Marx and Engels have a "Manifesto." New York-based Steven A. Shaw has a "Manifatso." The University of Vermont grad, former lawyer and food writer just completed his second book, The Fat Guy's Manifatso: Celebrating Men of Substance, due in 2007. His first book, Turning the Tables: Restaurants From the Inside Out, was released last year.
Shaw, 37, goes by the nickname "Fat Guy." He quit practicing law when he realized the business lunches were a lot more enjoyable than the business. Now he's the executive director of the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters - http://www.egullet.org - which he founded in 2001.
Though the nonprofit has many facets, foodies are probably most familiar with the eGullet forums, which boast celeb members such as chef-turned-gonzo memoirist Anthony Bourdain and writer Michael Ruhlman. In Shaw's words, the forums are "pretty damn big." About 250,000 unique visitors drop by each month, and 2500 people with a lot of free time on their hands are "very active." Topics range from the concrete - "My whetstone arrived . . . now what?" to the fanciful: "What would mythical and extinct animals taste like?"
Seven Days chatted with Shaw via instant messenging about some weighty topics: where to eat in Burlington, what New Yorkers think of Vermont products, and how eGullet helped break a story about culinary plagiarism.
SD: What prompted you to go to UVM?
STEVEN SHAW: When I was a kid, my mother or father or both . . . taught at UVM for a summer. We lived in the then newly constructed Living and Learning Center. I even went to the summer camp there. I guess I always had fond memories of the place . . . I could have gone to a technically better-ranked school, like Georgetown, but my father encouraged me to go to a college I liked rather than to be a slave to the numbers in ranking systems. I think that worked out well for me: At UVM I met some world-class professors like the political science professor and Holocaust authority Raul Hilberg, and the philosophy and religion professor Richard Sugarman . . . Not to mention, I met my wife, Ellen, on the first day of college - so even if I hadn't learned anything there it would have been worth going to UVM!
SD: What did you study while you were there?
SS: I had an individually designed major in Judaic studies, which I invented in order to be able to take all the classes I wanted to take with my favorite professors.
SD: In your book, you mention a favorite Chinese restaurant in Burlington that you and Ellen used to walk miles to visit - even in the winter. Which restaurant was it?
SS: Out on Shelburne Road, there was a Chinese restaurant right by the Kentucky Fried Chicken.
SD: The Panda Inn. It's closed now, unfortunately. Did you have any other formative food experiences while at UVM?
SS: Usually a semester would go something like this: My parents would fill my UVM meal card with the maximum number of points at the beginning of the semester; I'd spend all the points about half way through the semester; then I'd spend all of Ellen's points for another quarter of the semester or so; then I'd spend whatever money I had lying around on restaurant meals; then I'd cook in a declining spiral of quality, first pretty good stuff like stir fried chicken and vegetables (there's only so much you can do in the L&L kitchen), and eventually ramen for the last couple of weeks of every semester.
SD: Have you been back to Vermont since college? If so, any thoughts on how Vermont cuisine has changed? Any favorite restaurants?
SS: We go back to Burlington pretty often. A couple of our best friends from college never left . . . Usually when we visit we're not out on the restaurant scene much, especially now that we have a baby and our friends have babies, and when we do go out we like to hit the old favorites like Al's [French Frys]. That's not to say I'm completely in the dark about Burlington's better restaurants. Clearly, things have been developing. The influence of NECI can be seen all over, not just in NECI's restaurants. I think the big story in food in the past decade has been that the smaller cities like Burlington are starting to see restaurants of national caliber.
SD: On a recent trip to San Francisco, I noticed that Vermont products were all the rage - the best restaurants were serving Vermont butter and cheeses. Does Vermont have the same kind of cachet in New York City?
SS: Certainly, in-the-know New York chefs and foodies are well aware of the many excellent products that come out of Vermont, not just the dairy products . . . but also all the stuff that comes from, for example, the Vermont Fresh Network. There has also been a lot of Vermont awareness created by Ed Behr's Art of Eating quarterly, which is based in Vermont but is internationally authoritative on so many issues of food and drink. But the average New York consumer? No, I doubt there's a ton of Vermont food-product awareness. New Yorkers think of Vermont as cute, they give some cred to Vermont cheddar, but that's about it. Things will change, though, as more Vermont products get featured on more menus.
SD: Speaking of Vermont products, do you have any thoughts about the "localvore" movement?
SS: I think it's great to utilize local products, but I also think it's great that thousands of years of human civilization have gotten us to the point where we can get tuna caught in waters off Long Island delivered to Japan the same day. The best restaurants, in my opinion, strike a balance: They take the best local stuff and fill the gaps with stuff that's better when you get it via FedEx. What amazes me is that, even in this age of heightened culinary awareness, you have so many people, restaurants and markets where they gratuitously import and schlep products all over the place for no reason. I mean, it's November. It's New England. Why the hell are all the apples in all the supermarkets from Washington State? If they were better, OK, I could see it, but they're not better. The apples we grow here are the best in the world.
SD: Let's talk about eGullet. Does anybody make money working on it, or is it strictly a volunteer affair?
