For all their foodie fame and notoriety, Jane and Michael Stern were not on my radar until they announced their divorce in 2008. All of a sudden, I was reading quite a bit of “Oh nooooo! They were perfect for each other!” all over the internet. In the comments sections of these divorce-related articles, I kept seeing mentions of their most recent (at the time) book, Two for the Road: Our Love Affair with American Food. Commenters kept lamenting how perfect the Stern’s marriage had seemed in the book, and how they’d aspired to be on that kind of wavelength with their own partners. This is what initially piqued my curiosity.
Having now read the book, I’m not exactly sure why everyone was so shocked to have learned their marriage was less than perfect (granted, everything’s 20/20 in hindsight). The two are as different as night and day, and they even write about how they constantly bickered and got on each other’s nerves. That said, the two also work curiously well together in spite of their opposite personalities. They have to, considering their line of work. Part memoir, part travelogue, part cookbook, Two for the Road is a collection of short, loosely-related personal essays that give readers a behind-the-scenes look at Jane and Michael Stern’s serendipitous rise to roadfood fame, as well as the inside scoop on what it takes to be a roadfood critic. For over thirty years now, the two have been driving the backroads of U.S. interstate roads in search of excellent hole-in-the-wall restaurants and diners.
As their stories progressed, I approached the book with lots of awe and a smidgen on horror. For 200 days out of each year, the Sterns hit the road and eat a mind-blowing twelve meals a day, rising before dawn to scope out their first meal and stopping at diners and restaurants every couple of hours after that as they slowly progress towards their day’s final destination. Their meals aren’t your average size, either. Most of the time, they’ll order enough to fill every inch of their table and spend their time savoring what’s in front of them, meticulously photographing the fare and taking careful notes. I was stuffed beyond belief just thinking about it!
As you can imagine, not every meal the Sterns have eaten have been Roadfood-worthy. For every stellar dining experience, there are several lackluster meals. On occasion, they came across truly disgusting meals (this was one of the funniest chapters in the book). Yet their love for their job shines throughout the book, and this excitement is infectious. These two love to eat, and they love to share their food finds–and food-finding tips–with you (ex: “Beware of any restaurant with too cute a name: Klem’s Kuntry Kitchen, Ye Ol’ Village Smithy, Toot ‘n’ Com-In”). For those who can’t travel out to the middle of South Dakota or the backroads of Arkansas, they’ve even gotten the recipes for certain foods from some of the restaurants they’ve visited; there are a couple of recipes at the end of each chapter. They also include the addresses to all of the restaurants mentioned in the back of the book in case you feel like taking your own road trip.
There was only thing about the book that grated on my nerves: it’s written in a weird first person/third person point of view. This is an excerpt from the first chapter, where they’re getting ready for their very first road trip:
[W]e loaded the cavernous green Suburban with inflatable mattresses, sleeping bags, mosquito netting, snakebite kits, and everything else two urban Jews who had never slept anywhere but in a bed figured they would need to camp out.
“No!” Michael railed as Jane insisted on buying tin plates, a small Coleman stove, and a stack of collapsible cutlery. “We are going to be eating in a dozen restaruants every day,” he said. “The last thing we’re going to want to do when we make camp is cook another meal.”
Jane added a portable oxygen tank to the stash of material, because she was convinced that she would not be able to breathe in mountainous states like Colorado.
The writing does seem to get less clunky as the book progresses and the Sterns talk less about themselves and more about their food, but those shifts from first person to third person drove me nuts!
If you’re looking for a good summer road trip book (or if you’re looking for some good restaurants to visit while you’re on a road trip of your own), this is a handy little book to check out. Since the chapters aren’t really connected, it’s a good book to flip around through at your own leisure. I finished it in a few days, but due to the first/third person shifts, it wasn’t a book I wanted to sit down with and read intently for long periods of time. I do want to try some of those recipes, though!
Publisher/Year: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005
Source: Interlibrary loan from Houston Public Library