While graduate students studying art at Yale, Michael and Jane Stern fell in love over a fresh clam pizza at Pepe’s pizzeria in New Haven, Connecticut. Some combination of those delectable clams, the good company, and the fact that they couldn’t find work in the art world fueled a plan: they would hit the road in a green Chevrolet Suburban and eat at every restaurant in America.
For the first three years, obsessed with the subculture of long-distance truckers, they ate at truck stops and slept in the backs of rigs. For a Manhattan girl who’d grown up eating at Lutèce, one could say it was territory seen with “fresh eyes.” It was also territory previously dismissed in food circles. The more they traveled—and the more they ate—the more their fascination with regional food and culture grew. They began to worry that regional American cuisine was not long for this world in the face of franchise chains, so spent the next two years keeping careful track of what was worth eating where. They called the collection Roadfood (1977). With six updated editions, the books are so tried and true that one reviewer has suggested they ought to be “in the glove compartment of every motorized vehicle registered in these fifty states.”
Years later, the Sterns are happy their predication was wrong. “To most people, food represents something almost as dear as religion,” Michael says. “It represents where they’re from, who their ancestors were, how they were raised, how their family gathered around the table. And I think that there’s still such a strong feeling for that that these restaurants are just never going to go away. Because people need them.” Further, there is the idea that American food—in all its cake-mix-Coca-Cola-and-can-of-mushroom-soup glory—is unique and good and worth celebrating. Jell-O molds that a decade ago would have been socially devastating contributions to a dinner party? They’ve had a resurgence of…cool. And if you never asked your grandmother for that recipe, the Sterns have it covered.
Alongside their regular contributions to CBS This Morning, Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s Public Radio program The Splendid Table, and Gourmet magazine, the Sterns have published more than thirty books since the first Roadfood. One edition is specifically for sandwiches; cookbooks feature various roadside house specialties; and a travel-food memoir chronicles their gustatory adventures. Their rigorous research routine involves 12 meals a day, with Jane stuffing leftovers into an oversize purse, and their writing easily makes a reader think of taking up the very same schedule. Among their suggestions: Don’t eat anywhere with a photographic, laminated menu. Stop at any place that has a statue of a cow on the roof. Old ladies with hairnets in the kitchen are a good sign. If the cakes and pies in the display case don’t look homemade, “the rest of the meal is not likely to be good either.”
So what do the Sterns say to eat in Seattle? Fourteen Carrot Café’s tahini french toast and omelets; Bakeman’s turkey sandwich; Coastal Kitchen’s Asilah Cod, Settat Soup and Salad, and Larache Lamb Burger; Emmett Watson’s Oyster Bar’s oysters, fish & chips, and chowder; Lowell’s calamari; Mae’s Phinney Ridge Café’s spud feast and tofu breakfast; Mike’s Chili Parlor’s chili dog; a blue cheese burger and onion rings at Red Mill; crumpets at The Crumpet Shop; and everything, apparently, at Top Pot Doughnuts.
Excerpt from “A Social Experiment in Havana” – Gourmet magazine, July 1997
At 6:30 in the morning, when the dining room is getting crowded and the air swirls with the wake-up smells of brewing coffee and sizzling breakfast meats, Doris Gulsvig totes a pan of oven-hot caramel rolls out of the kitchen and sets them down to cool, then stops to write the dinner special on the blackboard. As is always the case, there is one prix-fixe hot meal—today’s is pot roast with dressing, gravy, mashed potatoes, corn, coleslaw, and lemon pie (for $4.50)—as well as a small assortment of soups, sandwiches, and hamburgers.
This is what I call a gravy-and-potato café,” declares Harvey Peterson, whose wife, Gloria, is known for the raisin sauce she makes for ham. Mr. Peterson, who has farmed the land for more than 50 years, is a regular who, amazingly, drinks no coffee. One summer morning, at a table with his wife and some other cooks and his grandson, he spoke of the days long, long ago, when Havana had four flourishing grocery stores, two department stores, and a 20-piece band for promenade concerts in the warmer months. He recalled how empty the town seemed when the Havana Café closed. “Now look at what we have,” he said with a measure of pride, gesturing to a dining room crowded with Havanans.
“The Farmers’ Inn holds our community together,” Mr. Peterson concluded.
“It’s like going to church on Sunday,” one of the cooks added. “Except you don’t have to be a Lutheran to have your coffee here.”
“Maybe we did save this café,” another added thoughtfully. “But the way I see it, this café saved us.”
Two for the Road: Our Love Affair With American Food (2006)
Blue Plate Specials and Blue Ribbon Chefs: The Heart and Soul of America’s Great Roadside Restaurants (2001)
Chili Nation (1999)
Eat Your Way Across the USA (1997)
Jane and Michael Stern’s Encyclopedia of Pop Culture (1992)
American Gourmet (1991)
Square Meals (1985; cookbook)
Roadfood (1977; 7th edition 2008)