ichael Stern has spent almost his entire adult life in Connecticut, despite the perpetual disappointment of the sandwich bread.
"I hate that the bread people use for grinders in Connecticut feels like an afterthought," he says. "It's not like in the Delaware Valley or in New Orleans, where — you know — po'boy bread is light and airy with that crackle." He snaps an invisible loaf in half with his hands. "Maybe today's the day the bread holds together."
We're sitting inside a behemoth of a pickup truck in front of Michael's house, just outside of Bethel, Connecticut. Jane — Michael's ex-wife and the other half of the Roadfood empire — is worryingly late to meet us, and a rumble of low-grade anxiety has taken hold. A sinewy man with a toothy smile, Michael is drumming his fingers on the steering wheel as he makes small talk about horseback riding and hot vinyasa yoga. I wonder if maybe Jane has actually forgotten that we're going sandwich hunting.
I've never been to suburban Connecticut before, and my bank account is definitely not dressed for the occasion. It's peak summertime. Everything is lush, green, and quaint, oozing old money. The leaves on the trees might as well be made out of hundred-dollar bills. Coming from my home in New Orleans, all parts of this state seem phenomenally clean — maybe even suspiciously so.
The Sterns helped to bridge the gap between the little-discussed dining rituals of pre-World War II America and the internet age
Michael and Jane Stern have lived in Connecticut — first together, then separately — for decades. They met at Yale in New Haven, married in 1970, and quickly developed a cult-like following as the duo responsible for the award-winning Roadfood book series. Over the course of the 1980s and ‘90s, Roadfood became a culinary zeitgeist that renewed interest in local American foodways. The pair were catapulted into contributor gigs for outlets like Gourmet and The Splendid Table. The couple's work helped to bridge the gap between the little-discussed dining rituals of pre-World War II America and the internet age, where overshare through the lens of food is de rigueur. Today, they live in homes just 15 minutes apart.
Finally, Jane comes sweeping around the bend in the road, her Subaru outfitted with a giant blue emergency light (she has a part-time gig as a volunteer EMT). We're saved from our hunger pangs. She climbs in the cab and lets out a sigh.
"Let the sandwich chase begin!"
grinder is a variant of a submarine sandwich particular to New England, especially Connecticut, though — save its less-than-stellar bread — it has little discernible difference from its neighboring torpedo-shaped kinfolk like the hoagie or the blimpie. Local pride runs deep, however. On a tip from a Roadfood.com community member who has carved out a niche as the site's "grinder guy," the Sterns and I are setting off to Carbone's Market in hopes of finding what has the potential to be a transcendent sandwich. ("He's fairly new, but he's reliable," Michael said.) The internet's reach has allowed Roadfood to create a now fifteen-year-old online family of loyal readers and eaters who share their most prized, travel-worthy outposts. Jane and Michael are never struggling to find new places worth exploring these days, unlike in the flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants early years of their culinary hunting.
At Carbone's — a half-empty corner store where the sandwich counter in the back far overshadows the shelves dotted with cans of Beanee Weenees — we purchase a smorgasbord of grinders, each the size of fireplace logs, oohing and aahing as the sandwich-makers add ingredients like thick layers of sediment.
With practiced ease, Michael hops behind the counter with surprising agility as the servers slather on the finishing touches, camera click-clicking while mayonnaise the consistency of wallpaper paste is smeared atop a dogpile of roast beef. The pair have a well-worn routine: Michael chatting more aggressively with sandwich-makers while Jane observes and asks questions. When tasting begins, though, Jane leads the charge, with cut-and-dried assessment of the food, as well as by drawing connections to the ghosts of sandwiches past. ("Is the beef roasted here, in house?" she asks Michael. He nods. "Not the best on its own," she says. "A little bland, but traditional.") Their knowledge is staggeringly encyclopedic.
