“I don’t drink wine, and neither does Jane,” was the first thing Michael Stern said to me as we started our conversation. “So, I hope this doesn’t short-circuit our talk!”
Not a chance. One of the reasons I wanted to speak to Jane and Michael Stern is because I admire their writing so much. They started writing about U.S. regional food in the 1970s, publishing their first Roadfood book in 1977. Their articles in Gourmet and The New Yorker magazines showed their skill at both long and short-form pieces, bringing a new descriptive vocabulary to food. It’s no exaggeration to say that they changed food writing – especially American food writing. And I think their influence has extended to wine writing as well.
The glossy U.S. wine magazines we read today started in the few years after the Sterns began driving around the country and writing about the roadside food places that they encountered. Their food writing, then and now, focused on the connections of the food to the place it comes from, the people who make and serve it, and who farm the ingredients. Those characteristics also started showing up in wine magazine writing, and these days are the main focus of writing outside of wine reviews. But the content and style certainly didn’t come from anything you’d have found in the previous decades. All you have to do is read Gourmet’s compendium of its 20th century wine writing to see that what we have now is a lot more like what the Sterns were doing when they started out than what was available from U.S. wine writers at the time.
Jane and Michael Stern met as graduate students at Yale, both studying art. They had various jobs after they finished school, and began working on a book about long-haul truckers (Jane’s Trucker: A Portrait of the Last American Cowboy, was published in 1975). Doing the research meant that they got in the car and drove to interviews all over the country. And, of course, stopped at all sorts of roadside places for food. At the time, there were barely any U.S. restaurant guides — and certainly not guides to the places where they were looking to eat. So they decided to write one themselves, which became the first Roadfood book. They’ve updated the book periodically, and will publish a new edition in 2017. Along the way, they’ve written cookbooks containing their favorite road food recipes, other books on food and culture, and started the roadfood.com site in 2000.
I first learned about Roadfood from my parents, they had an early 1980s-edition of the book. These days, I consult the site for places to eat while traveling — most recently Cy and I were in Akron, OH, and went to Swensons drive-in for burgers on their recommendation. And I always try to catch them talking with Lynne Rosetto Kasper on “The Splendid Table” radio show and podcast. Hearing them is just as entertaining as reading them. Michael and I spoke recently by phone, and what follows is a condensed version of our conversation.
I have to try one wine question. When you’re visiting places that are in wine regions, do you find local wines there, even if you’re not drinking them yourselves? Mostly no. I recently visited some seafood shacks where people were bringing tablecloths to put on the picnic tables and also wine to drink with their meals. But the kind of places we write about are barbecue joints, hot dog and hamburger stands, food like that. Most of them don’t even have liquor licenses.
Fair enough! Along with the food I found through your books and site, I really enjoy the writing. It’s so descriptive and I feel like I’m right there with you. Was writing something that came naturally to either you or Jane? I appreciate the compliment. Writing didn’t come to either one of us naturally. We weren’t journalism or English majors, we were studying art. But I do think that being an art historian helped. Describing art, its appearance, textures, etc., is good training for describing the appearance and taste of food.
What was that process like at first? We made the connection that flavor could be thought of as a work of art. And in writing about it, we had to consider the emotional, visceral, and tactile elements of what was in front of us and find a way to make what we wrote convey those things. As opposed to just describing what was on the plate.
We were self-taught at it, but we had help from great publications we wrote for. Especially writing “Talk of the Town” pieces for The New Yorker. It can be really hard to keep a piece under 500 words, you have to get right to the point of what’s interesting. That was great training for writing short pieces for the website when it came along.
Today, lots of people are interested in the provenance of their food and the people who make it. But was that a tough sell to a publisher when you started the first Roadfood book? Definitely. In the 1970s, we were told that the idea of writing a book about American food was preposterous. We had to twist our publisher’s arms because they thought there wasn’t enough interesting American food.
How did you convince them? We were always interested in the cultural context of the food we were eating, and that was the way in. And it happened to fit the food we were writing about. Here in the U.S., we don’t have — for lack of a better term I’m going to call them The Cordon Bleu Set of Standards — in other words, a common, universally known set of rules or whatever for what constitutes fine French food. And people who want to read about that type of cuisine are going to understand those standards, so the writer can simply focus on describing what’s on the plate; the food, its appearance, etc.
But here in the U.S., where you have something like 500 different types of barbecue, we took a different approach. Each one of those 500 reflects the people who make it, the place it comes from, the people who grow or make the ingredients, the people who serve it, and the people who eat it. It’s uncodified cuisine. So we wrote about the cultural context and that opened up the path for us.
Have you written about food outside the U.S.? Gourmet sent us on a few trips abroad, like to Paris. I think they saw it as a sort of “fish out of water” story. We certainly had fun on the trips and writing about them. But we didn’t feel like we had the same kind of cultural understanding of the people, places, and food abroad as we had developed in the U.S. And without that understanding, “Roadfood France” wasn’t going to work.
