Forty years ago, Jane and Michael Stern published the seminal "Roadfood," the first major restaurant guide to suggest the nation’s seafood shacks, diners and barbecue joints were cultural treasures. The then-married couple also pioneered the art of food scouting on a grand scale, driving down two-lane highways and neglected byways in search of regionally specific dishes, such as persimmon pudding and catfish fiddlers.
In recognition of their work, the Sterns have received three James Beard Foundation awards. Last year, the menus, postcards, photos and notes they’d accumulated over the course of their career was accessioned by the Smithsonian Institution.
Still, they’re not leaving the road just yet. They’re perpetually updating their website, and the 10th edition of "Roadfood" is slated for publication this spring.
But what has changed is Michael Stern’s home address. The Sterns divorced in 2008, and Michael Stern in 2015 relocated to Aiken.
The move marks a major regional shift for a Chicago native with degrees from the University of Michigan and Yale University. In his forthcoming book, "Potlikker Papers," Southern Foodways Alliance director John T. Edge accuses the Sterns of historically taking a prejudicial approach to the South, writing, "Like many who trafficked in stereotypes, the Sterns were both attracted to and repulsed by the South. They struggled to puzzle through its tensions."
Now it's a puzzle to be solved from the inside out. I recently met up with Michael Stern at The Red Shed Diner in Graniteville to learn more about his time as a South Carolinian and his current vision for "Roadfood."
Stern chose The Red Shed Diner, a quintessential Roadfood-type of place with vintage local photos on the walls and a cigar store Indian out front. Geni Gunter last year bought back the luncheonette, which she sold in 2014 because of health issues; it’s one of Stern’s favorite area restaurants. Our meeting started with a question that Stern has answered affirmatively thousands of times.
Geni Gunter: Are you ready to eat?
Michael Stern: What should we have?
Gunter: I have barbecue chicken today ...
Stern: ... which I love ...
Gunter: ... with hash and rice.
Stern: All right. I keep thinking maybe I should find something I haven’t ever eaten here, but I think I’ve eaten everything on your menu.
Gunter: I think you have. Pretty close.
Stern: All right, I’ll go for the chicken with hash and rice.
Hanna Raskin: What should I be having? I’ve not been here before, so I’m the opposite: I haven’t had anything on the menu.
Gunter: One of the things we are famous for is our Skip sandwich, which is pimento cheese with bacon and tomatoes. We also do a burger like that. We also do an angry meatloaf sandwich.
Stern: Yes! You know what, if you want to get the chicken, I’ll get the angry meatloaf.
Raskin: What makes it angry?
Gunter: Pepper jack cheese and hot ketchup.
Stern: It’s not all that angry.
Gunter: It’s modestly angry. But some people around here ...
Stern: You have some buttermilk pie, I hope?
Gunter: You think? There’s some in the oven.
(Gunter exits dining room right.)
Horses take the lead
Raskin: So you’ve been here a year now?
Stern: A little over. I moved here September 1, 2015.
Raskin: And this is your first time living in the South?
Stern: Correct. I mean, I lived in New Haven for over 40 years. I went straight there from Michigan, and I thought I would die in Connecticut.
Raskin: Which is a good reason to leave it.
Stern: Right. Many things sort of drew me to South Carolina and pushed me out of Connecticut, but horses were a big, big reason for coming to Aiken ... We just had our parade, and other than the Rose Bowl, I’ve never seen a parade with so many horses. There were women riding sidesaddle; little kids with little ponies pulling little carts. It was great.
Raskin: Were you in the parade?
Stern: No, I wasn’t. I hate parades. I mean, I hate riding in them. I have a horse who does one thing spectacularly well, and other things not so well: He hunts.
On the hunt
Raskin: How did you get into this?
Stern: I didn’t start riding until I was in my upper 40s. I kept getting colds, and I was sick, and blah blah blah. So I went to doctor after doctor: Nobody could cure me. I finally went to a naturopathic physician, which is not really something I would usually do. And he did the full intake, and he said, ‘OK, so what do you do for fun?’ And I said, ‘I love my work,’ which is true. I mean, what's better than this?