Watching Michael and Jane work inside Carbone's Market feels familiar. It's what those of us who make our living traveling and eating all do these days: snapping photos, scribbling down tasting notes, musing about the environs. Hell, it's what even casual Instagrammers do during a regular lunch.
When they first began their chronicles, the Sterns' approach caused some unrest. "We'd be in some place like Kansas, and people would look at us like we were crazy," Jane said as she inspected a miniature pie inside the sandwich shop (there was mold on top). "Michael always had really great cameras, so he'd be setting up this giant photo shoot around a bowl of soup and everyone would be like, ‘What the hell is he doing?' Eventually, I just started telling them he'd just had a partial lobotomy and to be kind. Then people felt sorry for us and would bring half-eaten sandwiches for him to photograph."
In 1975, Jane published a book about American trucking culture, the result of zig-zagging across the country doing research and interviews, with Michael along for most of the journey, taking photographs. After it was released, the duo convinced their publisher that the obvious next step was to produce a book documenting the roadside cuisine they'd discovered along the way. The original plan for Roadfood was to review every single restaurant in America, beginning by looking in the Connecticut phonebook and starting at the A's. Jane and Michael quickly realized such an undertaking would be impossible.
The Sterns brought not only a voracious appetite for culinary experiences, but a curiosity about distinctive foodways
Instead, they set their sights on showcasing the kind of community-driven dining for which they're known today, reviewing short-order joints hocking goetta in Cincinnati and barbecue pits slinging brisket across Texas. The Sterns brought not only a voracious appetite for culinary experiences, but a curiosity about what distinctive foodways mean for the towns that embraced them. When the first edition of Roadfood was released in 1978, only a handful of other food-themed travelogues (most notably, Calvin Trillin's American Fried: Adventures of a Happy Eater) had attempted to approach American dining traditions as both irreplaceable historical record and modern litmus test.
"Food that is the creation of a uniquely gifted artist/chef, yummy though it may be, seldom means anything other than you will pay a lot of money to eat it," Jane and Michael write in the introduction to The Lexicon of Real American Food. "On the other hand, food that is a part of everyday life is as fascinating as life itself...Our goal is to honor dishes that are part of the fabric of people's lives."
he Sterns serve as a kind of yin and yang to one another, and their symbiotic coupling was likely crucial to Roadfood's initial success. For Michael, having Jane as a partner assuredly helped serve as an entry point to kitchens that — in many circumstances — were female-led, opening up access to traditions held by mothers and grandmothers for generations that might've otherwise been withheld from a bellbottom-wearing male photographer in the early 1980s. For Jane, Michael allowed a way to explore the country without falling into the traps so often encountered by women adventuring solo: occasionally scorn, but — more often than not — sympathy.
Jane and Michael worked side by side for decades, becoming a kind of two-for-one package for those inside the industry. They traveled together, lived together, and shared a byline on almost all their writing: everything from Roadfood, to deep dives into the world of competitive dog shows, to a humorous comedy-of-errors novel called Friendly Relations, which Kirkus Reviews described as, "cinema-bound and cheery, but bland as virgin bean curd."
The pair's combination of wit and wisdom works in tandem; they have both an amusing private patois and engaging shared public persona. In person and in their writing, they regularly call upon the power of unexpected, rich language to their advantage. In one particularly gushing review, Michael waxed poetic about the prime rib sandwich available at Kroll's West in Green Bay, Wisconsin, calling its combination of butter and "meat's juice" a "slurry of luxe" and describing the task of eating it as "facing a feast of irresistible edible profligacy."
After Roadfood's publication, the Sterns rose quickly to prominence. They became — and remain — among the most vocal advocates for the kind of fuss-free edible authenticity that would later be embraced by media hounds like Guy Fieri, as well as culinary preservationists like the Southern Foodways Alliance, each looking to ensure in their own way that regional heritage doesn't dissolve into the ether.
