May 17, 2006

Roadfood Adventures with the Sterns

I spent an enjoyable couple of hours this evening at the Akron-Summit County Library listening to Jane and Michael Stern speak about some of their culinary adventures. What a treat!

Had I not been on the road myself, and at home in Houston (where it would be a sure bet that I would have had to fight traffic to get across town to wherever they might have been), I probably wouldn't have gone to the trouble. Had that been so, I would have lost out on a great evening.

In case you aren't familiar with the Sterns, they are the Roadfood people; the couple who have been traveling the U.S. since the early 1970's writing about the regional food of America and the best places to find it.

To date, they've authored 40 books and they're on the road now promoting their latest, Two for the Road. Unlike the Roadfood guides or some of their other non-guide titles, this one is more of a culinary memoir where they share some of their experiences of traveling the backroads and byways while doing their, ahem...job. Many of these stories are not appropriate for the guides, so they share some of them in this new book. Thirty years of continual eating out--you know there has to be plenty of stories. I imagine they could fill several volumes with their tales.

Unlike many prolfic authors, their books are still worth buying. There's no sign of boredom on their part, or of writing that you get the feeling has just been hammered out to fulfill a contractual obligation. They still seem to like what they do.

I had recently read Jane's book, Ambulance Girl, and then saw the movie starring Kathy Bates. This is the story of how she came to be an EMT with the volunteer fire department in their Connecticut town. This was a rare instance where I enjoyed both the book AND the movie, (it doesn't happen often that both are good, it's usually one or the other) and so I was glad to have the opportunity to see them in person.

I was not disappointed in either of them. They were friendly and personable, and at ease with the audience. The venue, the Main Libary Auditorium, was just the right size for this sort of thing. Lots nicer than standing around the Barnes and Noble with all the distractions there.

Jane had a cane (she's awaiting knee surgery at the end of the month) and Michael carried her somewhat oversize bag for her. Thoughtful husband. A large bag, she later explained, is necessary due to the number of meals they eat per day, and their relunctance to leave food on the table. Restaurant owners evidently take offense if they don't clean their plates.

They further gain my admiration when I learn that they were smart enough to invent this dream job--eating out and traveling for a living, out of necessity--after their Yale graduate studies, they couldn't find jobs in the same location.

It was interesting to hear their recommendations on the signs of a good place to eat. If a restaurant claims to be "Home of" something, then it's usually pretty good. Places with mottos or slogans also ranked high, as did places that had huge cows and pigs on top of the buildings. Large ads in the Yellow Pages = bad; tiny ads = good. Some of the best places have no ads or signs at all.

Note: At our house, we have a method too. We usually avoid any place whose sign says "Family Restaurant". This may have something to do with the fact that we were forced to eat every meal at our local Family Restaurant for way too many months while we were without a stove during renovation of our kitchen. Still, more often than not, we never like the food we find at these places. For us, a major dilemma occurs when we are driving around a strange town late at night looking for something to eat and we're forced to choose between Mickey D's and the 24 hour Fill-in-the-Blank Family Restaruant. Sometimes it's better to stay hungry.

Fun to hear was how Michael has always taken pictures of the plates of food that he's been served. Easy and not very noticeable with today's digital cameras, not so easy and more than a bit of a curiosity back when he used a big camera and brought his own lighting.

In the beginning they had lofty goals: they once belived that they would review all of the restaurants in America. That goal was modified early on to include only those on the backroads.

(A lofty goal similar to my own misguided plan of the past which was to own all of the food company cookbooks. This, too, has proven more difficult than previously anticipated, but I haven't given up yet.)

They have observed that despite the chain restaurants of Generica, the small mom-and-pop-type restaurants have not died out as they once thought they might, but that their numbers are, indeeed, growing and in no danger of extinction.

And then there are the things you find out about folks that you would never even think of.

Barbecue joints and all-you-can-eat fish houses aren't the only places they visit while on the road. They also visit prison gift shops. Michael stood up and proudly displayed his hitched horse hair belt purchased from one of these places. They shared a humorous story about a visit to Leavenworth Penitentiary. Jane seemed visibly crestfallen when someone in the audience informed her there was a gift shop in the Ohio State Reformatory (located less than an hour away) and she realized their schedule didn't allow time for a visit.

The first book I read of theirs was not one of the guides, but a cookbook--Square Meals, which I acquired back in 1984. It's attraction to me then (and still) was that in the text they referred to the advertising cookbooks that I like so much. I can't quite remember if this was my first cookbook about comfort food, but if not, it was certainly close to the first. Many of the recipes contained in this book didn't particularly call for using brand name ingredients, but a lot of the old food company recipe booklets are mentioned.

In 2000, a revised edition of Square Meals was published. This updated edition includes many additional photographs. The same topics and themes are covered in both editions: Ladies Lunch, Lunch Counter Cooking, Sunday Dinner, Nursery Food, Victory Dinner and The Cuisine of Suburbia.

Another benefit to the evening: I got a great lead on a little cafe here in town that I hadn't even heard of.


At 5:08 PM CDT, Blogger RJ said...

darn, I wanna see them! I am jealous.
glad you were not dissappointed!


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