There, wedged in a booth at the local diner, you'll find them. It could be at the Milwaukee Wiener House in Sioux City, Iowa. Or the Elliston Place Soda Shop in Nashville, Tennessee. Maybe even the Like Like Drive Inn of Honolulu, Hawaii. They look like a normal couple eating normal food: oxtail stews, chicken-fried steaks, triple cheeseburgers, chilidogs, banana puddings. But Jane and Michael Stern are not your ordinary diner regulars. They are greasy spoon connoisseurs. As authors of Roadfood, Blue Plate Specials & Blue Ribbon Chefs, Chili Nation, and Eat Your Way Across The USA, the husband and wife team continually scours the countryside in search of the finest road food America has to offer. Along the way, they also discover America itself.

Local diners and the down-home cooking they offer define their regions in a way that Burger King or The Outback never, ever will. They are a refuge for the things that get lost by mass production: tradition, heritage, personality, uniqueness. Back in the '70s–an era when fine dining typically meant European cuisine, period–the Sterns were among the few cultural writers to recognize the importance of "everyday" American food. They championed the local diner experience in their first edition of Roadfood in 1977, and have revised and reissued the book this year. They also explore road-food destinations in their column "Two For the Road" each month for Gourmet magazine and provide editorial direction at roadfood.com. As pop-culture experts (they also authored The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste and Jane & Michael Stern's Encyclopedia of Pop Culture, among others), the Sterns are intrigued not just by greasy spoons, but by the lives that revolve around them. Here, Michael Stern talks about what they look for in good diner dining, not to mention how they handle the hazards of fried chicken-liver consumption.

—Coury Turczyn

 

WHEN DID YOU FIRST START CHAMPIONING THE CAUSE OF ROAD FOOD?

Well, it happened back in the mid-1970s. Jane and I wrote a book about long-haul truck drivers which got us out of the ivy-covered halls where we had been spending a lot of time and into the real America–eating alongside real Americans. In the course of writing that book about truck drivers, one of the things we wished we could find was a guide to restaurants that served the food of the region, where we could sit down elbow-to-elbow with the people in Hattiesburg, Miss. or Mesula, Mon. or Normal, Ill. or wherever we happened to be and just eat whatever the food was, but the best version: the best catfish, the best barbecue. And there was no such book. At the time–we're talking 25 years ago–I think America had a kind of culinary inferiority complex about our own cuisine. And basically anybody who was interested in food in this country automatically was interested in French food, Italian food, perhaps Asian food. Not that there weren't people who didn't pay attention to American food–James Beard, for example, always did–but it was not something people thought a lot about. Therefore, there were no books that described it well or told where to eat. So after finishing this book about truck drivers, Jane and I said, "We ought to do that book." Obviously, we felt a need for it, so maybe other people do. So in fact we set out and in 1977 published the first edition of Roadfood, which was a guide to about 400 restaurants around the country where we felt you could really get a taste of the region–not fancy, not expensive, not deluxe, but places where you could sit elbow to elbow with the locals and eat local food.

AREN'T YOU INTERESTED IN MODERN FOOD TRENDS AS WELL?

Jane and I are rarely if ever interested in trends or food as fashion–except from maybe 25 to 50 years ago, because that's kind of interesting cultural anthropology. Current trends in food are not very interesting to us. What interests us about food–this is really the backbone of what we do when we find and write about restaurants around the country–is food as an expression of people's lives. Food as something that grows up out of their cultural heritage, their ethnic heritage, grows up out of where they live and what's available at the grocery store where they live. And to us, the best meals–aside from the fact that they taste good–are meals that really do express quite literally the culture of the people who cook and eat them. And that's something you really don't find much in trendy, cutting-edge cuisine. Trendy, cutting-edge cuisine tends to be novel and interesting and it might borrow a little of this and a little of that from many different cultural currents, but fundamentally it's the kind of thing that doesn't have a lot of basis in culture. In fact, the kind of food that we write about, and the cookbooks that interested us the most (self-published cookbooks, generally, PTA cookbooks, church cookbooks) are filled with repetition, derivation, borrowing and stealing. That, to me, is what interesting cuisine is about: The carrying on of a tradition. I'm not interested in some brilliant guy who invents something out of whole cloth or just by putting together Asian food and Texas food or whatever the heck they're doing. On the other hand, a cookbook with six different recipes for apple pie is to me going to be probably pretty interesting, because I'm going to see if they used lard or vegetable oil in the crust, if they say to slice the apples thin or thick, if they use Granny Smiths...

Not to get too pretentious about this, but both Jane and I studied art when we were in school, and I think we've come to realize that when it comes to cuisine, certainly in America anyway, there is a high art–and those are the celebrity chefs who do inventive, new, cutting-edge food–and then there is folk art, which is an expression of how people live and have lived for a long time. And what interests us is food as folk art. If you look at any other folk art, say the blues, that too is filled with borrowing, derivation, copying, doing things like grandma did or the neighbor did, and that's what makes it so rich because that every person adds a little something to it but they're not ashamed to borrow and do something that's been done before. In fact, that's kind of a heroic thing to do as a folk artist–to keep alive a tradition. So that's really what we're looking for when we get to a barbecue restaurant or just a sandwich restaurant–if they make the sandwiches the way they learned from Uncle Amos because he always cut the bread this way, and he always put french-fried potatoes on this side of the sandwich, I love that. That places that food in history, in place, in family, in culture, and in tradition.

HOW IMPORTANT ARE THE PHYSICAL SURROUNDINGS OF THE RESTAURANT?

