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A Food Critic’s Plagiarism Roils Richmond Journalism

Elliott Shaffner stole from Jonathan Gold. Then things somehow got worse.
Richmond, seen from the James River. Photograph via iStock.

Richmond Times-Dispatch executive editor Paige Mudd was about to go into a meeting last Thursday when she received a disturbing email. It was a tip that said Elliott Shaffner, who became the newspaper’s dining critic in January, had lifted passages from a 2011 LA Weekly restaurant story by the Pulitzer-winning critic Jonathan Gold in that day’s review of the New Grand Market in Midlothian, Virginia.

“I had to step out of the meeting and catch my breath because it was so alarming,” Mudd says.

Shaffner’s thefts began with Gold’s very first sentences: “Is there ever a wrong time for jajangmyun, or jjajangmyeonchachiangmian or zha jiang mian?” he had written. “The divine crankcase sludge of black bean paste, meat and melted onions is as delicious in August as it is in December, and the hand-pulled noodles that traditionally complete the rest of the dish are not to be despised.”

Shaffner’s version starts thusly: “Is there ever a wrong time for jjajangmyun? Its divine sauce—as thick and dark as blackstrap molasses, made up of black bean paste, pork and melted onions—is as delicious in July as it is in January. The chewy, hand-pulled noodles that complete the dish are pretty great, too.”

Mudd quickly huddled with the paper’s features editors and left a phone message for Shaffner.

Across town at the alt-weekly Style Weekly, food and drink editor Brandon Fox also received a tip about the Times-Dispatch review. She looked into it and realized the review “actually contained material from three different pieces by Gold,” she says. “I let the TD know and started looking through the reviews she wrote for us.”

While Mudd and her colleagues waited for Shaffner to call back, a Times-Dispatch web editor combed through several other reviews by the critic and found even more of Gold’s prose. “I said take them all down,” Mudd says. The Times-Dispatch unpublished all Shaffner’s work for the paper (the copy above was saved by the news database Nexis). Mudd says that in an email early in the afternoon, Shaffner said she understood her actions meant she couldn’t write for the paper again. About 3:30 on Thursday, Mudd says, she called Shaffner to inform her that was in fact the case.

The following afternoon, the Times-Dispatch published an editor’s note that acknowledged it had removed Shaffner’s stories and said she would no longer be writing for the paper. 

Mudd says Shaffner explained her plagiarism was a result of her confusing her notes with some choice Gold quotes she’d copied into a “fangirl” notebook. Mudd offered her the opportunity to explain herself to readers. Shaffner used it to write a curiously chipper letter that purported to explain her larceny. “It was not intentionally deceitful or steal-y,” she wrote, explaining that “in a flurry of desperation, time management, lack of good judgment, I unwittingly put someone else’s words into work under my name.”

Miraculously, this inadvertent appropriation happened numerous times and at other publications Shaffner wrote for. The dominos fell quickly: Style Weekly on Friday pulled nine reviews Shaffner wrote for the publication; Richmond Magazine initially thought it was in the clear, but after a review it conducted last weekend, the publication “discovered that two of the total six reviews she wrote for us in 2014 and 2015 had descriptions that mirrored those used by Jonathan Gold,” editorial director Susan Winiecki tells Washingtonian in an email. “We subsequently removed all of her reviews from our site and a section of a lunch guide that she wrote in January 2016.  We will not work with her in the future.” 

Reached by email, Shaffner declined an interview but said, “What I can say is that I am truly sorry.” Her email continues:

I messed up in the biggest way. I committed my profession’s cardinal sin. I let down the publications and editors who put their faith in me. I let down my peers and the readers. I let down my family, my friends. I now begin the long process of trying find some way of making amends, being worthy of the support I have received from those closest to me in a very difficult time, and doing everything I can to earn back the trust of my family, my friends, and someday, if I am so fortunate, the profession.

