Remembering Steven Shaw

April 10, 2014

I’m usually someone that’s good for pulling words out of my head on hard and complex subjects.

Not today.

I’m struggling to deal with the loss of someone who I spent five years of my life with creating and building what I consider to be one of my proudest achievements.

And it is especially hard because the two of us are the same age, and who had so much in common, even despite our differences.

I’ve told the eGullet story before, from my perspective, at the five year anniversary mark. But I never thought I would have to talk about it again in the context of a eulogy for a friend.

It was such a long time ago — fourteen years — that I have trouble remembering how exactly I discovered him. We were both users of Jim Leff’s Chowhound food discussion site, which by today’s technological standards and even at the time was a dinosaur.

I was intrigued by Steven’s writing on his original Fat-Guy.com, which many consider to be one of the first foodblogs. But really, it wasn’t a blog, it was just a collection of stuff, like most personal web sites were at the time.

It was just raw. But I was intrigued with what he was doing. I was a foodie, but also a technologist, who was delving into things like Linux and Open Source, which could enable a whole lot of things that you could not do before with information presented online.

Dynamic content, social networking, all the things you can think of that exist today did not exist at the time, back in 1999 or 2000. There was no Facebook, no Twitter.

Google itself was only 2 years old. Just pause and think about that for a minute.

I could see that Steven’s writing had huge potential and there was just starting to become available, somewhat experimentally, software that could present information in a free-flowing interactive way that was searchable and had all the things you assume just exist on a content site today.

The two of us decided to see what could be done with his web site, if we could accomplish those things we take for granted today. We found some weird piece of software from Norway, we tried that out for a while. Then we looked at some other things that seemed like it would work, and settled on that.

And then it dawned on us that maybe if we found some other good food writers that were subject matter experts in specific areas — such as regional restaurants, wine and cooking — and combine it with this software, we would have something different than what was out there.

So we scrapped Fat-Guy.com and came up with eGullet. I dragged one of my spare servers to a small ISP in New Jersey and stuffed a bunch of half-baked free software on it.

We soft-launched it in late August of 2001 and prayed the thing wouldn’t blow up on us.

We thought it was just going to be a dozen or so local food nuts having geeky conversations for a year until we got some momentum.

We were wrong.

Both of us were complete unknowns in the food world. Steven decided to dump a really lucrative six figure job as a litigator at Cravath, Swain and Moore to become a food writer.

I thought he was completely nuts. I never had the courage to leave computer consulting and writing for the computer industry to take a swipe at professional food writing, because I knew how lousy it paid compared to what I was doing, even if you were lucky to get the gigs at the established and more prestigious magazines and newspapers.

I always considered food writing and food blogging an expensive hobby, never my profession. Steven took a leap of faith and a risk I would never even consider taking for myself. He was unbelievably courageous, crazy, or both.

I don’t know if Rachel would be as supportive if I had the balls to take a leap of faith on something like that. His wife, Ellen, is not only a sweet, generous and beautiful person, but she also must be unbelievably patient.

We came to a gentlemen’s agreement that Steven would provide the culinary and food writing expertise and I would be the technologist-cum-foodie enthusiast.

We didn’t know if the site would ever make money, but dammit, we would try. I also agreed to pay the bills because Steven had the most at risk and I was the only one with stable employment.

After September 11 came around, just a few weeks after we launched, traffic on the site simply exploded. We became sort of a group therapy session for New York foodies and food industry people caught up in the aftermath of that horrible thing.

I don’t remember exactly how big we were after the first year but it wasn’t uncommon to have several hundred people logged on simultaneously with at least a hundred discussion threads being updated every day. For the time, that was enormous.

Steven’s job was to give the site prestige and legitimacy — which he certainly did, especially after he won his James Beard award. Mine was to keep the lights on, which was no small task considering that the tech back then was no where near as mature as we have now.

We were both young and inexperienced at this whole online community thing (who was “experienced” then, really?) and as the site grew, we were simply just dealing with issues that arose as we went along.

The two of us, offline, I think had a great relationship. We respected each other’s capabilities, we loved dining out with each other and our spouses, we talked about so many things.

We said things to each other that we probably wouldn’t share with anybody else, including our wives. Our worries, our hopes, our dreams.

The first five years were great. But as Steven’s fame grew in the food community, it became harder for me to accept my role, as critical as it was, to simply be the site’s tech guy.

I felt my voice was equally important. I was an experienced writer in my own right, even though all of my “legitimate” recognition was (and quite frankly, still is) in the computer industry.

And while Steven was by far a more prolific poster, I contributed a great deal of valuable food content to eGullet as well.

We were both two Jewish kids from New York with huge egos and personalities to go with them. And I felt my creativity and input as well as my exposure was being stifled.

