Two for the Road: Our Love Affair with American Food
Excerpt from "Two for the Road: Our Love Affair with American Food" by Jane and Michael Stern. Copyright © 2005 by Jane and Michael Stern. Reprinted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Company. Buy the book from amazon.com
Our first date was over a white clam pizza at Pepe's Pizzeria on Wooster Square in New Haven, Connecticut, and it was instantly apparent as we gazed into each other's eyes across the thin-crusted Neapolitan pie, speckled with tiny, tender clams and frosted with olive oil, that we shared a passion for garlic. Our initial lust for each other was fueled by an orgy of lobster rolls, split hot dogs, Yankee Doodle Double Dandy Doodle Burger cheeseburgers, calzones, and cannolis.
Michael had won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship at Yale, where we had both gone to study art, so we had plenty of money to spend exploring restaurants up and down the Yankee shore. Compared to the average grad student, he was a high roller with a monthly stipend to squander. He also possessed what was, to Jane's New York City sensibility, an amazing status symbol: a car. At twenty-one, Jane had not yet learned how to drive. The car was our ticket to romance and to eating adventures.
The fellowship money was diverted from expensive textbooks and art museum field trips to fund a comparative study of the differences among pizzas as made by Pepe's, Sally's, and the Spot in the old Italian neighborhood, as well as the Greek-style pizzas at Pizza House, which was less than fifty yards from our apartment. If pizza was our major interest,we minored in fried dough at summertime fairs, clams and chowder and lobsters all along the coast, and Yorkshire pudding at Mory's, the Yalie dining club, where it was still possible to have a completely gelatinized meal, from aspic to Jell-O. Nearly every day, Michael had a choice to face: a seminar in medieval imagery in a dank basement lecture room in New Haven or a trip to the Rhode Island beaches with Jane for a shore dinner and a hot fudge sundae on ginger ice cream? Our passion for each other, and for finding things to eat, won out every time.
We were married in 1970, and a year later we got our degrees, which meant that the fellowship-subsidized grad school eating bonanza was coming to an end. It was the worst of times and the best of times. We moved to a little shack in the woods of Guilford, Connecticut, where we didn't even have a telephone. We were hiding out from life. Jane's mother and father died of cancer within a year of each other. Her stepfather disinherited her. Her two favorite cousins died, and her aunt was institutionalized. In despair, Jane made the fifteen mile drive into New Haven three times a week to stare at the index cards in the Yale Employment Center. Michael spent his time cultivating and smoking cannabis. After tens of thousands of dollars were spent on our highfalutin educations, we realized we had little interest in pursuing what we had studied.
And so we did what generations of writers have done before us. We hit the road. The difference is that when we did so, we had no idea that we were to become writers. We just wanted to get away from everything.
We proposed a book about truck-stop dining to a young editor, who thought it was a cute idea and gave us the princely advance of $2,500.We thought we had won the lottery. But after signing the contract to write the book, we froze. Who were we to write about food, even truck-stop food? Where did we come off, telling people what was good to eat? Our shared mental image of a restaurant critic was gleaned from old movies: a patrician fellow with a silk ascot, his pinkie in the air and a sneer on his face. Somebody like Vincent Price but soured with indigestion. Restaurant critics were gourmets, and gourmets ate such grotesque things as creamed snails, sick-looking liver pâtés, cheeses that smelled like feet, and odd organs from inside unusual animals. In our mind's eye, gourmet food was joke food, like what you might be forced to ingest during a fraternity hazing. We preferred hamburgers, mashed potatoes, and apple cobbler.
The notion that we had promised our publisher to write a coast-to- coast guidebook was overwhelming. We had pretty much not gone anywhere at all. We had no knowledge of exactly where these marvelous truck stops were, scant experience writing, and no money beyond the first half of our advance.
We sat together at the kitchen table of our $99-per-month cabin trying to figure out what to do. The one-room shack where we lived might seem romantic if you saw it in the movies, but in real life it was hideously uncomfortable. After living there for nearly a year, we discovered a case of decomposing dynamite in the crawlspace above the ceiling, left behind by a 1960s radical who was a former tenant. The gas stove was so old and decrepit that it once combusted and singed Jane's eyebrows off as she checked on a roasting chicken. This home of ours was a good incentive for getting on the road.