Jane & Michael Stern
John Mariani - June 1994
Food Arts presents the June 1994 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Jane and Michael Stern, food writers whose books have had a major impact on the way we now regard regional American cooking, particularly in terms of what they've made welcome under that wide culinary umbrella.
It was hardly apparent to the husband-and-wife team that their book, Roadfood (first published in 1976 by Random House and revised as Roadfood & Goodfood by Knopf in 1986 and as The All-New Roadfood by Harper Collins in 1992), would become a classic of American food culture, chronicling the best barbecue pits, crab shacks, luncheonettes, and chili parlors in America. "We were so out of the lopp as food writers," says Jane. born in New York and trained in Fine Arts at Yale. "We were so naive, we thought we'd eat at every roadside restaurant in America and live out of our Volkswagen on $2,500 a year—which you could do if you ate where we ate."
Yet when Roadfood first appeared, it was apparent that the Sterns had recorded with enormous affection, wit, and appetite the extraordinary range of American food not then written about in the pages of Gourmet magazine (for which, 20 years later, the Sterns now write a column called "Two for the Road") nor canonized between cookbook covers. "Nouvelle cuisine was big news back then," recalls Jane, "and perhaps our writing about great hamburgers, brain sandwiches, boiled crawfish, and fried pickles struck a nerve with people rebelling against all that."
The Sterns followed up Roadfood with many other books on American cookery, including Square Meals (Knopf, NY, 1984), a cookbook of favorite old dishes like pot roast, chocolate pudding, and shrimp wiggle; Real American Food (Knopf, NY, 1986) and A Taste of America (Andrews and McMeel, Kansas City, MO, 1988), compendiums of recipes from roadside restaurants; and American Gourmet (Harper Collins, NY, 1991), a hilarious study of the kind of fancy foods that fussed up postwar food service and dinner parties. During the same period they also turned out a book on Elvis Presley kitsch, an enclycopedia of bad taste, a study of cowboy culture, and are currently working on a biography of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans—which have made many people wonder if the Sterns are actually satirizing and making fun of American pop culture, including all those roadside restaurants they made famous.
But the Stern's vociferously disagree. "When we write about food, we don't kid around," argues Jane. "Our love of kitsch and tackiness doesn't enter into it, and we would never recommend a restaurant because it's kitschy or goofy, but only because the food tastes really good and because such food is endangered and in transition. I hope people will hold onto Roadfood the way we hold onto old copies of Duncan Hine's guidebooks. We want people to get a real sense of what Americans love to eat and how they cook it.
"The things we write about we take very seriously," adds Michael, who was born in Chicago, graduated summa cum laude in Russian Language and American Studies at the University of Michigan, and then went on to earn a Master's Degree in Fine Arts at Columbia. "We're anthropologists who believe that American regional food is a folk art worth serving and saving. People used to be embarrassed by their local food, and now they're proud of it. And they should be."