My Ode to New York Times Food Writer Kim Severson

Before I ever met food writer Kim Severson, I wanted to hate her.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m not normally a hater. Not at all.

But imagine two athletes playing the same position, yet on opposing teams. There’s just a natural rivalry that develops.

That’s what I felt initially for Kim, now a New York Times food journalist, who years ago, was a food writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, when I was the same for the competition, the San Jose Mercury News.

She started her career as a hard news reporter, before switching to food writing. I had done the same. I’d turn up to events, only to find her there, too. I’d finish writing a story, only to find she’d just done a similar one — often far better, too. I’d be nominated for a writing award, only to find out she was up for two of them in the same competition.

That’s why I wanted to hate Kim Severson.

That is, until I actually met her, of course.

Because I ended up liking her immensely from the get-go.

When you compete head-to-head with someone on a pressure-packed field, there’s a tendency to build them up in your mind into something that they’re not. It’s a great motivator that propels you onward to try to beat or surpass them. But then reality sets in, and you realize that what you truly feel for this person is not envy or hatred, but the utmost admiration.

And that’s really what I felt for Kim from the moment I first laid eyes on her byline. The woman can flat-out write. She can turn a phrase like no one else, bringing you to tears one moment, and sending you into convulsions of laughter the next. That’s no more evident than in her new autobiographical book, “Spoon Fed” (Riverhead Books), a brave, revealing look at one of the nation’s most gifted food writers and the iconic female cooks who taught her valuable lessons along the way.

As I turned the pages, it was stunning to realize that Kim, whose talents strike fear in so many other food writers like myself, was herself so full of self-doubt and anxieties about her own abilities. Worse yet, she wrestled with all that while battling alcoholism when living in one of the premier wine capitals of the world — Northern California.

Even if you’ve never been fortunate enough to meet Kim in person, you come away from her book with so much respect for a woman who is ballsy, smart, resilient and generous of spirit.

We never talked about how our respective jobs made us natural competitors. It was left unsaid. And I’m sure it was mostly my own insecurities at play, as I was the underdog, working for the smaller newspaper, to her alpha queen, the star of one of the premier food sections in the country.

When I was nominated for a James Beard Foundation award in 2002, I was a nervous wreck just before the grand ceremony in New York, where a who’s who of food writers and editors gathered in anticipation for what’s considered the Oscars of the culinary world.

When I wondered what I was doing there and thought I had no chance in the world, it was Kim who walked over to me before the ceremony, looked me straight in the eyes, and said, “This is YOUR night. I can feel it!” When my name was actually announced as a winner, and I somehow made it back from the stage to my seat on wobbly legs and a mind in a total daze, it was Kim who ran over to me first to throw her arms around me in a big congratulatory hug.

Two years later, when I called to wish her much success in her new job as she departed San Francisco for the New York Times, it was Kim who was the one to finally broach the aspect of our relationship never mentioned before. In her usual sincere, matter-of-fact way, she said of our years working against one another, “We pushed each other to do our best.”

And that’s the highest honor you can ask of any rivalry or friendship.

Meet Kim for yourself when she does a book-signing tonight at 6 pm. at Omnivore Books in San Francisco.

Join her May 18 at 6:30 p.m., when the New York Times brings its “TimesTalks” series to the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in San Francisco. Kim will be part of a panel discussion, “The Way We Eat,” with Chef Traci des Jardins of Jardiniere in San Francisco, Chef Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in Yountville, and Chef Michael Mina of Michael Mina Restaurant in San Francisco. Tickets are $20.

Whatever you do, pick up a copy of “Spoon Fed” and get to know one extraordinary woman and writer, whose words will continue to nourish you long after the last page is turned.

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Date: Monday, 17. May 2010 5:25
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19 comments

  1. 1

    Great post. I too have long admired her writing. Glad to hear that there is still room left for good writers in the crowded world of memoir/food books. Looking forward to yours!

  2. 2

    It’s always so interesting to be able to peek behind the scenes and read your insiders perspective! I remember when she was writing for the chron, times certainly change. I hope this is available as an audiobook, I would so love to read it!

  3. 3

    I haven’t yet gotten my hands on Kim’s book, but, like you, I’m also a big fan of her writing. What’s amazing to me, though, having seen her speak several times in person, is that she’s one of the funniest people out there. I have no idea if this humor comes across in her book, but I certainly hope so. Whenever she’s on a stage, she leaves people in stitches.

    Thanks for revealing her more serious, compassionate side.

  4. 4

    A great post! This book must be very interesting, for sure…

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  5. 5

    Over the many years of placing food client/product stories with Kim I was always so amazed at her kindness, warmth and professionalism. A few years ago I had a client meeting with her in NY and he was lost and late. I was here in CA and was frantic. Kim was amazing…she calmed me down, got the interview done and did an incredible story. She even called me afterwards to tell me how well it went!

  6. 6

    Sounds like a remarkable person and it sounds like the two of you have done a great job of supporting each other over the years. There are alot of food memoirs available right now, but this is the one that I will read. Thanks for the great post Carolyn!

  7. 7

    You both are wonderful, and I hope to be where the two of you are in your careers.

    I had the luck of working with Kim (VERY briefly) when I was an intern at the Chronicle. At first, I was excited to do food stylings and recipe testing, but as the internship went on, and I started to work with the writers, including Kim, I wanted to write more and more.

    I’ve been following her and her book release and am so proud and amazed (but not surprised) how much of a warm reception it’s received. I’m so happy for her!

  8. 8

    Excellent post! Thanks for the peek into what the professional writing world looks like from the other side. :)

  9. 9

    Sweet Carolyn,

    As a former competitive swimmer, I only got better by racing against those who were as good as me or just a bit better. You have your own writing chops to be very proud of but I so appreciate your piece about Kim. I hope to meet her one day…but am just not into waiting in line and all that. ugh.

    I enjoyed Spoon Fed very much indeed. When is your book coming out then?

  10. 10

    Cheryl: There is humor aplenty in “Spoon Fed.” You’ll love it when you read it.

    Everyone else: You guys are too kind. If ever I am so lucky as to write a book, I would be thrilled if it’s even half as wonderfully written as Kim’s.

  11. 11

    oh! your first haof of your post sounds so fimiliar :) I am going through similar experience. Now I love what I do, I do write for one of the major newspaper here at my place. YOu too very inspiring! :)

  12. 12

    Wow, very interesting post…thanks for the information…will look for the book :-)

  13. 13

    Your post is why I had to buy her book. I completely agree that a good rivalry is one that pushes both people to do their best. Love this post and wish I could make it tonight or tomorrow night!

  14. 14

    Sounds like a good read! I need to check it out :)

  15. 15

    Rivals doing/saying kind things for/about one another grab me like seeing people—old or otherwise—helping one another do anything, couples watching others, then smiling gently at one another, catching the last moments of a breathtaking alpine glow, etc. Very, very nice piece, Carolyn.

  16. 16

    Okay since you were so refreshingly honest – the truth is, I also would like to hate you – I have this picture of you in my mind – you are living the life I dream of! But then, while part of me wants to hate you – I really can’t because I admire you too much!

  17. 17

    What a great tribute, and I’ve heard so many great things about Kim’s book and her writing. I look forward to checking out her book, even more so now because of the connection.

  18. 18

    Kim is indeed a great writer, and a great person. But so are you, Carolyn. Thanks for this blog post. Enjoyed it.

  19. 19

    What a great way to think of a colleague–pushing you to do your best. I look forward to reading her book.

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