Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Booknote: Two for the Road

Jane Stern and Michael Stern, Two for the Road: Our Love Affair with American Food. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2006. 

Genre: Nonfiction
Subgenre: Food and epicurious, memoir, travel
Format: Hardcover
Source: My local public library. 

The idea of the book is a blend of memoir with how-to. In this case, the how-to is how they wrote their previous book, Roadfood. What the authors do is go around the United States and eat at out of the way places. Now today this would just be yet another "travel and eat" book; this has been done by professional chefs, celebrities, and a lot of amateurs who did manage to get some degree of fame. The fascinating thing here is that the authors were among the first to do it. They started their journeys at a time when there was no social media nor real "travel and eat" writing. They were among the first to get in a car and hit the road seeking those out of the way eateries from diners to barbecue pits to tea houses. Then they wrote about it. Sometimes, most of the time, the food was good and things went well. Yet there were also some misadventures along the way.

In addition to the travel narrative, between chapters, the book features one or two local recipes. This was an interesting book, but it did get a bit long at times. By the last three chapters, I was ready to get done; it felt like the authors were stretching things a bit. Perhaps the book needed  a bit more editing. Overall, this was a good read that I liked, so I am giving it 3 out of 5 stars.

The authors are the founders of the website

* * * 

Additional notes from the book with some further thoughts of mine:

Their accommodations and hotels were often on the cheap side and less than desirable; they were on a low budget when they started out. Remember, there was no Food Network or such to support them. Yet they also found great joy in cheap, non-chain restaurants. They write,

"Before fast food muscled its way into town, nearly every place had at least one good cafe. Maybe it was on the town square, and in the clean light of morning it looked scrubbed and pretty. When we started writing about such places, we had no clue as to how to find them" (18). 

The authors were basically trailblazing. What they did was pave the way for folks like Anthony Bourdain, Alton Brown (think his Feasting on Asphalt), Guy Fieri, and that guy eating weird food for fun in the Travel Channel now.

In fact, the authors had a lot of learning to do along the way. In visiting the South, they admit to starting out with some cultural denseness. They did learn one thing in the South:

". . . there is a direct correlation between the excellence of the food and the number of pictures of Jesus on the wall" (23). 

One important part of the experience that you can't replicate is the particular sounds of a food place. Very often when they write, the authors do try as much as possible to describe the sensations: the smell, the sights, the sounds, so on. On sound, they write,

"Sure, background music can provide a good reminder of the food's place of origin--zydeco tunes for a cajun eatery, mariachi music for a burrito joint-- but all the other things  you hear are vital too. The joy of so many memorable restaurants includes the unique sounds of cooking, serving, ordering, and eating a meal" (79).

The authors love being professional eaters, but it is not all good finds and great food:

"The simple truth is that the world is full of really bad places to eat" (157). 

and this:

"Out of the twelve meals we eat in a normal day, two or three are good enough to write about and eight or nine are unremarkable. But on occasion one of them is downright frightening or dangerous, or both. Sometimes a terrible meal is, in its own way, impossible to forget" (157-158). 

Another detail I found interesting is when they write about being food reviewers. Aside from their column in Gourmet magazine (what they were known for), they held a job for a time as restaurant reviewers for a newspaper. The job came with good times but also threats and getting on the Christmas card list of the Connecticut Ku Klux Klan. As reviewers they needed to be anonymous, but as it often happens to other restaurant reviewers, the restaurants figured out who they were. However, when writing about road food, things were different:

"We are anonymous in most places we eat, but not because we've gone to any length to conceal our identity. We are anonymous because the people who run the restaurants never heard of us and don't care what we're doing" (233). 

To such folks, credentials from Gourmet magazine were not impressive. In fact, to such people, the real accomplishment was a humble write-up in a local newspaper or advertiser.

* * *

The book qualifies for the following 2015 Reading Challenges:


Tracy said...

This does sound like a pretty unique read! I'm glad you enjoyed it, I just don't think it's the book for me! Great review :)

I just wanted to let you know that today is the first quarter update for the Horror Reading Challenge! You can find the update post HERE!

Tracy @ Cornerfolds

Angel Rivera said...

Tracy: Thank you for stopping by and the kind words. Also, thanks for letting me know about the Horror Reading Challenge update. I need to check in.

Best, and keep on blogging.