Decades before Google, Yelp, or Siri helped us find the best pork tenderloin sandwich in Des Moines or the best tamale in Mississippi, Jane and Michael Stern logged many miles to get those answers. The 10th edition of their book “Roadfood: An Eater’s Guide to More Than 1,000 of the Best Local Hot Spots and Hidden Gems Across America” has recently been released.
The Sterns, who were married for much of their collaboration, have written more than 40 books together and won three James Beard awards. Michael Stern talked about nearly four decades of “Roadfood” and the state of regional American cuisine from his home in Aiken, S.C.
Q. Is regionality still alive and well?
A. The answer is yes and no. Compared to when we started, which was like 40 years ago, people are much more aware of regional specialties and regional ways of eating. Much more. Forty years ago, the idea that somebody in Chicago might know about St. Louis ribs or beignets or the difference between Texas chili and Cincinnati chili was unthinkable. On the other hand, as we become more aware of them and people realize that they’re wonderful and interesting, you’re going to be finding St. Louis ribs in Atlanta, Georgia, where they ought not to be if I were a purist.
Q. How has your definition of road food evolved over the years?
A. In the original edition, the rule was, and we only broke this on a couple of occasions, every meal had to cost under $5. In 2017, that doesn’t work. Basically, what road food means is you’re eating food in a place that you’re not going to find anywhere else. Food that reflects the culture of the population, the traditions of that area. While in some areas that’s fairly static and hasn’t changed in decades, in other areas and other ways it’s changed dramatically.
Q. Is it becoming harder to find road food in small towns?
A. When I go back to the original edition of “Roadfood” from 1977 and I thumb through all the wonderful mom-and-pop places that back then I said would go on forever, a lot of them have gone. That’s sad. But on the other hand, in the new edition there are a number of places that are brand spanking new and doing not only traditional regional food, but also expressing that wonderfully unique aspect of American food — that it’s constantly changing, just like the population.
Q. What was the inspiration to start this 40 years ago?
A. There was one book that we did, that Jane was actually the author and I did a lot of the photography. It was called “Trucker: A Portrait of the Last American Cowboy.” It was kind of a big photo essay book of the life of independent long-haul truck drivers. Neither of us had any intention of being writers or creating books. But somehow we got the itch to do the Jack Kerouac thing. While we were doing the trucker book, our thought was as long as we’re on the road, let’s see if we can find a really good guide book that will tell us where to eat catfish in Mississippi or Sonoran hot dogs in southern Arizona. We looked and looked, and needless to say, there was no such book.
Q. Did you have any idea that “Roadfood” would continue so long?
A. It seems absolutely preposterous today, but at the time we really had to convince our publisher that there were enough interesting restaurants in the United States of America to fill a guidebook. American food at the time got no respect. As we traveled more and more to find restaurants for “Roadfood,” we were doing a lot of, between meals, what I dare call cultural anthropology. We began to realize that the food we were writing about wasn’t just good stuff to eat. The food was really an expression of culture. What I hope is conveyed in “Roadfood” is it’s not just the taste of the food. It’s the experience of getting to the restaurant, of sitting in the restaurant, of hobnobbing with the locals, of how the waitress deals with you — all of those things are connections that make the food really interesting. It’s, in a very literal and figurative sense, tasting the country.
Q. You lived in Connecticut for many years. Now that you’re a Southerner, what do you miss from New England?
A. Pizza. I could live on pizza. Living in Connecticut and going to New York and Boston, good pizza is everywhere. New Englanders eat far more ice cream per capita than in any other region, and it’s not at all uncommon, especially in and around Boston, for there to be really good artisan ice cream places where somebody really goes to the trouble to make excellent small-batch ice cream. That simply does not exist down here. New England has a lot of really good doughnuts, both yeast-raised and the denser cakelike doughnuts. Down here, the best you can do is Krispy Kreme.
Interview has been condensed and edited. Michael Floreak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org