But we couldn’t have two Alpha Foodies on eGullet. And as the organization of the site became more complex, as we got more and more volunteer staff, I lost more and more control.

And being the control freak that I was (and still am) that was a very difficult thing for me to come to terms with.

So the two of us came to loggerheads. Frequently.

In hindsight I realize these disagreements were stupid and I wish I was mature enough to handle them at the time. But I was not.

There were also financial issues to deal with. Around the summer of 2005 I decided I didn’t want to pay the bills anymore, and the volume of traffic we were getting, in the millions of page impressions a year would easily be supported by advertising dollars.

But that would only cover the hosting costs for the site. We both came to the unfortunate conclusion that there was no way we could ever compensate the volunteers for all the time they were putting in, not unless the site was bought out for a huge sum of money.

Although we tried to generate venture capitalist interest, there were no buyers for content sites like eGullet in those days because the value of that content and the eyeballs viewing it were not well understood.

We were before our time. July of 2004 is when Facebook was founded, just in case you are keeping track of timelines.

Steven needed to make a living. The future of the site needed to be ensured. Steven needed a salary and health insurance or we would have to close up shop and he would have to go back to lawyering again.

So we did the only logical thing that made sense at the time, which was to turn eGullet into a not-for-profit, where Steven would become Executive Director and we’d have a board, with a mission statement and all those things.

To me at the time, this felt a bit like giving up. I had lost a lot of influence in the future of something I was instrumental in creating.

We terminated our relationship not long after the 501(c)3 status was formalized. In April of 2006 I started OffTheBroiler.com, and continued my career in the computer industry as both a technologist and a writer.

In retrospect, and now in dealing with Steven’s passing, I now understand how critical not-for-profit status was for eGullet’s survival.

eGullet survives now because Steven had the vision to turn it into the Society for Culinary Arts and Letters. It survived when he himself left and eventually embarked on a third career at Quirky.

It almost certainly will survive after his passing and hopefully, after the current generation of hard-working volunteers over there has ceded to another generation of aspiring writers and food bloggers.

I hope it exists forever.

By becoming a not-for-profit it was able to achieve a number of things that we just plain couldn’t do while it was another one of my hobby businesses.

Still, it was not an amicable parting, and there was bad blood all over. For me to deny that would be untruthful.

But none of that is important anymore, and I’ve been “over” it for a very long time. I enjoyed my time as an independent food blogger, and I probably should have started earlier.

Despite what many people wish to believe, we did, years later, patch things up. For a short time, I even had him writing for ZDNet, before he went on to become Community Director at Quirky, where his leadership impacted so many there.

I watched Steven’s star rise from afar. He’s respected by so many people in the food industry and has touched the lives of so many people in ways I never could have.

I envy him, and his many accomplishments. His influence on the food writing and food blogging world casts a long shadow. One which will not be forgotten.

I wanted so badly for us to share another meal together. For him and Ellen and PJ to visit our new home in Florida. For us to debate pizza and bagels and barbecue joints again. To talk about where to find decent Soup Dumplings.

I’m going to miss you, my friend.


Introducing OTB Economic Stimulus Dinners

April 4, 2009

lastsupper by you.

The economy, as we all know, is hurting. Bad. Really bad.

In recent weeks, I’ve watched my co-workers and colleagues, my closest friends and several members of my family lose their jobs. And over the last several months I’ve seen favorite restaurants and food-related businesses starting to drop like flies. I dread every single time I have to log into the blog software in order to post a (CLOSED) update to a restaurant entry. Now it seems like I have to do it several times a month.

What is the solution? Our government is doing its best to try to stimulate the economy. And just about everyone is making sacrifices, no matter what your income level is.

Some people — like my former partner in eGullet, Steven Shaw — would suggest that we stop spending money, that we sit back and ride this thing out. That we all eat out of our cupboards for a week or a month, that we hide under our blankets and cuddle up for the big storm and then hope everything is all right at the end. I firmly believe this is the wrong thing for us to do, people.

Click on the “Read the rest of this entry” link below for more.

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Kosher for Passover Coke: It’s the Real Thing Baby

March 27, 2009

It’s that time of the year again folks — Passover season approaches, and with that comes the annual stocking of the KFP Coca-Cola, the “Real Thing”. I’ve resurrected and updated this post from last year so you can get the jump on it early. Both Coca-Cola of New York and Chicago have just started their production runs, so be vigilant!

– Jason

(Originally posted on March 25, 2006)

In April of 1985, the Coca-Cola company announced that it was re-formulating its flagship carbonated drink, which to the horror of Coke fans everywhere, included a switchover to high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Soon, the rest of the soft drink industry followed suit, and the classic taste of cane sugar-based sodas became practically extinct. Today, only a few small boutique soft drink companies still make sodas with refined cane sugar (or sucrose, made from sugar beets) a costly ingredient when compared with HFCS — but true carbonated beverage connoisseurs know and can tell the difference, as corn syrup has a characteristically cloying sweetness when compared to refined sugar. For nostalgic Coca-Cola lovers, unless you live in a foreign country that classic taste is but a distant memory.

