By Joel Warner
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When Chronicle Books agreed to publish 2005's Everything I Ate: A Year in the Life of My Mouth, its author, new Denver Post dining critic Tucker Shaw, had no problem with including a picture of himself in the package. As he concedes, "I didn't expect to take this turn in my career."
Who would have? Despite writing about food on occasion during his years as a scribe, the thirty-something Shaw had no experience evaluating meals for any newspaper, let alone one as large as the Post. Moreover, he wasn't targeting such a gig when he assembled Everything, which features a photo and description of each edible he ingested over the course of twelve months. So he happily posed for a goofy snap that shows him about to chomp into a cookie only slightly smaller than a Frisbee and allowed it to run with articles and reviews of his tome in print and online, thereby giving anyone with a computer the opportunity to download it in seconds.
Now, to his chagrin, this image is hanging in the kitchens of numerous eateries around the city in the hopes that personnel can recognize Shaw and pull out all the stops to impress him should he visit. Such extra attention would be wonderful for most of us, but it defeats the purpose for Shaw, who wants to judge restaurants based on how they treat the average person, not a VIP whose opinion may either boost business or cause it to plummet. That's why Shaw wants to "stay as low-key as possible," he says. "Part of that is out of responsibility to the readers, but part of it is selfish. I think my writing will be better for it."
Based on his first couple of reviews for the Post, in which he saddled up at the venerable Buckhorn Exchange and sampled the fare at Parallel 17, a "modestly hip new Vietnamese bistro," Shaw has a refreshing way with words. Rather than dishing out pompous verbiage intended to impress the snootiest readers with his culinary credentials, he comes across as a gastronomic everyman with an eye for telling details and an impish sense of humor. For instance, he advises anyone eating dinner at Parallel 17 to start the evening with an alcoholic beverage, because "a light buzz will buffer the service bumps that lay ahead."
Shaw's own path has been fairly smooth, but he's taken more than his share of detours. A native of Maine, he moved to Denver with his family at age four. He grew up "futzing around in the kitchen" but was more of an eater than a chef. A big reason why he attended Maine's Bowdoin College after his graduation from South High was because "they were rated number one for food. They served lobsters and steaks in the dining hall."
Upon earning a history degree at Bowdoin, Shaw headed to New York City with the goal of landing a job at a magazine. After a stint as a glorified gofer at Esquire, he leapt to Welsh Publishing Group, a firm specializing in publications targeting young readers -- which explains how he became assistant editor of a mag devoted to Beverly Hills 90210. (When asked if he remembers any saucy details about Shannon Doherty or Jason Priestly, he says, "It depends on what I'm drinking.") Several years later, he wound up at Alloy.com, a youth-oriented Internet portal where he served as a teen-advice columnist. "I never went into anything too deep or too serious," he emphasizes. "We were mostly offering casual advice about things like, 'How can I get that boy across the room to notice me?'"
Thanks to Alloy's publishing division, Shaw was able to share additional tips in several adolescent-friendly books, among them What's That Smell? (Oh It's Me): 50 Mortifying Situations and How to Deal. He then tried his hand at youth fiction and scored twice, with Confessions of a Backup Dancer, which imagines the whirl around a Britney Spears-like character, and Flavor of the Week, his "first foray into food writing" -- a gloss on Cyrano de Bergerac that substituted cooking for love poems. (Several of Shaw's own recipes are sprinkled through the manuscript.) These offerings were followed by Everything I Ate, a project conceived as "kind of a cool time capsule for somebody to find in the future," Shaw says. "We're living in such a weird time, and there's such variety in food, that I thought it should be recorded in a personal way." Among the revelations: Shaw's fondness for after-hours bowls of Cinnamon Life.
This detail had positive repercussions. Post food writer Ellen Sweets interviewed Shaw about the book, and when higher-ups at the paper learned of his Denver past, they thought he might make a strong candidate to replace previous dining critic (and Westword alum) Kyle Wagner, who'd been put in charge of the travel section. In the end, editor Greg Moore's affection for Everything I Ate cemented the hire. "It's funny as hell, and I saw a little bit of myself in there," Moore says. "Anybody who eats cereal at ten o'clock at night is my kind of guy." Hiring someone with no experience as a dining critic for such a high-profile position might strike many executives as a risk, but not Moore. "We thought Tucker would bring a fresh approach to writing about food, whether it's uptown dining or 'low dining,' as I call it -- cheap eats," Moore says. "We wanted somebody who wouldn't be snobbish at either end of things, and that's Tucker. He understands that food is a uniting experience."
Even though Shaw's photo is making the rounds, Moore vows that the critic will find a way to reclaim his anonymity. "If he has to wear disguises, he'll wear disguises," he maintains. Shaw doesn't believe that will be necessary, since he says the photo isn't a typical likeness, and besides, he's already put on weight in the weeks since joining the Post staff. "Starting a job like this really fattens you up," he says.
Sounds like a sequel. I Ate a Lot More: A Year in the Life of My Waistline has a nice ring to it.
They really deliver: On November 8, the Post offered different analyses of the newspapering crisis on either side of the same page. On 8C, the paper published an article confirming that its Sunday circulation fell by 3.4 percent and that the combined weekday circulation of the Post and the Rocky Mountain News dipped by 4.1 percent, according to the most recent industry report. In contrast, 7C featured a giant house ad asserting that readership was actually up -- yet the claim that the dailies' combined print and online editions (including Post-NewsMarketplace.com) attract "5.3 Million Readers!" every month smacks of accounting magic. Because the total population of Colorado is around 4.3 million, either these numbers reflect significant duplication, or every man, woman and child in the state (including those not yet old enough to read) is checking out these products every four weeks or so, and another million of their friends from elsewhere are joining them.
Neither side of the page mentioned another technique used to fatten circulation numbers: third-party sales, in which advertisers pay to have newspapers delivered to non-subscribers in demographically attractive areas. The Denver Newspaper Agency insists that recipients value these freebies, but Lakewood's Dave Garton disagrees. Last month he sent a cancellation notice to the Rocky in which he wrote, "For the second time in less than a year, I returned home to find the yard littered with plastic wrapped newspapers. I travel and do not want a sign in the front of my house that says: ŒHI, I'M NOT HOME. PLEASE ROB ME!'" Garton copied his screed to the Lakewood Police Department ("to alert them of how this could certainly be putting residents at risk"), the Better Business Bureau ("for this is obviously not good business"), the Chamber of Commerce (in the hopes that "peer pressure of people you associate with would be more effective than just some letter from a curmudgeon in Lakewood") and Westword ("so they can have a laugh at your expense").
This last mission was accomplished, but Garton's primary goal came up short. He had to leave town again after sending this missive, and when he returned, another collection of unwanted newspapers was scattered across his lawn. Guess the next glass-half-full readership estimate should read "5.3 Million Readers! (Minus One)."