That’s interesting — I feel the same way when people ask me why I don’t import new-world wines. And I think that’s why my favorite of your books is Blue Plate Specials & Blue Ribbon Chefs. It’s like talking to my wine producers, who often are just the latest generation to make wine on land their families have owned for more than a century, and they have similarly deep community roots. Well, I’m happy you said that — I really like that book as well. It gave Jane and me a little more opportunity to satisfy our interest in the connections of people and their food, their families, and a little community history and heritage, too. Especially since we had launched the website a year before and were trying to keep those entries shorter.
When I was in my 20s, I cooked my own food, but mostly had to buy whatever was in the supermarket. Today, my 20-something friends frequent local food markets and farmers’ markets and cook from what they find. They want their restaurants to do the same. It’s really an extension of what you and Jane started doing in Roadfood 40 years ago. Does it surprise you to see how far the local aspect has come these days? It really does. The consciousness about food and ingredients has definitely increased. A few weeks ago I was at an ice cream stand in rural upstate New York and saw “Bluebarb” on the menu board. I went up to the counter where a teenager was working and asked, “So, that’s blueberry and rhubarb, right?” The guy replied, “Yes. And we get the blueberries from X farm on W road, and the rhubarb from Y farm on Z road.” Maybe in the old days customers would automatically know where those ingredients came from, but I was surprised — and glad — to hear it.
Well, I think you and Jane definitely played a big part in making it happen. Thanks so much for talking with me! My pleasure, Tom, I don’t know how much credit we can take, but lots of good memories here!
One of the reasons I love listening to the Sterns on “The Splendid Table” radio show is because Jane sounds almost exactly like the mother of one of my high school friends. Jane’s voice and laugh take me right back to my friend’s house all those years ago. Inevitably, I’d be over there until late on Christmas Eve, helping them get Christmas in under the wire. They’d make most of their gifts and of course there was a lot of last-minute finishing, each of them in a separate room with instructions to everyone but me not to wander in without warning. Most years I’d be putting up and decorating their tree starting at about 10 pm.
As I remember it, they’d usually have takeout food for the Christmas marathon. But they’d also make side dish casseroles to serve. So this week’s recipe is for a great side dish, from the Blue Ribbon Chefs book — Mrs. Rowe’s Summer Squash Casserole. It comes from Rowe’s Restaurant in Staunton, Virginia. Here’s some of what Jane and Michael wrote about the place:
“Even before the creation of this restaurant, Mildred Rowe was destined for renown. Her first cafe, opened in the 1940s in the small town of Goshen, was named The Far Famed Restaurant after a customer from California stopped by and declared, “This food is so good that everyone ought to know about it!” Once Mildred married Willard Rowe, proprietor of a forty-five-seat cafe in Staunton called Perk’s Bar-B-Q, the die was cast. She cooked during the day and waitressed at night. Perk’s was transformed into Rowe’s Steak House. Gradually, more of Mrs. Rowe’s strapping specialties were added to the menu, which became an encyclopedia of classic country cooking.”
They continue: “Many locals come to Rowe’s every day at lunch for a vegetable plate: three or four from that day’s roster, accompanied by warm dinner rolls and iced tea. In the summer, as gardens ripen, squash casserole is a frequent choice.”
I’ve made this squash casserole many times over the past 15 years. It’s hard to go wrong with bacon, cheese, and sour cream. But what makes it different than others is simmering the squash in water with some beef bouillon granules — it adds a little richness to every bite of squash. Of course, you can leave out the bacon and use vegetable bouillon for simmering the squash and it will still be very good. Add 2 tablespoons of melted butter to make up for the bacon drippings. I have made the casserole with yellow summer squash, pipians, zucchini, and pattypans, so pick what you like. It tastes good hot, warm, or at room temperature.
You’ll probably serve the casserole with some sort of protein and that will likely determine what kind of wine to serve. But the casserole is also good on its own with a side salad — in that case, I’d serve Bodega Traslagares Verdejo ($13). It has some acidity to counter the richness of the squash casserole, and goes well with most salads. Before long, you’ll be looking for excuses to make this recipe, wine pairing or not.
Makes 10-12 servings
From Blue Plate Specials & Blue Ribbon Chefs, by Jane and Michael Stern. Reprinted with the kind permission of Michael Stern.
2 slices bacon, fried and crumbled (reserve drippings)
6 cups diced summer squash (about 5 small but not tiny squash)
1 teaspoon beef bouillon granules (or 1 small cube, or half of a large cube)
1/4 cup grated onion
1 green pepper, chopped
1 cup sour cream
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 2-ounce jar pimento pieces, drained (or chop up 1 whole jarred pimento)
1 cup fresh bread crumbs (or enough to cover the casserole)
Butter for greasing casserole dish
1. Fry, drain, and crumble bacon, reserving drippings.
2. In a pot or pan, cover the squash with water, add the bouillon, and cook over medium heat until the squash is tender, about 20 minutes.
3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
4. Drain the squash and mash it up as much as you’d like. Add bacon, droppings, and all other ingredients except the bread crumbs. Pour into a buttered casserole dish (13 by 9 inches works) and top with bread crumbs. Bake one hour, or until browned and bubbly.