Do you ever walk through the streets of New York and marvel at the seemingly endless rows of restaurants, wondering how many years you'd have to live here to eat at all of them? Well, Tucker Shaw has probably come close, and has chronicled one year of his eating life in Everything I Ate: A Year in the Life of My Mouth (Chronicle Books, 2005), a grandiose, obsessive and utterly addictive photo collection of food, glorious, nonstop food. Shaw photographed every bite, from candy to cereal, steaks to sandwiches, throughout New York and during his travels. The result is a smorgasbord of food that's impossible to even page through without feeling a rumbling in your stomach. Read it with edibles on hand.
Where did you get the idea to photograph everything you ate during 2004? Did you have the book deal before you started taking photos?
This project is a shameless bid to make history. I want my pictures to show up in anthropology textbooks 200 years from now. Some day, people are going to wonder about what people ate in New York City around the turn of the century. Maybe I'll be the one of the guys they talk about.
We are in a weird time in history. Right now, in New York (but also in urban America at large) we have unprecedented access to a variety and volume of food that's never before been assembled. Human beings have never lived like this. I figured it was worth saving, in a personal, comprehensive way.
Food magazines are like fashion magazines: They celebrate what's beautiful, new, or unusual, but very rarely report on what people really wear or eat. If people in the future rely on current food-related media, they'll think that we eat nothing but ramps and pork bellies all day. Or McDonald's and Chips Ahoy and low-carb cupcakes. The truth is much broader.
I didn't have a book deal when I set out. I wasn't really sure what I'd do with them. I just started taking pictures. After I had three or four months' worth, I showed them to a friend, who showed them to a friend at The New York Times, Sam Sifton. He wrote about my pictures. Armed with that piece of media and a proposal, I found an agent and got the deal.
What you leave out is almost as fascinating as what you put in the book. You have the photographs and then a description of what each food item is, where you ate it, the time you ate it and with whom but you don’t describe your reactions to the foods at all. How did you decide to include these precise details, and were you tempted to give critiques of the more memorable meals?
In many ways, I see this book more as a report than a memoir, so all I really wanted was for it to be accurate and complete.
There was this French philosopher/foodie back in the 18th century called Jean-Anthelm Brillat-Savarin. He said, "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." So, even though he's dead, I'm calling him on it. This project is a test of his theory. Can you tell the story of a life by just reporting the food? Can you look at what I ate and understand who I was, how I felt, what I wanted, whether I was happy?
I’ll give you the chance to do so here. Was there a single best and single worst meal of the year?
My favorite meal is usually a steak and a martini, but the best meal I had last year was a seafood dinner cooked by the husband of a friend in Milan. He had Sicily in his fingers when he cooked. One dish, a bowl piled with homemade linguini boiled in rabbit stock and topped with mixed poached frutti di mare, had the most unbelievable flavor, somewhere between a sweet spring meadow and a salty-clean deep sea spray. I believe that a thoughtful homemade dish, cooked by someone who cares about what they're doing, beats a fancy restaurant meal hands down every time, no contest, hit the showers.
The worst meal I had was a nondescript, cardboard-like turkey sandwich at an Au Bon Pain somewhere in Ohio during a cross-country road trip. It sucked, but I'm glad I had it, because it reminded me to avoid all chains for the rest of the trip. Except for a couple of Egg McMuffins, I stuck to it.
What’s the strangest reaction you got to photographing your food?
More than once, I've had people come up to me in restaurants and say, "I do that, too." People are such weirdos.
I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible in restaurants, using a flash only when necessary. One restaurant, a place I love called Jack's, gave me some heat and asked me to stop. But, I had to get my shots, and if that meant sending the waiter to the back for more cream while I had a paparazzi moment with the baba au rhum, my bad.
Did it make you more conscious of every bite you took and/or affect what you actually ate?
I don't think it's changed what I eat, although maybe it's nudged me to eat more vegetables. But it's changed everything about the way I eat, and the way I approach food at the table. I'm a pretty aggressive eater by nature, and I like to dive right in, but for a year I had to force myself to back off and spend a moment looking at my plate and framing a picture before eating. I began to notice and contemplate what I was eating, where it came from, who made it, what its history is, what it will do for me, and so on. It's made me much, much more thoughtful about food. I thought about it all the time before, but now I'm completely obsessed. A goner.
