Often the conversation about women and food is one of pathology — of eating disorders and body hate. And while this is an important conversation, food writer Kim Severson reminds us that it's not the only one.
Just yesterday, the Times ran a heart-rending profile of Judy Avrin and her documentary about her daughter's death from bulimia. And reading about Peggy Orenstein's daughter's budding fat-phobia, it may seem almost impossible to raise a girl with a healthy relationship to food. While we still need to address the very real issues behind eating disorders and body image ills, we can also benefit from messages of hope. Which is basically what Times food writer Kim Severson's Spoon Fed is.
Subtitled How Eight Cooks Saved My Life, the book is an account — with recipes — of the life lessons Severson learned through cooking and eating with eight influential women. She's candid about her recovery from alcoholism, her struggle to build an identity independent of booze, and her insecurity in the face of the "cool girls" of the New York food establishment. Instead of trying to beat these cool girls, Severson joins them — through lunching with Ruch Reichl, to be exact — and what her book conveys best is the fact that food can be a source not just of worry, but of companionship. She writes,
What a waste of time, all that measuring myself against other people. The only ruler that matters is the one I pull out at the end of the day. Did I do my best? Did I tell the truth? Was I helpful to my fellows?
And, did I make something good to eat?
Making something good to eat may not exactly be a form of truth-telling, but it is a way to do your best while helping your fellows — in a competitive world, two things that aren't always easy to combine. And making food with or for someone is often more helpful than the quotidian nature of the act would suggest. I'm thinking here of the friend who made me fried zucchini after a breakup, when I was too sad to eat unless someone else watched me. Or the friend I'm going to visit this weekend, with whom I've cooked in several different cities (I once scalded her hand in Montreal!), and hope to cook in several more.
Neither my friend nor I have ever been diagnosed with an eating disorder, but we've both dealt with food issues in the past. Sometimes such issues can feed (sorry) on each other, but I find that when we cook together we encourage each other to enjoy food for what it is — a source of nourishment and even excitement, not an enemy. It's become a cliche to talk about the importance of sharing food with other people, but I think it's true that cooking and eating with those who love us is one of the best antidotes to the toxic food messages we all get from people who don't know us at all. And in a culture that often bemoans its fucked-up relationship to food, Severson deserves praise for offering us a humble but workable way out. In the spirit of her book, here's a recipe I hope my friend and I make this weekend. It is easy because I'm lazy. Also I don't do measurements.
Goat Cheese and Asparagus Rotini
Boil water for pasta. While you're waiting, saute half a yellow onion over high heat. Chop some garlic. When the onion is brownish and translucent, reduce heat and add the garlic. Cut up some kalamata olives and add those too. Add some fresh rosemary if you have it. Mushrooms are also good, fresh or dried and soaked in water. At some point here the pasta water will be boiling. Add the rotini. Now is a good time to wash a whole bunch of asparagus, break off the woody parts (just bend the stem and the bad part will break away naturally), and chop it up. Wait for the pasta to be about 3-4 minutes from done, then put some water in the bottom of the onion pan, turn the heat back up a little, and put in the asparagus. Squeeze on some lemon juice, and dump in whatever spices you like (I recommend some basil, oregano, black pepper, and red pepper flakes, but I basically put these on everything). Cover and let cook until the asparagus is bright green and tender-ish. Meanwhile drain the pasta. Then add it to the asparagus and onion pan and stir the whole thing around. Add a bunch of goat cheese (I usually regret not putting in more) and stir again, but not too thoroughly — you want to leave some tasty nuggets of cheese. Grate some parmesan over the top, and serve to someone you like.