That such divergent voices on today's culinary scene have that same locus of origin is an act of mental acrobatics on par with recognizing that chihuahuas and rottweilers have the same genetic ancestor, but the Sterns' lingering influence is evident everywhere, both directly and indirectly. The Southern Foodways Alliance has referenced Stern works in reading lists, and Michael remembers a moment shortly before the launch of Fieri's Diners, Drive-ins and Dives when a producer from the show frequented the Roadfood.com message boards. "Before Guy Fieri went on the air, a producer" — or possibly, he recalled later, a production assistant — "appeared on the Roadfood.com forums asking for suggestions of colorful regional restaurants for a new show that would be going on the air," he said. The site is a public resource, after all, so he's philosophical about it: "Of course, anyone is free to browse the website or our books."
This cultural interest in authenticity, as launched by Roadfood and embodied by Fieri, has changed things. "Back when we started, restaurant owners always wanted their kids to go off and do something else," Michael said. He and Jane often used to see beloved restaurants close because they lacked not just the customer base to support them, but young blood interested in keeping the doors open. "Now, kids want to take over their family businesses. Over the past couple of decades, we've kind of gotten over our American culinary inferiority complex, and now it's ‘cool' to be a barbecue man, or ‘cool' to run a diner. The attrition rate of Roadfood spots has lessened because of that."
While Roadfood has a signature, jaunty voice that's easily absorbing for readers, the Sterns' success in helping to place regional foods on a pedestal in the glitz-driven 1980s is likely due to their heady academic backgrounds. The idea "really started for us when we were in school in New Haven," Michael says in a video the duo shot explaining their backstory. Jane continues, in the same recording, "Michael was working on his PhD in Art History, and I was finishing my MFA in painting. As soon as we graduated, I went home to see my long-suffering mother and [said], ‘You know that eighteen years of graduate school? I don't really like it... I want to drive around and eat pie.'" Michael breaks in: "That wasn't really [her mother's] idea of what to do with a Yale education."
The pair were advocates, preservationists and, for some businesses, life-savers. Just look what they did for Cincinnati chili.
There is, however, something fundamentally academic to their approach. The pair took a serious, studied tack with a topic that wasn't being dealt with in that way (if it was dealt with at all), giving historical context to community cooking, spelling out its social importance and, in time, offering the then-dying art a renewed sense of legitimacy. The Sterns' enthusiasm had a ripple effect, not only bringing eager new customers into small businesses, but sparking interest in others to do what the Sterns themselves were doing: finding and praising restaurants and markets that might otherwise not ever see the spotlight. Jane and Michael were advocates, preservationists and, for some businesses, life-savers.
Just look what they did for Cincinnati chili. "Bearing no resemblance to any Southwestern-style ‘bowl of red,' this chili is called five-way because there are five separate layers in its full configuration," the Sterns write in their now out-of-print book, Chili Nation, published in 1999. "A base is created from a heap of glistening limp spaghetti noodles; they in turn are topped by a deliriously spiced sauce of finely ground beef, then beans, then raw onions, and finally a fluffy crown of cheddar cheese."
In the wake of the Sterns' recognition, the Greek-inspired, southwestern-Ohio-beloved stuff rose to meteoric fame, both locally and across the country. Specifically, the duo championed Camp Washington Chili, a diner — boasting a giant, vertical, block-lettered "CHILI" sign — that has been slinging the city-specific style since 1940. "It's the same configuration as all genuine Cincinnati chilies," the pair wrote in their 1983 book Goodfood, "but no other version is as poised as this: an archetectonic stratification of texture and wildly diverse tastes." Two years later, in 1985, CBS Morning News dubbed Camp Washington, "the best chili in the nation." In 2000, the restaurant was honored with a James Beard Foundation "America's Classics" award.
