A food mentor


Steven Shaw, courtesy of Dean McCord

by Dean McCord

Food plays a large role in defining us as human beings, as social creatures with many differences embodied in the dishes we create, and the ways we consume them. Holidays, rites of passage, and other celebrations typically revolve around a gustatory experience.
Each country or region or religion or family has its own food custom, and we typically take great pride in those pastimes that are unique to our tribe. Interestingly, of the three things we must have to survive – air, water and food – food is the one we can go the longest without and still survive. Yet it is food that we celebrate the most. The one necessity that we write about, study, televise. And, of course, we modify food incessantly, cooking and creating and trying to attain culinary perfection.
I’ve always loved food, and not just eating it or making it. I’m mesmerized by the concept of food being a centerpiece of social change, such as with the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins. How North Carolina barbecue differs from Memphis or Texas – and how the heck did our own Tar Heel state end up with two different styles of pork barbecue? I like to read about the food our great-grandparents ate, and how they’re making a comeback in heirloom and heritage varieties. I want to talk about our evolving foodways and the impact of immigrants on the dining dynamic. I’m intrigued by the stories of the line cook and dishwasher and server as much as any celebrity chef. Yes, it’s about the food, but it’s really about everything other than the food.
But I always didn’t think this way. I was what I call a “clinical diner,” where I was more focused on where I was eating than where the food came from, or the story behind it all. Another restaurant, another notch on my dining belt.
That all changed 16 years ago when I met a young New York lawyer by the name of Steven Shaw. Steven was one of the country’s first food bloggers, initially chronicling his New York dining experiences on his website, fatguy.com. Yeah, he was a little rotund, but when you stop practicing law full time because you realize that you’re in the business for the expense account-subsidized fancy lunches and dinners, you’re prone to put on some pounds. But what Steven could really do is write, think, and get others to join him in the process. He co-founded an amazing organization, the eGullet Society of Culinary Arts, a nonprofit organization that was arguably the leading voice in food discussions for many years.
Steven Shaw taught me to think about food in entirely different ways. The very first time I met him, we ate at Gramercy Tavern, where he introduced me to chef Tom Colicchio, now of Top Chef fame. I quickly learned, as Colicchio’s fame grew, that these celebrity chefs truly are just like you and me. I met Italian sausage makers from Arthur Avenue and the Chinatown chef who makes the best soup dumplings. Through Steven I learned that there is no other industry where its members like to talk shop more than the food industry.
On his visits to North Carolina, and there have been many, Steven and I went on plenty of road trips, seeking out great barbecue joints, roadside vegetable stands, boiled peanut vendors. One of his favorite things to do in Raleigh was to go shopping with me in the Cameron Village Harris Teeter, as he was fascinated by the suburban supermarket. Of course, that trip led to a blind hot dog tasting. Yeah, that was certainly a clinical way to experience food, but it was in the context of one of the most fun dinner parties I’ve ever attended.
I started writing about food because of Steven Shaw. When he came down with his lovely wife, Ellen, and his precocious young son, PJ, for my 50th birthday party last fall, he brought with him a story I had written for his old website more than a dozen years ago, the first piece I ever wrote about food. I remember how, at the time I wrote it, I thought it was a pretty good story. I look at it now, and it was laughably awful. Steven loved it nonetheless.
Over the years, I got more involved with food, and Steven, less so. I started a food blog and then later joined the board of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Steven left eGullet and took a position with Quirky, the coolest product development company ever. Steven and I occasionally touched base, sometimes with a food-related piece of correspondence, but more likely with a message about our families.
And then, in April, Steven suddenly collapsed and died. He was 44. I’m still in shock that I’ll never see him again. I went to the funeral to honor him, and even ate at Gramercy Tavern as a way to remember our first meeting. But obviously, something was missing that was an essential part of every trip to New York in this Millennium. Him.
I have had a few mentors in my life, but I’ve never had one who influenced me more than Steven Shaw. The Fat Guy.
He was a friend, a confidant, a teacher, and a person with whom I enjoyed every second in his company. And so, every day that I make a cocktail for myself, or share a dinner with my family, or eat a slice of wedding cake, I’ll think of Steven, remembering how much he meant to me and my love of food. Because when you get right down to it, it’s not the food at all. It’s the people.