Everything I Ate
A Year in the Life of My Mouth
by Tucker Shaw
Chronicle Books, 2005
This book calls forth all those book reviewer's clichés - oddly compelling, strangely fascinating, you can't put it down. But it really is all those things. The book is both personal and public at the same time and as you move through the months of meals you may find yourself drawing some pseudo-sociological conclusions about diet and modern life.
The food Shaw consumed is recorded day by day, down to a handful of nuts, including the cold pizza, and each and every bowl of cereal that seemed to punctuate each day; a week of Cinnamon Life, a streak of Cheerios, and the sporadic appearance of Wheaties. And just to keep it interesting, Shaw worked in a road trip, consuming inescapable and execrable junk foods and lovely local specialties. Soft-serve swirl ice cream cones seem to be an icon of American road food, and airline food on Alitalia seems more than just edible, let alone what Shaw ate when he got to Milan.
The book has a voyeuristic charm and don't we all love to snoop, whether its gossip magazines at the supermarket check out or surreptitious peaks into cabinets on the neighborhood house tour. One can't help comparing. Shaw ate 19 steaks in 2004. I wonder how many I ate. I can understand and share his love of ice cream and Japanese food, but the mother in me thinks he eats too many potato chips and too much candy. On the other hand, he eats a lot of oatmeal.
Shaw is a brave soul, after all do you really want to admit the picking and stuffing you do? The book underscores that food is undeniably a marker of class, education, and money. Shaw records a complete picture of the urban American diet that ranges wildly across cultures, rarely settles on regular mealtimes, and is the product of a vast industrial system that makes possible 309 bowls of cereal in one year, marshmallow peeps at Easter and ketchup flavored potato chips. It is a diet also created by immigration and urban densities that encourage more choice and convenience than could ever be found at Costco. On one day in July he crosses culinary time zones starting with breakfast from a deli run by someone named Spyros, then on to challah and heirloom tomato; guacamole and chips; tomato mozzarella and basil; and tres leches panna cotta.
The pictures, gathered together, become more than the sum of their parts. Bits of background sneak in - desks, people at the next table, apartments and their quirky decorations. These are lightly composed pictures, mostly just snaps of life - wrappers and bags, a tiki torch, a city street, a background TV, with an occasional bowl of cereal placed for effect in front of a picture of a grimacing magazine model or a strawberry shortcake lifted high against an American flag.
Shaw credits his Canon Elph camera, and I can't help thinking that aside from deep thoughts on food, the publisher's business acumen, and Shaw's own quirky view, it's the camera that really made this book possible. Can you image actually spending film on this topic? The book is the visual equivalent of blogging.
Front and end notes are artfully scribbled on paper napkins and as Shaw writes, "sure it's just a bunch of pictures of food..." But the book is also a record of a last meal with his grandfather, trips to new places, friends, and people he now barely remembers. It is in fact a simple, true, and direct record of life, and as such, is a kind of poetry.
© 2005 Claudia Kousoulas