Despite evidence to the contrary, the Sterns don't regard themselves as culture-shifters, and are dismissive of attempts by others to champion their work as movement-building. Both together and separately, Jane and Michael are self-effacing: To hear them tell it, they're just two people who really like food.
hile the Sterns might have helped to revive interest in road dining in the latter-part of the 20th century, explorers and writers have been recording the ins and outs of the country's beautiful jigsaw of dining traditions since colonists were whipping up succotash and slurping down cheap, abundant oysters. "What has made American food so interesting over the years are these waves upon waves of immigrants," Michael told me. "When we started, to find a halfway decent Mexican restaurant anywhere but the Texas border was rare. Now, there are great ones all over the place."
A grinder might be practically indistinguishable from a hoagie, but don't even think about telling that to someone from Philadelphia
Culinary tourism is as old as America itself, as is the ever-shifting language used to describe the regional dining traditions that arise as people and cultures cross-pollinate. From the earliest colonial days, the people living in this country were making up the culinary rules as they went along, including the invention of new words and phrases to describe the ways in which they were toggling with the foodstuffs. Fiddling with language served both a functional purpose (naming dishes) and an emotional one, helping the population establish connections to their communities and their homes. A grinder might be practically indistinguishable from a hoagie, but don't even think about telling that to someone from Philadelphia.
It took until the Great Depression, though, for any sort of systematic project to arise with the goal of capturing the distinct vernacular of America's edible landscape. America Eats was a late-in-the-game undertaking of the much-lauded Federal Writers' Project (part of the WPA, it was a New Deal federal initiative to fund writers), launched in the 1930s as a means to explore culinary communities across the country.
America Eats focused specifically on foodways, exploring how the cultures of cities and regions were being shaped by their dining habits, helping to launch a tradition of sociological food writing that would eventually pave the way for the likes of Roadfood. The process was simple: dozens of writers were dispatched to chronicle anything culinary that they could find. The staff was a hodgepodge — some were laid-off reporters, others poets, many were still wet behind the ears — and the quality and style of writing varied widely.
Still, perusing the dispatches (as presented in Mark Kurlansky's 2010 book The Food of a Younger Land, which both collects and contextualizes the 90-year-old project) it's all I could do not to marvel, slack-jawed, at the vastness of American cuisine. A passage describes the "Pop Corn Days" of Nebraska, where a record-breaking bumper crop in 1926 produced enough corn to result in two million bushels, once popped. There are quasi-fictional tall tales featuring Paul Bunyan and Wisconsin sourdough pancakes, and sing-along songs about bountiful feasts from Michigan house-raising parties:
Come an' see what yo' got
On yo' breakfast table:
Ram, ham, chick'n ‘n mutton
Ef yo' don't come now
You won't get nuttin'.
Differences are detailed between clam chowders across the Northeast and mint juleps across the South, and writer Cora A. Moore proclaims that, "No native Vermonter goes without doughnuts for breakfast." A writer from Portland, Oregon even makes alarming mention of a new trend in which "win-o"s were beginning to drink a potent cocktail of evaporated milk and gasoline.
"Naturally, the Mexican influence pervades Southern California sandwiches. Given the Mexican tortilla... along with beans and chili, and you have the ingredients for a sandwich called a taco," wrote Don Dolan, an America Eats correspondent who might just be the original taco evangelist. "Los Angeles retains the art of the sandwich; in so doing, it is guilty on at least three counts of providing the piece de resistance of an eat-and-run meal."
Perhaps most importantly, the America Eats series was by Americans, about Americans, for Americans. The editorial direction for the project had an alarmingly modern ring to it: "Emphasis should be divided between food and people." But the guide, originally envisioned as a 75,000 work and — according to Kurlansky — eventually reaching much, much greater length, never saw the light of day. Just before America Eats was slated for release, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and the FWP was all but abandoned.
"Had America Eats been published as planned, we would have had a well-thought-out and organized, clearly written guide to the nation's food and eating customs just before the war," writes Kurlansky. "Instead, we have a chaotic and energetic assortment of reports, stories, and poems...Together these many writers in their different voices bring to life the food and people of 1940 America in a way the single-voiced, well-edited book would not have. It is rare to find this kind of untouched paper trail into the past."
