens she peeks into. She’s long concealed her sexuality from her parents, and when she finally asks for their acknowledgment of who she is, it’s her mom she appeals to. Their relationship shifts; Severson’s account of it is beautifully economical:
I talked in vague code about my “roommates” and she stopped asking about boyfriends. As I started working and moved around the West Coast, our code evolved. Things softened between us. Once, my mother suggested I might like to meet a friend’s daughter. “She’s a bachelor lady, like you.”
Just as the above is woven into the chapter about Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, every encounter in Spoon Fed reveals a stage of Severson’s efforts to grow up and into her role as a food critic, her determination to stay sober, her earnest efforts to be herself and learn her craft despite the fact that she often feels “a desperate fear” that she’ll never be good enough.
It’s so reassuring (like comfort food!) to know the almost insanely insecure person behind the byline. Not that I can relate or anything.
“My heroes are women who never abandoned the kitchen,” Severson writes in her introduction. “The women in this book shined the light on what was ahead for me when I couldn’t find my way. They showed me that food is the best antidote for anything life throws at you. They became my tour guides, helping me figure out what I really believe in.”
Maybe it was because my advance reader’s copy of New York chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones, and Butter (Random House, $25) had nothing on the cover but a giant-print quote from Anthony Bourdain which ended, “I am choked with envy.” Or because on the back, Mario Batali promised to burn all the books he had written and apply for a job as Hamilton’s dishwasher. For whatever reason, along with the carnivore title, I got the feeling it was just another memoir about some badassed chef.
I wasn’t entirely mistaken, but it surprised me to find Hamilton’s book had much in common with Severson’s: at its core is a search for mother, family and self.
Hamilton’s story is the dark night to Severson’s sunny day—at least at first. Both of them survived tailspins, but Hamilton is the passionate, stubbornly uncompromising iconoclast, while Severson is wryly funny, more of a people person, and has no (obvious) axe to grind.
Hamilton grew up in New Hope, Pennsylvania, an arts colony where her father was a set designer for the circus who threw elaborate parties with extensive props. Her mother was a haughty Frenchwoman and former ballerina who “ruled the house with an oily wooden spoon in her hand and forced us to eat dark, briny, wrinkled olives, small birds we might have liked as pets, and cheeses that looked like they might well bear Legionnaire’s Disease.”
Her book begins there, with a long look at her family, some of it over-detailed and irrelevant—why we need to know about her brother’s dual cassette deck or her sister’s wristwatch (we’ll never see either of them again) is a question for her editor—and moves to New York City’s Lone Star Café, where she eventually ends up after a small lifetime of stealing and cocaine use and pawning her parents’ valuables to buy drugs. For all her assurance that it was the hippest, baddest, craziest place to work any underage, wayward teen could have stumbled into, the scenes there fail to convey much atmosphere. The closer Hamilton gets to opening her own restaurant, however, the more the book comes to life.
And come to life it does, with passion and honesty and the same kind of tumbling urgency that drove Kim Severson to take the newspaper job that scared the pants off her.
Nothing ever gets much easier for Hamilton, though. As my mother would say, she does everything the hard way. When she wants to learn how to write, she chooses an MFA program at “the Harvard of the Midwest”—then comes to despise it and all its “soft ghostly people.” She’s gay, but decides to get married to a man. An Italian man.
Lastly, the building she chooses that will eventually house her crazily successful restaurant, Prune, is a “long-shuttered” French bistro that went bankrupt two years earlier and has never been cleared out of its final week’s food, dirty dishes, and meat stocked in the coolers. Inside were “legions of living cockroaches” and rotting lamb carcasses and a case of apples that discharged “a gray sooty cloud of spores—like a swarm of gnats” that flew up her nose. The floors were matted with rat shit and urine.
It goes without saying she fell in love: “I could see that the place had immense charm.”
And that, in a nutshell, is Gabrielle Hamilton. Her book, which is also about getting to know herself—as a chef, a daughter, and a mother—is a monument to the double-edged sword of a refusal to be anything but herself.
And then there is the wholesome, utterly uncomplicated Julia Child. As Always, Julia: Food, Friendship & the Making of a Masterpiece (Joan Reardon, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26), her letters to long-time friend and pen pal Avis DeVoto, document the making of the two-volume classic, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a story most recently retold in the 2009 movie, Julie &Julia. The letters also capture an era of political upheaval eerily mirroring our own.
Child met DeVoto through the mail and wrote to her from 1952 to 1954, when they met in person; their letters resumed after Paul Child was posted to Germany and continued until the final acceptance, by Knopf, of Julia’s book in 1960. Throughout the exchange, Julia worked on her manuscript, Avis edited and proofread it, and they traded recipes, techniques and advice about old favorites, new foods, and all manner of kitchen gadgetry and newfangled inventions: dishwashers, disposals, aluminum foil, and blenders.
Letters like these don’t exist anymore. Before the Internet and email, and when calling overseas would have been out of the question, Julia and Avis carried on a long, lively conversation separated by a few days or weeks. You can almost hear Julia’s voice (or, more recently, Meryl Streep channeling Julia) as she writes “So we must pack up our dear old apartment on the Roo de l’ooniversity,” or “We were driving up north [in England] and stopped at a beautiful Tudor Inn, which was truly oldey woldey and charming.”
“I’ve got a terrible restless fit, so though it is 8:30 and dinner is out of the way, I can’t settle down with a book,” Avis writes. “I want to talk.” And talk she does, about politics, her husband, how to scramble eggs, whether her troubled son will ever have a job, and how much she would like to kill Joseph McCarthy—and maybe Nixon, too.
Long, chatty, thinky, and full of current events, these are the kind of letters you can read and savor, without feeling any particular urgency to finish the book. Indexed, so you can look up Julia’s research on coq au vin and her recipe for potatoes hashed in cream.