What did you learn about your eating habits? Would you say you’re a creature of habit? Will you try any food once?
My eating and food habits, like everyone's, are really boring and sometimes gross. The worst thing I do is eat a lot late at night—the 11:30 PM donut makes frequent appearances in the book. But my best habit is searching out and trying new things and new restaurants. I'll eat anything that’s been proven edible.
I’m curious about a few specifics in the book. Can you tell me who some of the people who are mentioned throughout are—Susan, Andrea and Henry, Danny, etc.? Even though it’s a book about food, it made me curious to know more about Tucker Shaw, the person, not just the eater.
Those are some of my friends. Danny is my roommate, he lives across the kitchen. I'm lucky to have a whole crew that loves to eat and cook as much as I do. Food is the ultimate common ground, I think, and it's held my group of friends together for many, many years. I think this is true for most people. Food is a player in almost every human relationship. Everyone has meals with friends. Everyone goes to a birthday party sometime. Everyone has a Henry in their life.
Can you tell me more about your work schedule? I noticed some days you were at an office, but other weekdays you seemed to be home all day. How does being at either one affect your food consumption?
Last year was kind of a tricky financial year for me. I was working through March, but left to pursue writing full-time. I lasted for about 7 months of unemployment, then caved and took a job.
When I was broke, I cooked at home a lot more. I also found out that healthier food costs more. Organic meat and fresh produce are not cheap the way frozen peas and potato chips are. When I had more cash on hand, I was careless with it. My biggest life expense has always been eating out.
At one point, you go to a food shoot. What was that shoot for?
I was assisting a friend who's a food stylist. We made a gingerbread house, but the editor ended up cutting the picture.
Once 2005 came around, was it hard to stop photographing your food?
I still miss it. I still do it, actually, just not as religiously.
Did you ever want to give up photographing or cheat a little?
I considered it, sure. But my greatest fear has always been future regret, and I knew I'd feel like a jackass if I blew it. Even if no one knew. Especially if no one knew.
The whole experience was a bona fide exercise in honesty and commitment. I had to decide, before I began, that I would see it through for a year. I was pretty hungover on January 1st and almost blew the whole thing off. I'm glad I didn't.
You clearly have a penchant for late-night cereal feedings, eating a bowl almost every night, including after a dinner at Nobu. How many boxes do you keep in your house, what are your favorites, and why is cereal almost exclusively a nighttime food for you?
I love cereal the same way a baby loves his bottle. I have to have it every night, and definitely not because I'm hungry. I eat cereal at night because it relaxes me, gets me ready to sleep, brings me home. Going out to dinner in New York is exciting and fun and sometimes even memorable, but rarely relaxing. That bowl of cereal chills me out and tucks me into bed.
I have six boxes in the cupboard right now. My favorite kind is Life. I also love Frosted Flakes and the entire Chex line.
You write at the beginning of the book that the project is extremely personal, and indeed, what sounds like a wacky art project turns out to provide many very brief glimpses into your life. I found myself wanting to know more—why that food, why then? What kind of reaction are you hoping to provoke from readers?
When I was taking the pictures, I wanted to include some context wherever I could. That's why you'll see a magazine or newspaper or TV screen in the background sometimes. If you watch the pictures I took from my window, you can see the trees come into bloom, then turn green, then change, then fall. I wanted the pictures to show that food happens in life, not just in the fridge or at the restaurant. It is impossible to separate foodev from life, or life from food.
I'm not sure what I want to provoke from readers, but I do think food is a great starting point for bigger conversations about ourselves, about what we have and who we are as a city and nation. I want people to notice and think about what they eat, to consider it and not be afraid. I want people to laugh at the book, and to remind themselves that food is not the enemy. Food is the greatest thing there is.
If you ask most people what they ate for dinner last night, they won't remember. That's sad. Maybe this book will inspire people to pay attention and remember what they eat, and who they were with, and why. It's meaningful. Finding this kind of meaning in food, right under my nose, has made me a more thoughtful, happier person.
When did you decide to make the project into a book? Also, you don’t have a website or blog, yet this seems like precisely the kind of project made for the Internet. What did you do with the photos as you took them?