Much like the Sterns' dispatches, the lost America Eats files read like a snapshot of the country's culinary identity from a time when foodways were so diverse that, looking back on it, it's tempting to curse the advent of the interstate system. The quickening pace of travel made possible by highways brought about the rise of a hurried, eat-on-the-go mindset, as well as a glut of cookie cutter chain restaurants that not only threatened the distinct identity of regional cuisine, but often forced mom-and-pop operations with fewer resources to shutter.
After World War II ushered in this era of convenience — from frozen dinners to fast food — Roadfood's arrival in the late 1970s was the first attempt to reconnect with the way Americans ate before the convenience-food revolution took over. While the Sterns' original objective to eat regional foods "before it's too late" (as the title of their 2009 book implies) might seem a little alarmist in our current golden age of authenticity, the grind of suburban sprawl and chain restaurant excess that took hold in postwar America once gravely threatened regional delicacies. Roadfood was able to draw attention to the beauty of local dishes and, eventually, helped people to appreciate them again. The Sterns helped diners remember why community foods — and their associated rituals — were so important in the first place.
We might not be completely out of the woods for preserving the likes of chocolate gravy and chokecherry wine, but there's been a renewed interest in the traditions of the past. People are embarking on careers to preserve them — or, in many cases, bring back from the dead, which means that our national foodways are in a far more secure position than they have been for over half a century.
Just because a dish is antiquated doesn't mean it's good, or particularly important to a community
Nevertheless, there's a push and pull between our desire to celebrate the foodways of yesteryear as superior in their authenticity, and our need to examine them with a critical eye. Just because a dish is antiquated doesn't mean it's good, or that it's particularly important to a community's social fiber. Similarly, just because a culinary movement has only recently evolved (like the ever-burgeoning fleets of fusion food trucks) doesn't mean it should be dismissed outright for its youthfulness. The Sterns have been, and continue to be, sensitive to this balancing act.
"Truly, American food has always been iconoclastic," Michael recalled. "That's the history of it. It has always broken rules, done new things, mixed ‘good' ingredients with ‘bad' ingredients. We did a really long story for the New Yorker once about the homemakers of Iowa who used radio as a connection to the outside world during the 1920s. We talked to one of the last remaining homemakers, who was still alive in the 1980s, and she said her favorite pie as a kid was one using cherries from her backyard trees with Miracle Whip on top of it. And I said, ‘This is a dairy state! You have access to cream. Miracle Whip?' And she said, ‘Yeah, but we had access to cream all the time! Miracle Whip was special.' Whatever annoys me now about American food, I have to step back and say — that's the way it has always been."
oday, the Roadfood empire is built on books upon books (the tenth edition of the Sterns' seminal work is due out in 2017), outlandish stories (like the time the duo emceed Julia Child's 80th birthday party), and an archive of media appearances out the wazoo, but it also hinges on an online community that has helped spread Jane and Michael's gospel for the better part of 15 years. After years of documenting the foods that bring American communities together, the Sterns appear to have engineered a community of their own.
In 2001, Yahoo and Netscape named Roadfood.com a "pick of the year" and a "cool site," respectively
When Roadfood.com launched in 2000, online food communities were practically nonexistent, with one-off, edibly-themed message boards, chat rooms, and webrings (remember those?) living quietly as hyper-niche markets inside the early 2000s internet. The Sterns' website provided one of the first true gathering points for culinary travelers to geek out over the best meals they'd encountered on the road, commingling long-time Stern groupies with newcomer eater-travelers who'd finally found an online home. In 2001, both Yahoo and Netscape celebrated Roadfood.com, naming it a "pick of the year" and a "cool site," respectively. "Tapping into the passionate road culture, Road Food is a great resource for reviews of roadside restaurants specializing in this culinary niche," PC Magazine wrote of the website in 2003. "The search features are powerful, and the discussion boards lively." Roadfood.com still displays these antiquated trophies with pride.
