For edible Americana, look for Roadfood
By the time you read this, I’ll be back in Brooklyn. I just can’t stay away from my new grandson! As is often the case, I’m driving. Occasionally I fly, but more often than not, I take the car. Sometimes it’s because I’m taking stuff out to my son in Boston or daughter in New York. Sometimes I’m bringing stuff back. Sometimes it’s because we’ll be traveling outside the cities, especially to music festivals with camping. On this trip, I’m not only taking camping supplies for my husband, Peter (he’s flying out for the weekend), and kids for an oceanfront festival in Connecticut, but also bringing back a newborn crib, bags of baby clothes, and other stuff our grandson has outgrown. Our daughter’s Brooklyn apartment is spacious by New York standards, but storage is minimal. If and when another baby comes along, I’ll undoubtedly haul it all back.
For eating on the road (15½ hours to Brooklyn, 19 hours to Boston actual driving time) I bring along drinks and snacks – fruit, crudités, granola, etc. and sandwiches. It’s good to stop for a meal, too – get out, stretch my legs and take a break. But I refuse to eat at fast food franchises, which along interstates often seem like the only option. I make occasional exceptions for Steak ’n Shakes (which extend eastward through Ohio). But I can eat at Steak ’n Shake here – they originated in Bloomington. What I really want when I’m traveling is to find eateries offering regional specialties frequented by locals, rather than national chains with identical menus and identical architecture from Alaska to Florida. To find locally owned places making local specialties, I turn to Jane and Michael Stern, authors of Roadfood, a cross-country culinary guide that, as People Magazine says, “should be stashed in every food lover’s glove compartment.”
The Sterns essentially stumbled into what would become their lifelong vocation. Neither had food or writing backgrounds. They met while they were pursuing advanced art degrees at Yale and married in 1970. As always, employment opportunities in the arts were scarce. “We decided to hit the road and see America,” Michael tells me. “In the early ’70s, CB radios were a big thing. We thought we’d do a book about truckers – they have such a fabulous culture and we wanted to document that. And where do you find truckers? At truck stops, of course.”
Actually, the Sterns didn’t so much as stumble into their vocation as invent it. “We tried to find a guidebook for good local eating places,” Michael says. “But the only guidebooks were for big cities, and they usually only listed upscale restaurants. There was no attention paid to regional specialties.”
Fast food and chain restaurants were expanding rapidly, while interest in regional food was virtually nonexistent, at least for publishers. The Sterns struggled to find a publisher for their first Roadfood guide, which came out in 1978.
Today, fast food and chains still abound. But interest in regional food specialties and discovering off-the-beaten-path eateries has exploded, due in no small part to the Sterns. “Looking at the coverage today – it’s amazing!” exults Michael.
“When we wrote the first edition of Roadfood more than 30 years ago, we believed we were documenting the end of an era,” the Sterns write. “Good, inexpensive food served in colorful places along the road seemed to be a thing of the past, and we saw a bleak future of soulless franchised restaurants from coast to coast. While there is no denying the awful ubiquity of national chains and their depredations against good eating (not to mention their uglification of the landscape), we are happy to report that delicious regional food is alive and thriving.”
The Sterns continue to revise and update Roadfood; the latest edition came out in May. The Roadfood website, www.roadfood.com, begun in 2000, offers “tons more information” according to Michael. Anyone can share a new find, and/or write their own review on the website. There’s a forum for discussions and information about Roadfood eating tours. The website makes it possible to continually update the reviews. All restaurant guides are inevitably somewhat out-of-date as soon as published: a place might close, cooks quit, ownership change, etc. “If a bad review of a recommended spot is submitted, we check it out right away,” says Michael. In the same vein, the Sterns recommend always calling ahead to make sure of operating hours.
In addition to updating Roadfood and continuing to discover new/old American eateries, the Sterns have written more than two dozen other books. Most are food-centric, but others deal with American pop culture, such as the New York Times bestseller, Elvis World, and the Encyclopedia of Bad Taste. Jane’s autobiographical Ambulance Girl was made into a TV movie starring Kathy Bates. The Sterns also wrote a monthly column in Gourmet magazine for 17 years, and currently are contributors for both Saveur and Taste of Home magazines, which Michael says keeps them from “getting pigeon-holed in either high or low-end publications.” For the last 11 years, they’ve had a weekly segment on public radio’s The Splendid Table (broadcast every Sunday on WUIS at 3 p.m.). Their latest project, a Lexicon of Real American Food, will be released this September.
Throughout the years, whether in print, online, in the tours they conduct or on the radio, the Sterns have stayed true to their passion for and philosophy about regional American food. They write, “…Roadfood is based on the proposition that America’s truly great meals are sleeves-up fare, no reservations required. We have come to believe that this nation’s culinary gift is like our other contributions to world culture – jazz, blues, movies: a democratic experience enjoyed every bit as much by ordinary folks as by connoisseurs. At it’s best, Roadfood is edible folk art.”
Contact Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dirt bombs come from the Bantam Bread Company in Bantam, Conn. The “dirt” is the cinnamon sugar in which they’re rolled after baking. In 500 Things To Eat Before It’s Too Late, the Sterns offer this description: “In the world of muffins it is the bomb, as in the best, so much better than a normal muffin, and in some ways so unlike one that it almost seems wrong to label it as such. Its mouth-feel is more like that of a doughnut: slightly crisp exterior skin enveloping nutmeg-tinged tenderness that is as velvety as a whipped cream pound cake.”
The recipe calls for a 12-cup muffin tin, but that’s only if the tin is for large muffins; regular-sized ones (in which cupcake papers come up to the edges) will yield 16-18 bombs.
Dirt bombs are best eaten warm, but will keep for several hours.
For the muffins:
- 1 stick butter, softened
- 1 c. sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 3 c. all-purpose flour
- 1 T. baking powder
- 1/4 tsp. baking soda
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
- 1 c. milk
For the “dirt”
- 1 stick butter, melted
- 1 c. sugar mixed with 1 T. ground cinnamon
Cream together the butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer. Beat in the eggs, one at a time.
Combine the dry ingredients. Add one third of them and one third of the milk to the bowl and beat at low speed until just barely mixed. Repeat twice, until all the ingredients are mixed together and the batter is smooth.
Fill the greased muffin tin no more than 2/3 full. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the muffins are golden brown. Turn out on a rack until they’re just cool enough to handle, then dip each in the melted butter and roll it in the cinnamon sugar.
Makes 12 large bombs, 16-18 smaller ones.