He savored life with grace and gusto

Times Staff Writer

David Shaw taught us to eat.

The Times columnist who died early this week was one of our city’s grand epicures and one of this newspaper’s most respected journalists. His anecdotal and richly personal “Matters of Taste” column brought the eye of a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and a devotee’s knowing passions to the argument that dinner was the glorious payoff for hard work and a meaningful life.

By example, he exhorted us to take the most from it, and he showed us how.

In his world, food and wine were not ancillary occurrences to the day’s routine, not for himself, not for his readers, not for his family and not for his friends, of which I was one for more than 20 years.

How you ate was inseparable from how you lived. David lived with uncommon devotion and zest.

Long, joyful white truffle dinners awash in Barolo and happy lunches of In-N-Out burgers both achieved the level of an event in his realm. How could they not? His great gusto for the table included all that it meant: sustenance, camaraderie, journey, sanctuary, pleasure. He called it the triumph of the everyday.

“What matters is not so much what you eat — or don’t eat,” he wrote, “but that you approach the experience with an open mind, a sense of adventure and anticipation and a genuine eagerness to try something new.”

After nearly three decades as The Times’ media writer, Shaw moved off the front pages in 2002 to bring his lifetime’s worth of experience to a pair of weekly columns on the two topics that absorbed him — the news business and food.

These were not matters so far apart as they might seem. His bright, happy, inquisitive presence and his contagious appetite on these pages ennobled both the experience of dining and the craft of journalism.

He wrote to celebrate the chefs and the winemakers and the restaurateurs who enlivened the possibilities of mealtime. Traveling the U.S. and Europe, he devoted boundless energy, exhausting energy, to the details that added up to the sum of the rituals of eating — corkscrews on post-9/11 airplanes to the foibles of guidebooks, the language of menus, the value of having an apron on hand for those times you must eat and drive. His journeys were planned first on where he would eat and only second on what he might see en route.

He ate with the rakish, wide-mouthed grin of Jack Nicholson — each bite a flash of theater. He loved to reach across and stab his fork into something on your plate. One night, leaning over a candle to pour the wine, he caught his shirt afire, a mishap that he laughingly shared with readers. A good many times, he took home a sample of the evening’s sauce on the sleeve of his jacket, a tendency that transformed him into an expert at stain removal.

He once wrote a Valentine love letter to his wife in the form of a column about the manly art of first aid for wine spills. He quoted Lucy as saying, “Traveling with David is like traveling with a combination of Cary Grant, Woody Allen and the Swiss army.”

Her observation stands as a wry epitaph for his column.

He rejoiced in the tradition of the dinner party and was an exuberant host. But, as he told readers, his guests “rarely reciprocate by inviting us to their homes for dinner.” He accepted the fact that the parties he and Lucy threw were so accomplished that even close friends were intimidated to cook for them. It was an excuse that baffled him, because he always said he was happy with simple dishes too, as long as he could bring the wine.

That column generated scads of dinner-party invitations from strangers, three of which he accepted. Just before he fell ill, he was planning return invitations.

His friends knew David very much as readers did. He was generous with his knowledge, and methodical in everything he did. We all could savor — even if we could never quite match — the weekly display of determination that would take him miles out of his way, many miles in fact, for the sake of a good hot dog rather than a mushy pretender.

But his quest went far beyond finding and enjoying what was good.

He covered food with the eye of a serious journalist; he wrote about things that eaters cared about, or should.

His debut column in October 2002 explored the complicated reasons for soaring wine prices in restaurants, a trend that disturbed him because it jeopardized the trust of customers. He weighed the good with the bad of, an online system whereby restaurants keep detailed and sometimes revealing files on their customers.

And he didn’t just ruminate about the fad for boutique olive oils, he took readers to Tuscany to meet the man whose oil is among the most prized in the world. The vintners who honored their craft found David knocking at their doors.

Yes, he was full of himself and cocksure of his tastes. But by equal measures he thought just as much of the people around him and the readers who kept in touch with him, and he was endlessly curious about their tastes. A proper dinner exalted everyone.

He was quick with the columnist’s carving knife too. He wrote to castigate the lug heads who dared desecrate baseball with the “washed-out Dodger dog” and peanuts from “the bottom of the Dead Sea.”

When the managers at Dodger stadium enlarged the menu, David eagerly undertook a marathon nine-inning tasting dinner. He began with Chinese. Alas, he found the kung pao chicken “much like the food Ed Norton used to eat in the old Jackie Gleason show, food that prompted Gleason’s character, Loudmouth Charlie, to say, ‘What’s that slop you’re eating? It looks like an old toupee floating down the gutter.’ ”

He protested the demise of the rare-cooked hamburger on account of overblown fears of E. coli. If his only choice was a well-done burger as thin as a Post-It note, he concluded, “I’d rather eat my socks.”

Moderation, he wrote, was one of the things that deserved to be taken in moderation.

My family dined with David and his family only 36 hours before the seizure that sent him into a coma early last month. Lucy cooked. His son, Lucas, made dessert. I grilled a leg of lamb. David carved, and from his seat at the head of the table he poured the wine, as always. These were typically lavish wines — two 1996 Marquis d’Angerville Burgundies from neighboring vineyards.

He had been diagnosed with a baffling form of brain cancer. But the aroma of food in his house and the familiar sounds of conversation lifted his spirits that evening. He joked about the grim truth: He felt better than he was.

As the meal neared its conclusion, we reviewed the wines, not using the pretentious vernacular of the wine snob — a vocabulary he lampooned — but in the down-to-earth terms that he favored:

“What do you think?” he asked.

“Which did you like better?” he continued.

In the end, he taught us that this was the point of it all, right?

He taught us to enjoy what we could of life.