Pittsburgh native Cliff Strutz (Roadfood.com handle: buffetbuster) is a third-generation owner of a machine shop that focuses on glass bottle decorating equipment. ("Ever notice a Corona beer bottle and how it has a permanent paint label on it instead of a paper label?" he said. "It came off of our machines.") He's been an active member of the Roadfood.com forums practically since the website launched them.
"I found my very first Jane and Michael Stern book in 1997," he told me. "I was like, ‘Wow, this book is made for me!' In the book, it said that if you had any suggestions, to e-mail the Sterns. I e-mailed a suggestion to Michael, and he thanked me, then mentioned the website that they had just started. I'm not much of a joiner by nature, and this was back when the internet was fairly new — or at least it was new to me. I realized how much fun it was, though, to meet people who had this same interest. Now, they can't shut me up."
The relationships built on Roadfood.com go far beyond forum posts and e-mail chains. Once a year for the past decade, Jane and Michael have led an official Roadfood bus tour, allowing for face-to-face interactions and in-person bonding over meals. A $299 price tag buys guests a seat on the bus and a few included meals, with the majority of stops — all Roadfood approved — remaining pay-as-you-go. It's a hot ticket among forum posters, and the event sells out quickly each year.
This past spring, Roadfood.com was acquired by lifestyle media company Fexy. At the moment, the site's community is dominated by baby boomer contributors, and Fexy wants to reach out to younger users, hoping to attract millennials for the first time. A push towards a more youthful audience will indeed be necessary in order to shore up Roadfood.com's place as a reference point for the next generation of road- tripping eaters, and Fexy plans to more effectively distribute the site's unmatched wealth of information, while making it more interactive and user-friendly, especially on mobile devices.
According to Fexy representative Mouni Nguyen, a large part of efforts will involve cataloging the scores of photos and videos recorded by the Sterns over the years that are currently sitting dormant in Jane and Michael's respective houses. Unlike other touchstones of America's important culinary history, like Julia Child's kitchen, preserved in amber at the Smithsonian, the Sterns' scrapbooks of photos feel accessible and alive, a roadmap charting the path of edible America through the late 20th century and into the present day. This is because, at their very core, the photos, videos, and Roadfood itself are a bugle-horned call to get up and go, to be adventurous. The people who love the open road — its food, people, stories — thrive in constant movement, and revel in the relief road travel provides from the ho-hum drag of day-to-day life. The Sterns are assuredly part of that tribe.
"The history of our country is a saga of motion. It is the story of a nation infatuated with pulling up stakes and moving on," Jane writes in that first 1975 book, Trucker: A Portrait of the Last American Cowboy. "We are a people who wash off past failures along with the dust of the road, people who believe the best surroundings are the ones that change, the best home is one that moves, and the best friends are the ones we'll meet tomorrow."
The Sterns haven't stopped moving, writing, and traveling prolifically like only the cursedly curious do
Over the past four decades, the Sterns haven't stopped moving, writing, and traveling prolifically like only the cursedly curious do. In addition to roadside eats, the Sterns have other fascinations: the culture of the American West, souped-up cars, and animals. (Unsurprisingly, stacks of personal photos quickly turn into a flipbook of toothy pups and quirky rides.) Their entourage includes a chatty, nervy pet parrot who I learned, disconcertingly, is older than I am.
To this point, some of the most fascinating works among the 40-plus in the Stern cannon have nothing to do with culinary pursuits. Jane wrote a memoir about her choice to become an EMT as a means of fighting depression. (Later, it was made into a Lifetime movie starring Kathy Bates.) Michael still wants to write a book about Lawrence Welk. The couple's all-time best seller is a glossy coffee table volume about Elvis.
