I love the Paris Review. In the Winter 2015 issue, there was a really funny Q&A with the great, divorced-but-still-friendly-and-working-together food writers, Jane and Michael Stern. You have to subscribe to read the whole piece but here are a few of my favorite lines:
“The thing you eat is just part of the big picture. This is why, while we’ve done cookbooks, the cookbooks always have something else—they’re not just recipes.”
— Michael Stern
— Jane Stern
“Luckily, I love writing! For me, it is the one surefire tranquilizer. If I’m really stressed with tons of stuff to do, the one thing that makes me relax is if I can sit down and write something.”
— Michael Stern
Here’s an excerpt:
Inside your white cardboard box, inscribed with a Sally Bell silhouette, you will find a single sandwich on thinly sliced bread; a cup of tomato aspic or potato salad; a half a deviled egg, wrapped in wax paper; a crisp cheese wafer (no bigger than a quarter) with a pecan exactly in its center; and a cupcake or fruit tart . . . We love the potato salad with its cucumber and onion crunch, and the sweet deviled egg that ineluctably conjures images of picnics long ago, but the cheese wafer makes us cry. So delicate, sadly out of fashion, with no place in the world outside this outré bakery, two little bites and it is gone; and you get only one in a box—a souvenir token of your visit to another era.
—“Sally Bell,” Roadfood (1980 edition)
Jane Stern—neé Grossman—and Michael Stern were born, respectively, in New York City and Winnetka, Illinois. They met and married while doing graduate work at Yale, having had their first date at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana; soon after, they published the first edition of their landmark American travel guide, Roadfood. The book was among the first to treat regional American cuisine as worthy of serious study and serious writing. And yet the Sterns were never remote or overly pedagogical; writing in her introduction to their 1984 cookbook, Square Meals, M. F. K. Fisher described their attitude as one of “love and respect” for homegrown food and tradition.
Although they have received several James Beard Foundation Awards and publish a new edition of Roadfood every three years (there is also a popular Web site), their thirty-plus joint titles cover all facets of what they like to call cultural anthropology: truckers, Elvis worship, “sixties people,” Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and Hummel figurines. Their Encyclopedia of Bad Taste (1990) manages to combine several of the above, along with fuzzy dice, Russ Meyer, and leopard print. For The New Yorker, the couple has written about bull riding, novelty toys, and Iowa radio homemakers. Michael has also written on Douglas Sirk, and Jane has published accounts of her life as an EMT and tarot reader. In 2007, they released the memoir Two for the Road: Our Love Affair with American Food. There’s also the 1979 novel, Friendly Relations; both groan when it is mentioned.
Although the Sterns divorced in 2008, they continue to work together and publish under their joint byline. Until two months ago, they lived in neighboring towns in Connecticut. (Michael has since moved to South Carolina.) For this interview, I met with them individually, at each one’s home, then together, at Jane’s house in Ridgefield. We enjoyed white-clam pizza, ice cream, and a cruller they had recently discovered at a nearby doughnut shop. Both are animal lovers—they have written on bird owners, dog shows, and horses—and on each occasion we were joined by several pets, including Jane’s French bulldogs and Michael’s parrot.
I imagine you’ve wandered into some dicey situations.
Oh, yes. Let me tell you one story. It was early on, and Michael and I were on the road, going from one bizarre situation to another, and our hobby was visiting prison gift shops. We used to collect a lot of folk art and outsider art, and back in the day, some of the prisons would actually give prisoners free rein to craft their own things. They would make lamps and sculptures and all kinds of things, and some of them were brilliant. They were absolutely fabulous! Although, we lost some friends giving them prisoner art as a wedding gift. And prisons terrify me—but again there’s that attraction-repulsion, and something voyeuristic, too. Whenever we would pass a prison, we’d say, Let’s go to the gift shop, and back then, there literally were gift shops.
So one day we were driving through Kansas, and there’s a sign for Leavenworth penitentiary. Michael says, Oh my God, it’s the mother ship! It’s going to be the gift shop of all gift shops. So we follow the signs, and we drive up to a huge complex with those barbed-wire loops—a very-unpleasant looking place. We pull up to a gatehouse and sit there for a while until we realize nobody’s there. So we drive around and there’s another gatehouse, and this time the arm is up, but again there’s nobody there! Finally, we come upon a parking lot where we see a couple of cars, so we assume the gift shop must be nearby, and park, and there is a metal door in a big brick wall. We walk up to it, and we open the door … and it’s the yard—filled with prisoners! Staring at us. Michael kind of hangs back at the door, but I say, Excuse me, but could you tell me where the gift shop is? There’s dead silence, and finally this prisoner says, There ain’t no fucking gift shop, lady! And I say, Oh, thank you. And we leave, and we close the door, and we drive away, and to this day, it’s like, What? And I still have no explanation for it. I know it’s like saying aliens stuck an anal probe in my ass and took me up to the spaceship. But, I swear to you, that happened.