Among the people she may want to apologize to: herself. Gold’s words animate Shaffner’s personal blog as well. To use just one example, a November 2015 post about spaghetti al limone urges readers to:

Think the perfect citrus salad: all its varieties each at the peak of season; the way each fruit is sliced to accentuate its particular sweet-tartness or bitterness and presented at slightly different temperatures. Add a little smooth, slightly sharp and tangy chèvre and maybe even some little crunches of chopped pistachios.

Has Gold ever rhapsodized about citrus salad? As it happens, while writing about the West Hollywood restaurant Lucques in 2014, he did!

I could probably go on for half an hour about a recent citrus salad: the half-dozen varieties each at the peak of its season; the way each fruit was sliced to accentuate its particular sweet-tartness or bitterness and presented at slightly different temperatures; the bland smoothness of the fresh labneh cheese and the sharp fragrance of the mint; the subtle, rubbery crunch of the chopped pistachios.

Gold probably isn’t the only victim of Shaffner’s spaghetti al limone-related violence; the recipe she published on that page shares eerie similarities with this one. But as best as I can tell, Gold’s pocket is the one she picked most frequently. Her fandom appears to be genuine and thorough: She used his work from both LA Weekly and the Los Angeles Times, where he moved in 2012, at the Times-Dispatch, at Richmond Magazine, and at Style (which detailed some of the thefts in a Facebook comment.)

Perhaps the most puzzling thing about all this is that Elliott Shaffner is a pretty good writer. I have worked with a few food writers in my career and would normally be happy to hire someone with her facility for actually describing what something tastes like, how food makes one feel, and how the act of eating can create and carry memories.

And yet she now owns Google search results that make it extremely unlikely she’ll ever work in journalism again. That’s weird, but even weirder is that when faced with evidence she’d plagiarized multiple times, the Times-Dispatch allowed her claim that it was a one-time screwup to sail through unchallenged. Mudd tells me that’s a matter of “taking the high road”—”I didn’t feel that we needed to prosecute it,” she says, saying she was comfortable with the quick, transparent way the paper handled the problem. “I let her have her say and in my mind that’s sort of the end of it.”

The key phrase here is sort of. Shaffner’s now-vanished articles present another problem beyond the outlets she tarred with Gold’s divine crankcase sludge: The restaurants she covered will find themselves suddenly unreviewed. “I spent the better part of Friday calling all of the restaurants Elliott reviewed and offering to re-review them,” Style‘s Fox tells Washingtonian. “I schedule reviews two to three months out, so I’m reshuffling things to get new ones done as quickly as possible.” One of the restaurants Shaffner reviewed for Style has closed; “I called the owner and apologized anyway,” Fox says. Richmond Magazine plans “to re-review the six impacted restaurants in our November, December and January issues,” Winiecki writes in an email. “As we explain what occurred to our online and print readers, the impact is felt most by our restaurant community and the other reviewers and food reporters who have done their job well.”

Mudd was on vacation when I contacted her and said she and the other editors are reviewing policies for staffers and freelancers (Shaffner was the latter) and will figure out further responses soon. The Virginia Press Association has already acted with regard to her critical writing award in 2015: After Style notified the association that one of the entries that got her that award contained plagiarism, “Ms. Shaffner’s award was rescinded and given to the second place winner—who is from Richmond Magazine,” VPA Executive Director Betsy Edwards says.

Despite declining to speak, Shaffner answered my follow-up email, in which I asked why, with so much evidence to the contrary, she described her plagiarism as unwitting and accidental. “Nothing I say can change what has happened or lessen what I did,” she wrote back. “I am working very hard to look within to understand why and how I have done such a thing, but presently, prefer to say as little as possible at the risk of diminishing my accountability.”

Corrections: This post originally said Shaffner appeared to have attended a food-and-wine pairing event that Thursday. The event was on Wednesday. Thanks to Robey Martin for pointing out my mistake. I also screwed up a description of Shaffner’s employment status at the Times-Dispatch–she was a freelancer. 

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Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.