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 Web site, www.roadfood.com. 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. Travel’s Becky Krystal chatted with Michael Stern about the pair’s tasty journey; below are edited excerpts:
What’s your definition of roadfood?
Roadfood is a unique meal that you can’t get anywhere else.
What set you two off on this adventure to find the best of it?
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 and what diners experience when they use your guide?
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 Web site. 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 Web sites 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. Often, if we go to a restaurant that we’re tipped off to and it happens to be really good, we’re pretty chatty. We’ll start talking with other clients, other people who seem to be enjoying the food there, too.
Are there disagreements sometimes about places that go into the book?
It just never would have worked out if we didn’t have very similar taste in food. And not just taste in food. Not to put too sharp a point on it, but what interests us is not so much the food. I mean, of course it’s the food, but the place, the environment and the way the food is served and what the food says about the people who eat it and where it fits into their life, their history. All that stuff is what really makes this endlessly interesting to us. There’s a side to what we do that’s some kind of cultural culinary anthropology. In that respect especially, I think we share a point of view.
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.
So the future is better than you anticipated.
Way better. Back then, I would have been very pessimistic. If anything, the question is, “Will success spoil regional food?” Is it going to be so popular that, like all trends, it comes and then it goes? But I don’t think that’s going to happen, because it’s not really a trend. I think interest in it is kind of trendy right now, but it’s part of our culture. It’s not just something that people are going to forget. It’s part of who we are.