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Eat, Drink, Sob: Kim Severson's Bittersweet Memoir

It was once said that New York media was run by gays, Jews, and drunks. But if the recent output of memoirs by New York Times food section writers is any indication, though the cabal is definitely gay, it’s also Italian and, thankfully, on the shaky road to recovery. Nevertheless, the two books in question — Frank Bruni’s 2009 memoir Born Round and Kim Severson’s new memoir Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life — are about as different as two memoirs about gay Italian-American former addict New York Times dining section writers can be.

Bruni — an awkward fat kid addicted to eating and sleeping pills — grew up to be the bitingly witty critic of the Times from 2004-2009. Severson on the other hand — an awkward fat kid addicted to drinking and drugs — became one of the Times’ food writers, showcasing ingredients, promising chefs, fading legends, and guiding legion readers through the finer points of forming stiff peaks. Their differences in temperament couldn’t be more pronounced than in the tone and timbre of their memoirs.

Late period Bruni criticism was catty to the point of feral. (Who can forget his takedown of Robert’s Steakhouse, proof if ever it was needed gay men and stripclubs should be kept apart?) He’s a master of the takedown, analyzing the constituent parts of a constructed object and distilling them into bons mots. His memoir is similarly written, each yo-yo episode of binge eating and personal training cleverly dissected. But the book lacks empathetic gravity and though relentlessly linear, one loses the plot, or rather interest in it. Kim Severson, on the other hand, has never been noted for her wit. It is the warmth and generosity of her writing that has won her fans. Her métier is not deconstruction but fabrication. She turns raw ingredients into confections. Her new memoir might be her best recipe yet.

The structure of Spoon Fed is boilerplate foodie memoir, a kind of Dantean trek through the kitchen with multiple spatula-wielding Virgils. In her version, Ms. Severson profiles eight cooks who saved her life. They are, in order of appearance, Marion Cunningham, Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl, Floriana Ranalla Zappa, Leah Chase, Edna Lewis, Rachel Ray and Marcella Hazan. Five of those eight women are the matriarchs of modern food and food writing. Ms. Zappa, however, Severson’s maternal grandmother, might be less widely known. Leah Chase, whose restaurant Dooky Chase was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, and Edna Lewis, a Southern cookbook author and chef, were new names to me. Their discovery is one of the book’s great pleasures. In each chapter, Severson braids together her time spent with them — often not much more than an afternoon — with her own experience growing up gay, drunk, and — partially, at least — in Alaska.

But of course, the subtitle to the memoir is “How Eight Cooks Saved My Life” and it is in relating the how that Severson’s salty prose excels. She doesn’t spare criticism but it’s always larded with self-deprecation and marbled with an ex-addict’s 12-step clarity. Ruth Reichl comes across as entitled and superior seeming, whose “popular girl” persona couldn’t be further from Severson’s chubby lesbian outsider. Alice Waters is a field green loving nymphomaniac but teaches Severson about unabashed passion.

The indignity of aging isn’t overlooked either. But Edna Lewis, whose body and mind were failing her at the time of Severson’s visit (she died shortly after in 2006) and Marcella Hazan, of whom Severson writes, “a parade of Marlboro Lights and afternoon shots of Gentleman Jack whiskey had added up,” aren’t held up as pity cases. Instead each in their own way teaches Severson something about herself — unconditional love in the former; the irretrievability of the past in the latter.

The recipe for a memoir is easy to scorch, many tend to overly sweet mawkishness while others to bitter reverie. As befits a truly passionate gourmet, in Spoon Fed, Severson has gotten the balance exactly right.

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