He said ‘No, no, no: Something that has nothing to do with earning a living.’ None of this stress. And I drew a blank. So I tried volleyball, and I kind of liked that. And then there was some place nearby that was giving horseback riding lessons. And right away, I thought, ‘This is fun.’
I rode Western. And then the woman I am now married to, she's a rider too. And one day she went to what was called the hunt clinic. I was still like a recalcitrant cowboy in the silly-looking britches. But she was just so happy ... I got an English saddle, and pretty soon, there it was. It really becomes an obsession.
I've never been into any adrenaline sports at all. But when the hunt season is over, I’m like, what do I do now? All that excitement!
Widening the road
Raskin: So since 1977, it’s obviously a very different country than it was then. There are four Mexican restaurants within two blocks of here. Have they made their way into the book?
Stern: Only in very limited numbers, and in fact, to be honest, one of the things that we're trying to do with the website is to expand the "Roadfood" vision to include food that is not, sort of, traditionally American. From the beginning, we would find a Swedish town in Iowa and we would include the restaurant because they had great bread. But my knowledge of, and interest in, say, Vietnamese food, is really limited. Really limited. And I would love to have somebody on "Roadfood" who knows it really well and could write about it really well.
Raskin: Because they fit the mold, right? I mean, those are the moms-and-pops.
Stern: Exactly, they’re the moms-and-pops. For part of the redesign of the website, we were categorizing restaurants. So you know, there’s Polish, there’s Hungarian, there’s cafeteria. And one of them was Korean. There are like two Korean restaurants on all of Roadfood.com. Obviously, there should be more.
Raskin: And is the "Roadfood" community coming along with that, or are they more like, "Give me my biscuit.”
Stern: You know, there are a lot of old timers for whom —and I have to in some ways include myself in this — who really love a sort of traditional, mostly European, ancestor cuisine.
Right now, we don’t have a lot of millennials going to Roadfood.com. And I think one way to do that would be to do something other than old-white-man and old-white-woman cuisine.
Putting on pounds
Stern: Of course!
Gunter: I know you want pie. She needs to try the pie. I’ve also got the red velvet tuxedo, like I do the red velvet cheesecake with the chocolate?
Stern: And you have the banana pudding?
Gunter: Yes. Why don’t you do the pie and banana pudding?
Stern: Wonderful. Thank you.
In the 12 months from Sept. 1 to this last September, I gained 10 pounds. Just because who can resist buttermilk pie? Or shrimp and grits? It’s just so good.
I left behind a lot of food I can’t get here, like really good Italian food is scarce around here. Nobody here cares about ice cream. I hate to use the word, but there are artisan doughnut makers throughout New England. Doughnuts are another thing. Around here, it’s Krispy Kreme.
One of my ... I don’t want to call it a surprise. Of course, I knew there would be good little barbecue places and fried chicken places and meat-and-threes, but what has amazed me is the number of restaurants I have found that are true mom-and-pop restaurants, but recently opened, and opened by people who are not culinary rubes.
(The desserts arrive.)
Stern: There’s too much whipped cream to really photograph the banana pudding.
Gunter: Well, slide it over.
Raskin: All we can do is eat it. Oh my gosh. This pie is great.
Stern: That’s kind of the signature dish here.
Raskin: As it should be.
Stern: I'm sort of a classicist when it comes to banana pudding, but I kind of like the Moon Pies in it instead of banana wafers.
The Roadfood effect
Raskin: So did Geni know who you were when you first came in here?
Stern: No, not at all. That's one of the wonderful things about doing what we do as opposed to being a critic for an important newspaper. We wrote our column for Gourmet magazine for 17 years, and probably 95 percent of the places, we could have worn a placard around our necks that said, “Here come the writers for Gourmet.” They wouldn’t have given a hoot.
Finding what's good
Raskin: So now that you’re on the website, do you document everywhere you go?
