Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Sterns

I just read Two for the Road by Jane and Michael Stern, food writers for Gourmet and all around creators of the legend of American Road Food. They had a lot of imagination when they started on their version of American folk customs, including food. I always liked The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste. The Sterns' writing bordered on parody. But in this book, published in 2006, they've become a parody of a parody. That's bad.

I think I'll skip the details of their arch, exaggerated, self-absorbed annoyances. Just one thing: they rhapsodize about the wonderful food they have eaten throughout their long career as a food writing duo, since the early 70s. They claim to like the food and to respect and admire the cooks, the diners, the decor, and the other citizens of the towns where they go. Frankly, I think they are very clever put-down artists, setting themselves up as superior, though they do make a convincing case that they like eating the stuff and that indeed, they don't like city food. But they are very sophisticated and they clearly know the readers will be made to feel superior to the producers and consumers in small towns where (get this) no one has even heard of Gourmet magazine!

Another reason I did not much take to their book: to me, the food sounds terrible. The recipes they give are full of Accent (i.e. MSG), garlic powder, and other similar things, and mostly the vegetables are canned. It's the true custom of the country and I'm glad some of us have gotten past it. I just don't think I want to cook a can of tomatoes with lots of sugar and some white bread.

The Sterns love batter-fried or long-simmered vegetables with bacon or pork fat and white sauce of some kind. Mashed yams, boiled or deep-fried okra, pan-fried chicken, chicken-fried steak, ham stuffed with various bitter green leaves, and the entire range of gelatin. They explain that sweet salads with cool-whip type dressings are eaten with meat.

No thanks. If I'm ever driving through those towns, even if those restaurants are guaranteed to still be serving the wondrous chicken croquettes with gravy and mashed potatoes, I'm such a clod I think I'll go to MacDonalds. Sorry.


Cindy said...

Have you read Jane Stern's book called "Ambulance Girl?" If not, you'll find out that those two are not the self-assured whiz-bangs they appear to be in their food columns. She writes really well, with humor, in this book. But also with a lot of honesty.

Mae Travels said...

I did read an excerpt from "Ambulance Girl" in a magazine (I think the NYT Sunday mag). I agree that it did not seem like the same person, but my reaction to "Two for the Road" was still very negative. It hardly seems like the same person, as you say.