SS: We have two paid employees: me and the eGullet Society office assistant. Whether we "make money" is a matter for interpretation. I could make more money, say, working at McDonald's 20 hours a week . . . Spending more like 80 hours a week on eGullet Society stuff . . . means I can't do as much writing for pay. Most of the money we take in goes to our scholarship program. This year we're offering a total of $25,000 in culinary arts scholarships and fellowships. Everybody else on our staff - about 70 people - is a volunteer.
SD: Do you believe that discussions on the eGullet forums are influencing the world at large?
SS: I think the finest moments for online discussions are when they bring something to the fore that was never before even an issue. One example: Earlier this year an eGullet Society member - a chef in New York - saw some photos online from a restaurant in Australia that were exact copies of dishes from several cutting-edge American restaurants. This could never have happened before the Internet. After that revelation, a lengthy dialogue ensued about the nature of ownership of ideas in cuisine - can you copyright a dish? Is there such a thing as culinary plagiarism? The traditional news media got wind of the story and started covering it, all over the world. And we're not just talking about food publications, though there was a huge piece on it in Food & Wine. We're talking about the Wall Street Journal. And just this past week a guy sent me - get this - a law review article on the subject.
SD: In some ways, eGullet forums seem pretty democratic - everybody gets to weigh in, but it also has components of a meritocracy, like specialists we can trust because they possess solid food backgrounds. Any comments on this structure?
SS: I think of it more as a totalitarian organization run by me! But seriously, what you've described is exactly what we're trying to achieve. I think the Internet is great, but it can be too anarchic. That's what destroyed Usenet and a lot of the early online forums.
You don't create a good university by putting a whole bunch of smart people in one place and saying, "Go!" You have professors, you have classes scheduled at certain times . . . But at the same time, the whole reason you're doing all this is to encourage free thinking and quality exchange of ideas. It's a balance we try to strike every day, and it's not easy.
SD: It seems to be working well. For example, I know that many eGullet forum participants consider it a much better source of advice about restaurants than printed guides like Michelin or Zagat, and get recipes and cooking advice there as well. Is online food journalism making print media about food obsolete?
SS: For a certain category of foodies, it has already rendered much of print media obsolete. A lot of the most serious gourmets I know are, at this point, getting all of their critical information online. I mean, they read newspaper reviews and they check out guidebooks out of curiosity, but the Internet is where all the real action is. For advanced cooks, there is less and less justification for buying cookbooks, because the information online is free, easily searchable and often very good, and because all but a few cookbooks tend to be pretty shallow these days. For the population at large, though, I think online content is still not accessible enough. You can't just go in to the eG Forums and pull up a list of the 10 best restaurants in a city. You have to work for that information. Guidebooks, magazines and other print sources (and the online sources modeled after print sources, like Zagat online) are better for that sort of thing. For now.
SD: Tell me about Fat Guy's Manifatso.
SS: Back in the late 1990s I wrote a series of essays for Salon.com as "The Fat Guy." It started out with a piece called "Fat Guys Kick Ass!" and was a running series for a couple of years. It had a huge number of followers, because, hey, something like 65 percent of the population is overweight but there's nobody out there taking pro-overweight positions. My essays really resonated with folks who were sick of trying to conform to unrealistic norms of body image. I always had it in my mind to collect those essays and tie them together as a book. I've finished writing it (it's in the editorial process now), and my next book is going to be a sibling to Turning the Tables, focusing on Asian restaurants.
SD: Do you think that those who are overweight and unhealthy are just eating the wrong stuff?
SS: I think those who are overweight and unhealthy are, in many cases, just not walking enough or getting any other form of exercise. I think it's quite possible to be fat and fit. Being fat and un-fit may not be as good an idea! I'm not saying that people should weigh so much that they need to be extracted from their homes with construction equipment, but I do think it's OK to be overweight - there may even be health benefits - and that it's a hell of a lot better to be fat and happy than thin and miserable.
SD: It sounds like you work a lot - do you still have time to go out and eat? How about travel?
SS: I write the occasional magazine or newspaper article, and once in awhile I put on a suit and help a friend out in court, but books and eGullet Society duties are what I mostly do. Our dining and travel schedule has been somewhat curtailed in the past year on account of the birth of our son, but we still eat out and travel about a zillion times as much as normal people. We actually took the whole family - me, my wife, the baby and our dog - on book tour last October when Turning the Tables came out. We drove to 10 cities - all the way down to Florida in the end - and had some amazing meals . . . At home, we have my mother watch the baby every Monday so we can go to a nice restaurant, and on other nights we often go to more casual places and bring him. Although, in one incident that will surely become part of family legend, we took him with us to dinner at the fanciest restaurant in New York - actually in North America - Alain Ducasse at the Essex House. He's one of only two babies ever to be in there - the other was the baby of the Essex House hotel's owner.
SD: As a toddler, your son has tasted better food than most will try in their lifetime - lucky kid!
SS: Yeah, and after all this carefully cultivated early gourmet education, I'm sure in a couple of years he'll only want to eat white food or some such nonsense
You mentioned something about me working a lot. I do work a lot, it's true. I mean, it's midnight. I'm online with you doing this interview, and I've got another instant messenger window open . . . But the reason I work hard is because I love what I do and believe in it. Now if I could only figure out a way to pay the Visa bill.