For more than 30 years, Jane and Michael Stern have traversed the country in search of the best in regional American cuisine. They coined the term "roadfood," which became the name of their encyclopedic book and website. The ninth edition of Roadfood: The Coast-to-Coast Guide to 900 of the Best Barbecue Joints, Lobster Shacks, Ice Cream Parlors, Highway Diners, and Much, Much More came out this year.
I chatted with Michael Stern about the pair's tasty journey; below are edited excerpts:
Q: What's your definition of roadfood?
A: Roadfood is a unique meal that you can't get anywhere else.
What set you two off on this adventure?
The first edition of Roadfood was published in 1978. The very first book we ever did was on long-haul truck drivers, and in the course of doing that book, we traveled around the country a lot. And we'd occasionally come across good catfish in Mississippi or chili in Texas or whatever it might be. And we kept thinking, "God, we've got to get a guidebook to tell us where to eat this really interesting regional food." And we looked and looked, and finally it dawned on us that there was no such guidebook. So when the trucker book came out, we looked at each other and looked at our editor and said, "We need to do this book."
How have the Internet and social media changed what you do?
We were kind of flying blind in the early days. No one knew what we were talking about when we talked about regional American food. Now people are aware that it's interesting. The blogosphere is crowded with people writing their opinions about the great chili dog of New Jersey or the best clam chowder on the coast of Oregon or whatever it might be. So there's tons more information out there. The issue for us is to sort of separate the wheat from the chaff. Whereas in the past, we were desperate for dining tips, when we set off on a road trip now, we have too many.
How often are you eating roadfood?
Generally one to two weeks a month. I think it averages to about a third of the year.
How do you get tips, and where else do you look for information?
We do get tips via the website. We even actually periodically get a great big envelope from our publisher with hand-written notes — like, people putting pen to paper. But beyond that, we really always have some kind of an itinerary whenever we're going somewhere or at least if not a specific itinerary, a list of places we want to look into, primarily based on those tips. But we always leave a lot of room for accidental discovery and exploration. We spend a lot of time either going to oddball museums, looking around small towns, shopping in pharmacies and grocery stores that are local, really getting a taste of the area. And in the course of doing that, we've often come across really interesting places that nobody gave us a tip about or that we wouldn't find on Yelp or one of the websites that have reviews of restaurants. Whenever we travel, I always get at least one haircut, because sitting in a barber chair in a small town is one of the greatest places to get information about interesting restaurants.
How long do you see yourself doing this?
Until they pry the fork from my cold, dead fingers. Print is becoming less and less of a popular medium, but as long as there are people who do read books, I intend to be writing editions of Roadfood. If you'd asked me 20, 25 years ago, I would have said, "We're documenting a dying phenomenon." I would have predicted that in the first couple of decades of the 21st century, all the food we eat is either going to be corporate franchise food or total high-end celebrity chef food. And what I didn't see but what has happened is there's this vast area in between of interesting, colorful, unique regional food that is thriving.