Every late March and early April, for the two to three weeks leading up to the celebration of the Jewish Passover holiday season in the United States, Coke fans living in major metropolitan areas with large Jewish populations get their Real Thing, if only for that brief fleeting period. According to Jewish law, nothing made with chametz (any of a number of proscribed cereals and grains, including corn) during passover may be consumed — so in order not to lose sales from observant Jews during that eight day period, a small number of Coca-Cola bottlers make a limited batch of the original Coke formulation, using refined sugar. Needless to say, stocks run out quickly and fans of Passover Coke have been known to travel many miles seeking out supermarkets with remaining caches.

coke1

coke2

Passover Coke products (and Passover Pepsi) in 2-Liter bottles can be distinguished by their yellow caps, inscribed either with just the “OU-P” symbol and/or the words Kosher L’Pesach in Hebrew. The canned variety is rare and is known to be produced only by a scant few bottling companies in the United States — if you can find any, be sure to snap it up.

Here’s the official word from the OU Passover Web Site for 2009:

Coca Cola will again be available with an OU-P for Pesach. Aside from the New York metropolitan area, Coke will be available in Boston, Baltimore-Washington, Miami, Atlanta, Houston, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. This year, in New York, Coca Cola items will be made with an OU-P in 2 liter bottles and in cans. Other locations will have more limited Coke items made in different sizes. All these items, of course, require the OU-P symbol. Most of the bottling plants servicing these markets will designate the Passover Coke items with a distinctive yellow cap in addition to the OU-P symbol on the cap or shoulder of the bottle.

Chicago Coke fans need not worry — this year, the Chicago Rabbinical Council is having Passover Coke made with the cRc P-09 logo on the cap using local bottlers. cRc also has Passover Coke in cans, which is nearly impossible to find anywhere else in the country.

If you live in Cleveland, I also heard this recently from one of our readers:

“As an employee of the Cleveland Coca-Cola Bottling Company I can confirm that the plant does use sugar cane as a sweetener year round. Cleveland Coca-Cola is the exclusive Coke supplier of all of Cuyahoga County, however, not everything available in Cuyahoga County is actually produced in Cleveland. Look at the label and check the ingredients for “Sucrose.””

In addition to Coke and Pepsi products made with real sugar, you should also be able to find nationally Dr. Brown’s, perhaps the best black cherry soda on the planet in Kosher for Passover form. And to further improve your Passover Coke, hit it with a shot of Passover formulated Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup.

For more on Passover Coke, be sure to listen to this interesting NPR broadcast from 2004.

For more on Mexican Coke, KFP Coke’s south of the border cousin, have a look at what Kate at Accidental Hedonist has to say.

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A White Castle Valentine

February 14, 2009

Editor’s Note: Here’s one of our first posts on Off The Broiler, resurrected for Valentine’s Day weekend.

I realize this blog is named after a Burger King-ism, but anyone who really knows me is well aware I am a staunch and rabid missionary of the Church of Slyders.

This year, Rachel and I decided to celebrate our 11th Valentines Day together at White Castle. Sure, it was corny, it was chintzy, and we had this bloated nauseating feeling afterwards. But isn’t that what true love is supposed to be?

In my opinion Valentine’s day is a totally commercialized holiday, far worse than Christmas, that is designed to bilk your loved ones out of buying you totally useless throwaway gifts, and then to force you to endure one of the worst days of the year for restaurant going.

What venue would be better than White Castle? Click on the “Read the rest of this entry” link below for more.

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Tapas or Fabada?

November 12, 2008

The Spanish Care Package from Pedro by you.

The Spanish Care Package from Pedro Espinosa Silva. Click to enlarge.

Today, I received a curious package via international mail — addressed to me from Gastrovin Principano, in the town of  Gijón in the Principality of Asturias, Spain.

It turned out my friend and food writer Pedro Espinosa Silva, who was formerly the Spain host and manager at eGullet, had sent me a generous present thanking me for sending him some wireless computer equipment that he had paid for in the US but needed to have sent abroad last spring.

Like Daniel Jackson, the archeologist and linguistics expert on Stargate SG-1, I tried to figure out what all of these contents meant. I could identify most of it — Extra Virgin Single Estate Olive Oil, Spicy and Sweet Spanish Paprika, White Asparagus, Sea Urchin Pate, and Mancha-grade Spanish Saffron. But sealed meats and the beans I couldn’t figure out what they were for, until I sprung this by fellow foodie Sam Kinsey, who immediately identified its contents,  and I did some reading on Wikipedia. Yes, these things could be used to make Tapas, but specifically, Pedro was sending me a message… he wants me to make Fabada Asturiana.

