The local mom-and-pop places and the truck stops out there really got a boost when Jane and Michael Stern, the duo behind Roadfood.com, hit the road in the early '70s. Clueless about what they were really taking on, they innocently headed out with a map and a Volkswagen bus to visit all the truck stops in America.
Their first book, Roadfood, was published in 1977 and became a classic. It's still a best-seller, and is now in its ninth edition (read the introduction and find the Roadfood Honor Roll here). Michael says regional food is "a national legacy, a heritage that's well worth preserving."
[Ed. note: The Sterns' finds are frequently featured on The Splendid Table -- scan the list of everything Jane and Michael have mentioned over the years to find a place near you.]
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: How did this begin? The time that you started doing this was not a time when people were looking for this kind of food, right?
Michael Stern: You said it. When we wrote the very first edition of Roadfood, which was published in 1978, the idea of writing an entire book about great regional food was ludicrous. We had to really convince a publisher, really twist their arm, to believe that indeed there was enough material to fill a guidebook about great regional food.
Jane Stern: At that point, the food people wanted to eat so-called continental food. This was the era of Julia Child, of all the great French chefs.
When we said we wanted to write a book about American regional food, quite literally, people did not even know what we were talking about. They said, "What is that? Hamburgers and hotdogs?"
To be totally honest, we didn't really even know what it was ourselves. We got in the car and drove around for 3 years and figured it out as we drove.
LRK: Is there some sort of sea change that you've seen with this new edition or over the past decade or so?
MS: The big change is that America over the last 20-30 years has really overcome what used to be a culinary inferiority complex. That's important, not only because people appreciate the food, but because the restaurateurs themselves appreciate that what they're doing is really preserving a national legacy, a heritage that's well worth preserving.
Back in the day, if you ran a nice pizza place or barbecue place, you would hope that your kids would grow up and do something better than that. Maybe they still will, but now it's honorable to be a great barbecueist in a lot of places.
JS: I think sometimes we feel like Bill Haley and the Comets or Chuck Berry in that we started all this. Now the landscape is filled with 18 million people who are experts on American regional food. We're very happy that it is so interesting. On the other hand, we feel pilgrimy about it -- that this is ours.
MS: We actually gave a talk a while back at the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance, and the title of the talk was "Will Success Spoil Regional Food?"
The issue there is when we discover a little out-of-the-way restaurant and write about it, generally our readers will go to it and maybe business will pick up a bit. But when that restaurant gets on TV, and one of the TV celebrities touts its specialty, that restaurant can change dramatically and not be the wonderful place it used to be.
JS: The curse of success.
LRK: Yes. It's that double-sided thing where people who have worked very, very hard, maybe for generations, are now finally maybe seeing a very large return for their work that will mean stability for their families and for their employees. And yet by the same token, the whole experience becomes something really different.
JS: There also are plenty of little hole-in-the-walls that we are still discovering that can be our secret place for the next 3 decades.
LRK: You two have updated the great classic Roadfood once again. What's new in this edition? What's changed?
MS: There are 200 restaurants in the 2014 edition that were not in the previous one. In addition to listing 200 new places -- there are 900 altogether in the book -- what we've done in this edition is something brand new. We created a Roadfood Honor Roll, which is 100 of our really favorite, absolutely essential restaurants all around the country.
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