Even as Jane and Michael both push 70, a shark mentality (stop swimming and you die!) prevails. Of course, even the most seasoned, forward-thinking road tripper knows that the shadow of reality is always there, looming. The horizon grows blurry. Fatigue sets in. And then, there's the end of the road.
here's a familiar dream certain types of people have when considering an ideal relationship. "Wouldn't it be beautiful to make things together?" I've heard a starry-eyed artist muse to their partner, on more than one occasion. Maybe, maybe not.
The desire for creative energy to spill across all avenues of life — both professional and personal — is undeniably alluring to think about. What isn't discussed, though, is what happens to the working relationship when the romantic one breaks down. After 38 years of marriage, the Sterns divorced in 2008. Jane is candid about the relationship's demise; Michael is tight-lipped.
"When we decided to divorce, we figured out what to do about the house, the dog, the car," Jane told me. "I was dealing with the emotional side of it. But then it was like, ‘Shit, well what about the business — about Roadfood?'" Even seven years later, her pain is still palpable when she speaks. She recalled the lonely time immediately after the divorce when she tried online dating with little success. To hear her tell it, one date sputtered from the get-go because she kicked off dinner with a discussion of Indian sky burials, a practice where vultures eat human remains.
In her 2011 book, Confessions of a Tarot Reader: Practical Advice From This Realm and Beyond, Jane (who is the daughter and granddaughter of diviners) laments the first few months after her divorce in a description of "The World" tarot card. "Because my marriage had been for me the defining thing in my life, to suddenly be alone was incomprehensible," she writes. "I could not imagine a future; I could not imagine making it through the day... It is now two years since my divorce. What I focused on at the start of this whole mess was getting a new husband. I now realize that this could wait; what I needed even more was a new me."
Front and center in Jane's home is a porcelain bust resting on a pedestal. It looks like it could've been lifted from the set of an avant garde 1970s arthouse film, and it would be inexplicably strange, alone on its pedestal, if not for the four James Beard Foundation Award medals hanging around its neck. Professionally, the couple has appeared to weather the storm of their divorce without much kerfuffle, though their presence on the national stage has been decidedly lower-profile in recent years. There seems to be an unspoken understanding between the two that Roadfood could not have happened — and can't really continue — without the chemistry of their combined efforts. They won their accolades as a team, though Jane has the physical awards themselves, and their curious method of display seems, somehow, to make it more reasonable.
All the medals though, don't match the joy Jane derives these days from being freshly autonomous. For her, small steps can hold monumental meaning. "As scary as my new life is alone, when I overcome something or even just do something ‘normal,' it is a real victory," she says.
I wish Jane could see herself the way I immediately saw her — the kind of savvy, devil-may-care, whip-smart woman who isn't afraid to talk candidly about anything from strange sexual fetishes to Roy Rogers. The kind of woman who casually mentions fainting in her kitchen (a mix-up with her blood pressure medication), waking up, cleaning off the blood, and going back to bed because, "that's what a true EMT would do." She called the doctor in the morning.
Things are different for Michael, too. The week after our Connecticut sandwich journey, he e-mailed me unexpectedly. "Well, it looks like we may not be able to ride the Berkshire foothill trails together this fall," he wrote, the rapt patter of his e-mail barely able to contain his excitement. I'm a fairly seasoned horseback rider, and Michael had invited me to join his hunting club for an outing in October. "I have had my dumb house on the market for three years and someone just made an offer! I am heading to Aiken, South Carolina, later today to try to find a place to live."
For the first time since Lyndon Johnson was president, Jane and Michael are now officially apart
A few days after I got that email, I saw that Michael had uncharacteristically ventured into the realm of negative opinion writing, publishing in the Hartford Courant a Didion-style essay about his departure from his longtime home state. "Connecticut's uncommon disposition — a paradoxical stew of hidebound and unpredictable, refined and irreverent — has been eclipsed by a dreadful sameness," he wrote.
He's in South Carolina, now, and for the first time since Lyndon Johnson was president, Jane and Michael are now — officially, legally, and geographically — apart.