I catalogued photos at the end of each day. It really wasn’t that hard, the process. It just required consistency. I didn't post the pictures online because I wanted to see the impact of them all at once, rather than trickled in a few at a time. When I pick up the book, I have a whole year in my hands. It's a thick, dense, year and I like the feel of it. I'm kind of a Luddite that way. I love books.
Who would you say your main audience for this book is? I was trying to figure that out and couldn’t really come up with a vision for who might be the targets—Foodies? New Yorkers?
I'm not sure. It seems like it should have very narrow appeal, but for some reason, all kinds of people are finding things to explore in it, and finding ways to let me know what they think about the book (and my diet). It seems to connect with something basic in people. It strikes a very, very strong, obsessive chord with some people, a more humorous one with others. People who care about food seem to be particularly interested. I'm sure plenty of people think it's a waste of paper. I just hope it serves future scholars.
Was there ever any urge to censor yourself?
When I thought about it, it just seemed half-assed. I'd decided to do this, so I would do it.
Do you have a photography background and have you done other similar photo projects? Were there ever any camera malfunctions or other problems where you then didn’t eat?
I shot the entire book with my Canon Elph 2.0 Megapixel and fell in love with it, entirely. It never failed me. We're still together. The worst that happened was one night at Chat n' Chew when I realized I'd left my camera at home, but I just ran out and bought a disposable.
What did those closest to you say about the project? Did they ever urge you, say, at the funeral you attended, not to photograph the food?
Once I got going, I was pretty myopic about it. I'm sure some people found it annoying, but I just shot, as quickly as I could, and tucked the camera away. There were times when I chose not to eat because I didn't have my camera, or because I thought it would be too obtrusive to shoot.
Your bio says that you live here for the food; what are the quintessential New York foods that you can only get here?
The best pizza anywhere. The best French pastry in America. Bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches. The very best haute cuisine on the continent. Killer rice and beans. Chinese food. Amazing steakhouses. Plenty of gourmet and specialty groceries. New York has all of these things. Other cities have maybe one standout dish or food scene. New York has dozens.
What are your favorite local restaurants, and is there one hidden treasure we might not know about?
I think Gonzo (on West 13th St) shows up in the book more than any other place. It's my favorite local Italian. But I'm currently obsessed with another local spot, but if I told you where it was, then I'd have a harder time getting a table.
What is it about New York food that you appreciate the most—The variety? The convenience?
What I most love is how ubiquitous food is here. It's everywhere.
What city rivals New York for its food?
I think Paris and London, neither of which I know all that well, probably can match us for quality and variety. For sincerity and pure deliciousness, you have to hand it to the Italians. I've never been to Southeast Asia or Japan, yet, but I'd love to eat my way through both.
What’s the most challenging thing about eating in New York?
Finding restaurants where you can really relax over a meal. Most meals out in New York are more hectic than they need to be. Restaurants, understandably, try like hell to promote themselves and serve as many people as they can, which means longer waits and less space, neither of which is good for the digestion.
This is a little morbid, but if you were going to have one final meal, what would it be?
After I've died of the heart attack brought on by too much butter in the potatoes, I'll enter my Heaven, where they'll announce, "Your table is waiting. May I mix you a martini?" In my Hell, I am chained to the steam-table section of a cruise-ship buffet.
You also write books for teenagers, including Flavor of the Week (with recipes) and Confessions of a Backup Dancer. Where do you find your inspiration, and what’s your favorite of the ones you’ve written? Do you get feedback from teen readers, and do you have any teen beta readers who look at them before they’re published?
The biggest misconception about teenagers is that they're really all that different from the rest of us. They're people, with the same fears and hopes that we all have. I just write stories and hope they find the people, teen or not, that they should find. As an audience, I adore teenagers. They're enthusiastic and receptive and devoted.
I read that you’re working on a cookbook for Chronicle. What kind of cookbook will it be, and did you hone your cooking skills during 2004?
It's a cookbook for young(ish), urban men, like me, who love food from all ends of the spectrum. Culinarily, we live a high-low life, and we believe in tuna melts just as much as filet mignon. We love food as much as music and sex, and we aren't afraid to cook for ourselves, so long as we know it's going to be good.
Everything I Ate: A Year in the Life of My Mouth is available now.