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INTRODUCTION

Somewhere between the lessons her mother taught her and the ones she is now trying to teach her own daughter, Kim Severson stumbled. She lost sight of what mattered, of who she was and who she wanted to be, and of how she needed to live her life. It took a series of encounters with female cooks (including Marion Cunningham, Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl, Marcella Hazan, and Rachael Ray) to reteach her the life lessons she had forgotten—and many she had never learned in the first place. Some as small as a spoonful, and others so big they saved her life, the best lessons she found were delivered in the kitchen.

An emotionally rich, funny, multilayered memoir and an inspirational, illuminating series of profiles of the most influential female cooks, Spoon Fed is Severson's story and the story of the women who have changed her life—and ultimately, a testament to the wisdom that can be found in the kitchen.


ABOUT KIM SEVERSON

Kim Severson

Kim Severson has been a food writer for The New York Times since 2004. Previously, she was a food writer and editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, where she received four James Beard Foundation Awards and the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Kim Severson's personal trajectory is hers alone, but the life lessons she learns in the book can, in fact, apply to a broad number of people with an array of lifestyles and personal stories. How do these lessons apply to you? Which struck you as the most true or useful?

  2. The most important lessons she learns from these cooks turn out not be cooking lessons, in fact, but larger lessons about how to live: don't compare yourself with others; be yourself; start over when necessary; have patience and perseverance; etc. Is it significant that many of these lessons come in the presence of food? That they are learned in the context of preparing or sharing food? Why?

  3. Severson compares the family dinner to a "modern-day tribal fire" (p. 26), though she and one of her mentors, Marion Cunningham, also agree that "the simple act of cooking and eating together seems to be increasingly rare" (p. 25). What role does the ritual of dinner play in your family dynamic? Is the home cooked meal essential to the family dynamic, or can it be replaced by some other ritual? Are modern eating habits reshaping American families?

  4. When Severson first becomes a food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, she must learn to articulate what she likes and why, a task more difficult than it might seem. One thing that complicates this task is "taste memory" (p. 49)—Severson likes Hershey's not because it's quality chocolate, but because it reminds her of her mother's chocolate cake. Another difficulty is taste hierarchy—some foods might require a more sophisticated palate than others. Then again, Severson gives us this James Beard quote: "A hot dog or a truffle. Good is good" (p. 48). How do acquired tastes like truffle and wine compare to the "unadulterated joy" (p. 47) we experience when eating a Hershey's bar or a hot dog? Is it possible to separate taste from memory?

  5. Alice Waters, one of Severson's mentors and often considered a founder of the modern food movement, insists that the American public school curriculum should—and can—be revolutionized to teach kids about agriculture and utilize local produce in the lunch program. Severson finds Waters's idealism both maddening and inspiring. Does unwavering optimism, even about unrealistic demands, help or hinder the achievement of goals? Should one ever compromise on one's ideals?

  6. Do you agree with Severson's belief that one can "tell any story, large or small, through food" (p. 101)? What, if anything, can dining habits tell us about a person? Does the saying "you are what you eat" hold true for Severson?

  7. Severson travels to her family's village in Italy to find her ancestors' original red sauce recipe. What is the deeper purpose of Severson's culinary journey? What does she hope to discover by tracing the "red sauce trail" (p. 132)?

  8. Throughout her memoir, Severson uses the word "faith" in various contexts. There's the faith she has in God, to whom she prays to maintain her sobriety. There's the faith she experiences when she marvels at the existence of golden beets and cacao pods, the beauty and diversity of life. Severson even believes that faith is implicit in cooking, because of the trust required when executing a recipe and the communion that a shared meal brings. Is hers a religious definition of faith? What do Leah Chase and Hurricane Katrina teach Severson about faith?

  9. Severson's friend Scott Peacock, a young gay chef, becomes the unlikely friend and caretaker of Edna Lewis, the grand-dame of Southern cooking. Their relationship challenges traditional notions of family, as does Severson's own marriage to her wife. What, for Severson, constitutes a family? Can family be determined by shared belief and understanding as much as by ancestry? Do we have automatic duties to our blood relatives?

  10. Severson identifies with Rachael Ray because of their common small-town roots and enormous ambition. What does success mean to each woman? For Severson, how do professional success and public approval relate to personal satisfaction?

  11. How would you characterize Severson's relationship with her mother at the end of the memoir, and how does it differ from their earlier relationship? What changes or compromises must they each make to reach this point? What have they each learned?

  12. Ultimately, why does food play such an important role in Severson's life? Why is Severson more receptive to the wisdom of these eight female chefs than to the advice of her family and friends? Why does Severson choose to end her book in a scene not with one of the chefs, but with her mother?