For all Michael's enthusiasm about the future, Jane's feelings are more complicated. "It is strange that Michael will not be in shouting distance," she wrote to me in an email. "I think it will not affect the work at all, it is more a personal issue for me, separation anxiety and all that. Old issues that I thought I had worked out on the couch but are still spinning around inside my head." The text on the screen seemed to catch its breath, then sigh. "Roadfood will not suffer."
first stumbled upon the term "idioverse" while reading an interview with author Norman Rush, who is credited with coining the phrase in his novel Mating. Describing the phenomenon, The New Yorker identifies the linguistic novelty as a "private patois made up of shared references and sayings, occasional neologisms, and common words that have taken on new meanings." In the Paris Review, Rush observed that "Extraordinary language is sometimes just what happens between two people living closely over many years."
When I met the Sterns, I finally understood just what he meant. In fact, the dyad of Jane and Michael — some four decades in, now — almost surpasses idioverse, and forms a hovering mushroom cloud of collective memory. Spending time with them, I realized that there's a voyeuristic pleasure in finding yourself submerged in the intimacies of a couple with a complex history. Watching the deepest, strangest way two people communicate made me feel like an intellectual Peeping Tom — one who wanted to stay. If the world you're interloping on is good enough, it's easy to want to drown in it.
Their patter is heady and inviting, as if anyone within 100 yards is invited to also, temporarily, be part of their idioverse. They go at it tit for tat, with the rapid-fire speed of David Mamet dialogue, but they'll linger to enjoy language more when discussing their Roadfood glory days. At times, listening to them talk, it seems that alone neither one can remember an entire story, and that together neither one can remember it the same way. There are tales about botched attempts to donate leftovers that ended in an undercover police sting, and casual references to a strange commune-like group of former Barnum & Bailey performers who live in Bethel and call themselves the "frog people."
The Sterns have no children of their own, but the Roadfood empire is undoubtedly their child
The Sterns have no children of their own, but the Roadfood empire (from books, to columns, to interactive live events) is undoubtedly their child. Through the strength and strangeness of their own private world — a double-headed, multi-tentacled beast of work and love, of personal strife and public face — they've managed to ferry their country's culinary vocabulary through the dark ages of Happy Meal hype and Patrick Bateman restaurant snobbery, bringing us to the current era of growing pride in America's local foodways.
Their child is also the community that they've created — one that celebrates writers, culinary anthropologists, and travelers eager to write about local foodways for a national audience. Magazines and book publishers are now happy to place a magnifying glass in front of the idiosyncratic regional cooking that decades ago would've been relegated to spiral-bound church cookbooks, everything from Arkansas pie to hot dog variations from all 50 states. (When I first stepped in the front door of Michael's house, he thrust a copy of a book I wrote into my hands. "You know, I've been doing some searching around on you, and I think what you're doing is just great!" he said. It's a slender volume on the social importance of Kentucky's baked goods — one that wouldn't have been possible without the work he and Jane have done.)
"We see the nation's diet very much like its language," Jane and Michael write in The Lexicon of Real American Food, their 2011 guide to the strange words and beautiful phrases that American cuisine has introduced to the world, from Biloxi bacon to hanky panky sausages. They culinary idioverse of the United States is, "sometimes vexing for its vulgarity and its disdain of high-minded principles, but endlessly, endearingly exuberant."
America is a land of y’alls and yousguyses, of fresh ingredients and canned staples sitting side-by-side. It is, as the Sterns have chronicled, dynamically messy, and there’s nothing more singularly wonderful than this patchworked quilt of flavors and textures, threaded with the stories of the waves upon waves of immigrants that make up our dining horizon. For those who look for the glory in the edible chaos, Jane and Michael Stern stand as a reminder that a cuisine that’s rough around the edges is nothing short of beautiful.
Sarah Baird is a writer and restaurant critic based in New Orleans.
Tiana Tucker is a Los Angeles-based artist and illustrator.
Fact-checker and copy editor: Dawn Mobley
Editor: Meghan McCarron