The beans, it turns out, are Fabes de Granja, Asturian White Beans, and the sausages are Chorizo and Morcilla (blood sausage). The long pork meat is bacon, to be simmered in the dish. I’m guessing the other type of ham is a bonus, to be eaten as tapas.

Well I guess I know what I’m making this thanksgiving to go with the turkey! Fabada and tapas!


NJ Dining: Pawana (UPDATED)

May 18, 2008

Pawana Restaurant
63 Nathaniel Pl., Englewood NJ 07631

Two years ago, not long after its grand opening, I visited Pawana restaurant in Englewood, and this is what I wrote about it at the time:

Pawana, a new Thai restaurant, has opened in what was the failed Thai Chef space in Englewood in the Shop Rite plaza.

Thai Chef in my opinion was an overrated and expensive restaurant which had poor service and served food I could have better at Wondee’s or Bangkok Garden in Hackensack, the two best known Thai restaurants in the area. They spent a fortune building the space and promoted the hell out the restaurant, but they were never able to get a decent following and the restaurant was frequently mostly empty. Their problems were also compounded by the fact that the restaurant group opened ANOTHER Thai restaurant in the same town almost simultaneously, Kratiem (which is still in business but has different owners now). Thus it failed, and many began to wonder if opening a high-end restaurant in that shopping center was such a hot idea in the first place.

While the new owner, a woman also named Pawana, is related to the Thai Chef company (she’s a cousin) the prices here are scaled back (comparable to Wondee’s or Saigon R in Englewood) the service was very good, and the food is excellent — in fact I’d say it will give both Wondee’s and Bangkok Garden a run for the money.

In the two years after it opened, I only visited the restaurant perhaps one other time. It’s not that the restaurant wasn’t good — as you can see above, at the time I thought it was very good — but at the end of the day I felt that the food at Wondee’s was more to my personal taste in terms of authenticity. Due to the demographic makeup of Englewood versus Hackensack, Pawana is attracting more Americans, whereas Wondee’s attracts more Asians.

Be it as it may, that was then and this is now. My tastes have changed and so have my dining habits. I recently returned to Pawana after a two year hiatus. I honestly have to say “What the hell took me so long?”. If you are willing to tell the server “I want it Thai spicy”, then Pawana will pull out the stops for you and give you a truly Thai experience.

By the way — while the restaurant doesn’t say so on its menu, they serve brown rice if requested. Score one big point for the low-carber crowd.

Main Dining Room — 2008

If you’ve been waiting to try Pawana, you can stop waiting. Run and eat there right away. Click on the “Read the rest of this entry” link below for more.

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Valentine’s Day Gumbo

February 14, 2007

Like many couples in the New York Metro area today, we stayed home on Valentine’s Day rather than brave the dangerous, ice-covered roads tonight. But that’s fine, just fine — we made us a wondermus gumbo. Nothing better than a pot of gumbo and a 30 year-old episode of Justin Wilson on the TiVo and cuddling up on the couch with your sweetheart on a freezing cold evening.

Making gumbo is more of a method than it is a “recipe”. Louisianans make it with whatever proteins they got in the icebox, and throw it all in. But there are some basic things that are elemental to making gumbos.

If you’re going to make a gumbo, and you have never made one before, I suggest consulting this classic eGullet thread, which I think is the definitive primer on gumbo cooking. What you’re going to want to nail down and absorb from that discussion is the whole process of cooking a roux, which is the core of a good gumbo. At the end of the day roux is simply flour cooked in oil, but it takes nerves of steel — cook a roux too little, you don’t get enough flavor. Cook it too much, you burn it. Getting it right on the edge of burned, where it gets that chocolate color is the real challenge, to get that dark gumbo flavor that we want.

Here’s what went into our gumbo tonight:

Finely chopped celery, onion, and invisible bell pepper. Unfortnately we had all the ingredients of gumbo EXCEPT for the green bell pepper, which is an essential part of the “trinity” that lies at the heart of the Cajun cooking. I was not going to leave my house and hit the icy roads to get bell pepper in a regular sedan without four wheel drive, so you native cajuns will have to forgive me in this instance.

A bunch of fresh Pork and Crawfish sausages which we brought home from one of our Louisiana trips, that we pulled out of the freezer and browned in the pan. These will be just barely cooked and cut up into pieces.

Andouille sausage, also from Louisiana. You could just as easily use Polish Sausage or some other kind of smoked pork sausage. Cubed smoked ham is also good to use as well.

Want some good gumbo? I garontee you like it. Click on the “Read the rest of this entry” link below for more, cher.

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