A Love Affair With American Food

By on Sunday, 19th September 2010

Jane and Michael Stern have left no stone unturned in their search for American local food. During the past three decades, they have logged more than 3 million miles on America’s two-lane highways, eating some 72,427 meals.

The Sterns’ odyssey has become both a passion and a career. They have written a series of books, with their latest to be released next week, “Two for the Road: Our Love Affair with American Food.”

The authors visited The Early Show Wednesday and told co-anchor Harry Smith where it all began: in New Haven, Conn., where the couple met at Yale University and decided to hit the road together.

“What we left behind were two sets of hysterical parents who had just spent a gazillion dollars on tuition ? and we didn’t want to do anything but get in our old rusted out VW and throw Richard, our bulldog, in the back seat and just get lost in America,” said Jane.

“When we left, we were blessed with these tremendous appetites,” Michael added. “We kept looking for a great book that would tell us where to eat. We couldn’t find one. So eventually we wrote ‘Road Food,’ which is how this all began.”

Once it began, it never slowed down. “I think we’re up to 39 [books], but I’ve lost count,” Jane told Smith. “I always compare it to how many cars we’ve had, which I think is 41.”

As for the food, the real question is: Are there still little undiscovered restaurants where the food is real? “Yes, thank God, yes,” said Jane. “We were just in South Tucson last week and we found a little hole in the wall place called Pico de Gayo, which has probably been there for 25 years. We had never heard of it and it is cheap and wonderful. They actually import Coca-Colas from Mexico ? and they do have a different taste than American Coke.”

“The fact is these great places are endangered,” Michael added. “But they’re not extinct. I think over the years, one of the things that we have seen is that we Americans have come to appreciate that kind of food as part of who we are in a way that we never did before.”

Among the tips in the Sterns’ new book: Look for restaurants with signs that say, ‘Open only for breakfast and lunch,’ because that’s where the locals eat. “Look in there for a big, round table where people come and go all morning. You know it’s more than just the food. They come to share information ? gossip, news, whatever. It’s the town square.”

If you’re a tourist somewhere, don’t ever ask the hotel clerk to recommend a restaurant. Instead ask the local barber, because they know all the secrets. Michael says he gets two or three haircuts on each trip in his quest for good restaurant tips. Phrasing is everything. “You don’t ever say, ‘Where’s the good place in town?’ You want to ask somebody on the street, ‘Where do you eat?’ And then you’re likely to find the great catfish parlor or barbecue place.”

Another tip: If the restaurant has a jukebox, check out the music choices. If you see Hank Williams, it’s a good sign.

To read an excerpt from “Two for the Road,” click here.

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