The physical surroundings are hugely important. But again, I think our standards for what's a "wonderful" physical setting are in some ways not only different from, but diametrically opposite of what an urban food critic looking for four-star restaurants is going to like. Some of my favorite restaurants anywhere are restaurants in converted gas stations, for example, or restaurants in the back room of a grocery store, or restaurants that also happen to be upholstery shops. Because there again, it puts the food into a context of how people live, whether they're shopping for groceries or having their couch refinished. It makes the food feel like part of the community that it is. Furthermore, it doesn't have to be a converted gas station or something, I'm just thinking the kinds of restaurants that we tend to like are restaurants that, for example, have counter seating in addition to tables and booths. Or if not counter seating, they might have large communal tables where various people come and go, especially in the morning hours to have coffee.

There, too, that physical layout–which you'd rarely if ever find in a four-star restaurant–is just the kind of thing we're looking for because it encourages interaction, not only among the regular customers who might go there every single morning for their coffee and cinnamon roll, but also among strangers like ourselves who walk in for the first time. To sit at a horseshoe-shaped counter at a cafe in Durand, Iowa at 6 o'clock in the morning, among farmers, truckers, construction workers is to automatically be included in whatever conversation they're having. Unless you're really a hermit, you can't help it. And that kind of inclusion is to me one of the most wonderful ways to get a taste of the country beyond what you put in your mouth. I mean, it's really a way to know what's on people's minds, to share that with them, to maybe offer your own opinion, or not. It doesn't have to be the great issues of the day, it doesn't even have to be politics, sometimes it's just the weather, sometimes it's food. Most people, even people who would never consider themselves foodies, have certain food passions, and if in the course of conversation at some small-town cafe we happen to bring up the fact that we're traveling around the country looking for wonderful biscuits, guaranteed we're going to get suggestions on where to eat wonderful biscuits from people who've been to this great place down the road, or they once took a trip to Vicksburg and there was a place over the river that had biscuits, whatever it may be. That to us is precious information, and furthermore a precious experience. As I said, to us food on a plate is wonderful, and we love to taste the food, but the context of the food both historically, culturally, and physically–where that food is served and by whom it is served–is utterly important.

HOW OFTEN ARE YOU ON THE ROAD?

It depends–it's seasonal. Generally speaking, we're traveling a third to a half of the year, mostly not more than about a week or so at a time, mostly because by the end of a week on the road we have so much information in our heads, it's essential to get home and sort it out and organize it, organize the photographs and get them on our website, and whatever else we have to do. A week to ten days, by that time we're suffering from a kind of overload of being on the road. And same thing is true when we're home a week to ten days, we start getting really itchy to get on the road, so it's back and forth.

TELL US ABOUT ONE OF YOUR EXPEDITIONS.

We were in Milwaukee. One of the things we knew we would find in Milwaukee is fabulous ethnic food, primarily Eastern European. We've been to Milwaukee enough to know that it's a city of terrific German restaurants, Eastern European restaurants of all kind. It's a city of spectacularly good potato pancakes. The other thing that we knew we would find in Milwaukee is great hamburgers. For reasons I don't yet know, Milwaukee is a city with a very high hamburger consciousness. There are a lot of restaurants that serve hamburgers that make a big deal of their hamburgers. So we ate some good hamburgers. One of the best things to eat, not only in Milwaukee but in much of Wisconsin, is custard, which we in the East might call soft serve ice cream–but believe me, it's a whole other category of food stuff because in Wisconsin it is freshly made. It's not injected with a lot of air, it's kind of heavy, it's silky, it's smooth, it's rich, it's pure, it's fresh, it's spectacular. It's food you would expect to find in a place that calls itself the Dairy State.

Those were all things we kind of knew we would find, and we needed to revisit some old favorite places and find some new ones. We also found for the first time a restaurant that many Milwaukeans have known about for just about 30 years, a great soul-food restaurant, I would say one of the best soul-food restaurants I've ever eaten in anywhere. [Mr. Perkins' Family Restaurant] It's been there 30 years, it's got a menu of fried chicken, perched neckbones, chitlins, turnip greens, biscuits, a big menu, a crowded, busy, bustling place. A lot of the business is take-out, but there are booths, there's a counter, it's been family-run, it's now in its second generation, and it was just… I can't tell you how inspiring it was for us to be there, because it was totally unexpected. I don't remember how we even heard about it, I think it was at some other restaurant, somebody said, "Have you been there?" 'Er, no." So we went there and it was just… we actually went there two days in a row it was so good–we went there for lunch then we went back for breakfast. And it was just glorious, I mean truly glorious. And this is a restaurant you're not going to find in the Mobil Guide under four-star restaurants–it's a humble place; it's clean, it's well-run, it's happy, it's wonderful in every way, but it's very hard to spend more than $6 or $7 for a meal there. It's not at all fancy, it's quick service, you can sit down at the counter and be out in 15 minutes if that's what you need to do. But it's a real part of the Milwaukee community, and this was to us a real find.

HOW DO YOU PREPARE FOR THESE TRIPS?

We keep a database of tips, state by state, so if for example we're going to Wisconsin, I'll just look through all our Wisconsin tips and pull out the ones that seem like they might be near where we're going or especially worth going to. One of the great things about our job is that it's gotten easier over the years in the sense that when we started back in the '70s, we were kind of flying totally blind. Now having written 20-some books, having a column in Gourmet magazine, having a website called roadfood.com, all of those places have become fabulous sources for tips and suggestions for where we ought to eat. So now whenever we travel virtually anywhere in the country, there's a certain frustration level because we always have more tips than is humanly possible for us to check out. So we have to do sort of a triage system of what are the really, really best-sounding tips and try and do those. But we never get to everything, and we never will because the tips are piling up faster than we can eat.

 
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