July 6, 2006

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Two for the Road: Our Love Affair with American Food, by Jane & Michael Stern (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006, 292 pages)

It's a good thing that Jane & Michael Stern really like each other.

The couple, who regularly write and talk about food for Gourmet magazine and Splendid Table on NPR, spend a lot of time with each other in extremely close quarters, namely their car. For the better part of their long marriage, they have driven across the country reporting on road food. What's road food? As opposed to say the fancy five-course meal enjoyed at an expensive four-star restaurant, road food is the breakfast, lunch and occasionally dinner enjoyed at diners, cafes, takeout places, lunch counters and other small out-of-the-way eateries that cater predominately to locals looking for everyday meals. The Sterns seek out eats just as fantastic as those raved about in Michelin. Pies, pulled pork, ribs, mashed potatoes, chicken, an assortment of greens, meatloaf, brownies — these are the foods frequently discussed in a Stern piece.

In Two for the Road, we get the Sterns in their first attempt to catalogue every out-of-the-way purveyor of pot pie or pork sandwiches for their book Road Food. This experience comes rather early in their life together so we learn not just about the places that served large southern Sunday breakfasts or freshly caught Maryland crab but also about their experiences traveling on the cheap in rundown cars and attempting to manage their weight despite eating several breakfasts and lunches per day. We learn about the travel style — how they meander in order to find the best restaurants and how having other people in the car eventually gets in the way. We get their examination of how to pick a good restaurant — apparently a picture of Jesus hung near a picture of a pig is usually an indication of really good food. And then, of course, there are the stories about the tiny restaurants and their owners who make recipes that have been well tested over decades. Some of these recipes are folded into the tales — recipes for St. Mary County stuffed ham, chicken-fried steak, fried dough with maple butter and johnnycakes.

The couple writes with a solitary voice but still manages to interject their individual personalities. The book is the perfect consolation prize for a would-be road-tripper who is stuck in one place this summer. Not only can you read about the Sterns' adventures — cook up a few of the recipes and you can taste them as well. B

— Amy Diaz


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