Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Two for the Road (Jane and Michael Stern)

I grew up in a town in Iowa where it was a big deal when we got an Olive Garden. (As a kid, I thought it was a very fancy restaurant.) We did have some national chain restaurants, but mostly of the fast-food persuasion. Instead we had family-owned restaurants, ones we went to after dance recitals to get ice cream sundaes and others that for some reason served a kind of fish called smelt, which I cannot judge because I have not tasted it, but the name alone doesn't bode well.

In Two for the Road: Our Love Affair with American Food, Jane and Michael Stern's memoir of their lives on the road as food writers, they take you back to a time before Olive Gardens, when almost every roadside restaurant served up local specialities. When they decided to write a national food guide in the 1970s, they had no idea what they were doing, so they decided the best thing would be to write about ALL the restaurants (they had never been outside the East Coast before), and so started a long span of eating 12 meals a day (they do detail in the book how this is humanly possible). They went to restaurants where they'd be the only strangers and Midwestern cafes where the salads contained no lettuce but instead gobs of mayonnaise, marshmallows, and sugar. (The chapters on Midwestern food especially hit home. Just a few years ago when my grandmother passed away, the sweet older ladies at her church prepared our family a salad luncheon following the funeral, and there was a lot of mayonnaise, a lot of marshmallows, and meat in places you'd never even think of. I went straight for the homemade pie.)

This pre-Olive Garden world may seem foreign, but I think there's still enough small, local restaurants around. In Iowa City, for example, there's this diner that serves pie milkshakes. When you order, you tell them what kind of milkshake you want and then you ask what kind of freshly baked pie they have that day. They make the milkshake, then take a piece of pie, put it in with the milkshake and blend it all together. We had vanilla with apple pie. It was the best milkshake I ever had.

From their years of experience, they also discuss the art of menu writing ("we cater to prim Donnas"), signs of a bad hotel (a TV that's chained to the wall), and signs of a good restaurant (a handmade larger than life pig wearing an apron on the roof). This book is a quick, fun read with a lot of nostalgia.

Next book up: The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America by Bill Bryson


Anonymous said...

Yes, the ice cream sundaes were at Reife's, but where in the world did they serve smelt? Does the cat just read Nancy Drew? No Hardy Boys?

Anonymous said...

Another sign of a bad hotel or motel is a "sanitized" sign on the toilet seat.

Maria Duncan said...

I remember the smelt from some family restaurant we went to at least a couple times. Besides the smelt, I remember that they served steak and eggs, which I thought was weird. My guess is that they let you get breakfast all day, which I think you liked.

The cat only reads Nancy Drew because she thinks she's a princess.