From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In this frank confessional memoir, Severson, food writer for the New York Times
since 2004, attributes her culinary confidence to the tutelage of eight maternal figures, from the legendary to the not-so-famous. Moving from Alaska, where she wrote for the Anchorage Daily News
, to San Francisco to be a food writer for the Chronicle
, Severson quits her destructive habit of excessive drinking, and when she first interviews Marion Cunningham, the beloved California food writer, the two share their similar fears and vulnerabilities. Severson's refrain that I was a fraud and an alcoholic and I was scared to death I would fail runs through this narrative like a dirge, while her successive culinary acquaintances reflect her insecurities: Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters represents an admirable, however ridiculously uncompromising model of perseverance; Ruth Reichl, her intimidating predecessor at the New York Times
, reminds her of the leader of the popular girls at school into whose realm she never fit; and Southern food writer Edna Lewis's unconventional living situation with the young gay cook Scott Peacock inspires Severson to recount her own difficult early years of coming out as a lesbian in the face of her family's disapproval and discomfort. Some of the portraits verge on the fawning (e.g., Rachael Ray has a charisma that is as God-given as a star pitcher's right arm), but Severson's goal of finding a connection to her Italian mother dying of Parkinson's rings brave and sincere. (May)
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New York food writer Severson traces her zeal for food back to her earliest days growing up in a Norwegian American home. Embarking on a career in food writing with jobs in San Francisco and New York, she found self-confidence and purpose that helped overcome alchoholism and drugs. Her profession also gave her entrée to some of cooking's most important practitioners, who became more than mere news sources. Venerable Marion Cunningham proved to have some of Severson's same weaknesses. Alice Waters taught her how to appreciate soundly prepared simple foods. Celebrity critic Ruth Reichl, whose desk Severson inherited at the New York Times, proved a model of intelligence and idiosyncratic style. Leah Chase, the great impresario of Creole cooking, served as an example of a life lived with purpose and helped reawaken Severson's religious impulses. Redoubtable southern cook Edna Lewis' compassionate spirit helped Severson come to fuller acceptance of her own homosexuality. --Mark Knoblauch