Stern: Well, my road food radar has gotten very good.
Raskin: I bet!
Stern: I'm very willing to walk into a place; look around; look at other people’s plates and just walk out. In Birmingham, there were several recommendations where I walked in and was like, ‘I don’t want to waste any appetite here.’
Raskin: What are you looking for?
Stern: Happy customers. And the food itself. It’s pretty hard for really horrible food to look good, and for really good food to look horrible. The smell of the place. Plus the music.
At the very beginning, when we started doing "Roadfood," I remember we used to say that atmosphere and ambiance don't matter. All that matters is the food on the plate. And that was kind of a reaction to restaurants that had to be very cultivated. And I’ve totally come 180 degrees on that.
There's a soul food restaurant in Orlando called P&D Soul Food. And most soul food restaurants are really colorful places. P&D is in a strip mall. They have no decor on the walls. Like nothing; no music. Everything is served in Styrofoam, and it’s really, really good. That one could have fooled me.
Raskin: How is soul food looking across the country? That’s always a concern.
Stern: I mean in my experience, awfully good. I haven't really focused on taking its temperature, but it seems pretty healthy. I was just in Washington, D.C., and found some fabulous soul food.
Get the pudding
Raskin: So if soul food’s doing well, what is endangered?
Stern: Cafeterias. I love cafeteria dining. But I think it just doesn't make sense economically.
Before I moved to South Carolina, I might have said pudding was an endangered species. I mean it's a big deal in New England, as well, but less and less so.
Raskin: Oh, you don't mean liver pudding.
Stern: No, no dessert pudding. New England has grape nut pudding, Indian pudding, tapioca pudding. It's a diner tradition but that was getting pretty scarce. But I can’t say that here. I really think Alabama might be the banana pudding capital of the world. I don’t know why. Every restaurant has it, and it’s all really good.
Raskin: Did you say Alabama?
Raskin: Well, wasn’t Mobile a big banana importer? I thought they competed with New Orleans.
Stern: Was it? Well, that would make sense. But it would be interesting, if I had all the time in the world, to figure out different styles of banana pudding, because there is a style around here. All of the traditional, pig-picking, weekend-only buffets have banana pudding, and when I tasted it, I thought it was terrible. But then I realized this is the way they do it. There’s no leavener; there’s no whipped topping; no whipped cream; no meringue. It's very dense, very heavy. And clearly that's a style of banana pudding. I don't particularly like it.
The more that changes
Raskin: I guess I keep thinking about the changes in the country, and the Bicentennial that preceded the first edition of "Roadfood," and the interest that the Bicentennial precipitated in everything about America. Now we’re coming up on America’s next big anniversary. It’s just 10 years away. Do you think there’s going to be some food related to it? I don’t mean like a birthday cake.
Stern: I don't know. That's a good question. I mean the fact is, it's nothing new to say that American food reflects the population in the sense that it’s always changing. That's why it's so much fun to do. There's no Cordon Bleu book about how to cook anything. Just talk about chili, barbecue, banana pudding. You get a hundred different arguments from 90 different people.
Since we started, food has become so much more a part of popular culture. When we started, there was no Food Network. And people thought I was like a lunatic for taking a picture of my food. Plus, I didn’t have a cell phone, because they hadn’t been invented yet.
Raskin: But if you did have one in 1977, people would have been very impressed.
Stern: Right, right. I had a big camera. Now so many people are already into it in one way or another, whether they consider themselves a “foodie,” a term that didn't exist when we started. So I don’t see food being such a big focus for the 250th. And I'm not sure what the focus would be.
What's happened in the last 50 years has been huge. I mean, is this sriracha ketchup? (Points at meatloaf sandwich.) Just the idea of hot! A place like this would never serve something like that. Not that it was that hot. So what else can I tell you?
Raskin: You answer questions all the time. Is there anything you’ve been waiting for someone to ask you?
Stern: Yes. “Is your wife’s horse for sale?” As a matter of fact, it is.