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HAVE YOU EVER ESTIMATED HOW MUCH ROAD FOOD
YOU'VE CONSUMED IN A GIVEN YEAR?

We've never counted chilidogs or hamburgers, or for that matter even meals. But one thing I can tell you is that basically for every restaurant that is really worth putting in a book or on the website, I would say there are probably at least five or six or seven or eight that we go in to, and sometimes eat in, that don't make it. And I said that carefully because there are a lot of restaurants that might look interesting from the outside or on which we might have a really good tip, and we'll go into it and either the smell of the place or the look of the menu, or for that matter the look of food on other people's plates (which is always a good thing to look at) is going to be very discouraging. And we always have to weigh appetite–appetite is very precious to us. Do we really want to waste our appetite on a place where the waitress is mean and the floor looks kind of dirty and the food on the plate doesn't look all that interesting? One of the things we have learned to do, and need to do to do our job right, is to walk into a place and at any time during the course of meal service from the moment of walking in to the time when the food is served, be willing and ready to walk out if we feel it's just not going to be worth eating anymore or looking at anymore. Because the chances are very good that there'll just be another place somewhere down the road or on the next street where we're going to want to eat, so why waste our appetites?

WHAT PARTICULAR FOOD ITEM HAVE YOU GUYS EATEN THE MOST OF?

Well, if you count pie as a food item, I would say pie because pie is universal. We've eaten a lot of barbecue and a lot of fried chicken and a lot of Italian beef sandwiches and a lot of pizza, but all of those foods are relatively regional. Even pizza–there are some parts of the country where I daresay it's not worth eating the pizza, period. But certainly fried chicken, barbecue, catfish, other things we've eaten a lot of, are pretty regionalized. And the fact is we have very little interest in eating a distinctly regional food outside of its region. For example, we wouldn't be all that interested in Cajun food in Buffalo, NY–it might be very, very good, but the point is it's out of its context. We want Cajun food eaten alongside Louisianans, cooked by a Louisiana chef, served by Louisiana waitresses in an environment that smells swampy. So the reason I said "pie" is that pie is one thing that I can think of that is universal–there is no part of this country that doesn't have its favorite kind of pie. There are some parts of the country where you're more likely to get a really great piece of pie than others–Arkansas for example, for reasons I don't know, it's just a great, great pie state. So is Iowa. So is Wisconsin. So is Minneapolis. Arizona is not such a good pie state, but we've had some good pieces of pie there, a fabulous sweet potato pie in Tucson. But pie is universal; so if I had to pick one food that we've eaten the most of it would be pie.

DO YOU EVER PAUSE AND THINK,
"GOSH, EATING THIS MUCH DINER FOOD COULD BE DANGEROUS."?

No–very rarely. We've sat elbow to elbow with far too many Midwest farmers in overalls who are well into their 80s and work hard all day long and then go and have pork chops, mashed potatoes, and biscuits every single day for lunch. I am firmly convinced that the worst food habit anyone can have is to worry too much about what they eat–by far, that is the most unhealthy thing you can do. We don't eat fried chicken and sweet potatoes and pie three times a day every day of the year. There are many days, particularly when we're at home, when we might just have a salad, or just have plain pasta. So it's not like we eat this every single day, but on the other hand we're both healthy individuals. I mean, if somebody has a food allergy or some sort of illness, then I guess they have to eat accordingly. But Jane and I are blessed with kind of healthy metabolisms; we're both strong and hearty people. So we don't really worry about what we eat, and I think that's why we can do what we do. If we were the types who counted calories or cholesterol or fiber, we would still be working on the first edition of Roadfood.

WHAT'S THE MOST HEART-STOPPING MEAL YOU'VE EVER HAD?

I can tell you without a doubt it's the fried chicken livers at Stroud's Restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri. It's spectacularly good, and I have to say I can eat maybe a third of this platter. It's deep-fried chicken livers, crusty and delicious as any chicken liver ever, anywhere. Utterly wonderful, served with peppered cream gravy on the side. But it's a huge plate of chicken livers, it really is enough for three or four people. I would say that particular dish is probably the most nutritionally outlawed dish I've ever come across.

HAVE YOU EVER DRAWN THE LINE AND SAID "I CAN'T EAT THIS."?

All the time. That happens a lot. In fact, we may seem like omnivores, but Jane and I are pretty fussy. If we order fried chicken in a restaurant and it arrives kind of soggy looking, we might have one bite of it–if that. And if the bite confirms what we suspected–it's not very good–then we say, "No, we're not going to eat it." And we're actually very, very fussy, because I think we have to be. In one sense, I think we are somewhat omnivorous in that there's no particular food that I wouldn't try; but unless it's really good, I'm not going to eat it.

WHAT DOES THE TERM "COMFORT FOOD" REALLY MEAN?

"Comfort food" means food that the eater feels completely at ease with. I think one of the reasons why comfort food has seen a resurgence over the last several years–you find it on menus, and you find cookbooks devoted to it–is that there is a lot in the world of food writing designed to scare us about what we eat and make us feel fearful that we're eating the wrong things or too much of certain things. And I think in that context of culinary fear mongering, most of us are desperate for what food originally was to virtually everyone–which is a source of pure, uncomplicated pleasure. Everyone has their own comfort food. If you were raised in a typical classical old Italian household, it's probably going to be pasta or noodles of some kind. If you were raised traditionally Jewish, it might be chicken soup. I think virtually every culture and every region, too, has its own dish or several dishes that define that kind of basic, uncomplicated, unquestioning comfort.

And to somebody from another part of the world, it might not be comfort food at all–in other words, I don't think there are many foods that would tend to be universal comfort foods. If you were raised in rural, central Texas, it's very likely that for you the great comfort food meal is going to be chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes, and cream gravy; if you were raised in New York City, you would probably find that meal terrifying, not in the least bit comforting. On the other hand, if you were raised in New York City, you might find a gigantic pastrami sandwich with mustard on it served by a mean son-of-a-bitch at a deli [to be] the most comforting thing in the world–whereas that might be very, very intimidating to somebody from Oklahoma.

So, obviously, my point is that what makes us comfortable is entirely relative to our own experience. I suppose there are some foods that are relatively commonly considered comforting–mashed potatoes, chicken… virtually every cuisine does something with chicken, and because it's usually fairly mild it tends to take on the role of comfort food in many forms, whether it's fried chicken if you're in the South, or chicken soup if you're Jewish, or baked chicken or chicken salad if you were raised in a very dainty atmosphere… chicken always tends to be comforting to most people, although I imagine there are some people who find it terrible, too.

WHAT'S YOUR PERSONAL IDEAL COMFORT FOOD?

My comfort food is bread–good, fresh-baked bread. I am never happier than when I go to a bakery and get a loaf of bread that has just the right crust–it doesn't have to be too complicated, it could just be a baguette or baton–that to me makes me smile like virtually no other food, because it is so simple, so pure, I could eat a lot of it, it requires no knife and fork, you can just tear it right off the loaf. To me, good, fresh-baked bread is the ultimate comfort.

 
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