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January 11, 2010 at 3:28 PM

Jane and Michael Stern talk Roadfood: tonight and tomorrow

Before there was Chowhound, Yelp, the fooderati on Twitter and that spiky-haired blond guy on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” food writers Jane and Michael Stern made it their mission to take our tastebuds on a cross-country tour. Armed with prodigious appetites, useless roadmaps and plenty of Alka-Seltzer, they’ve spent more than 30 years on our highways and byways, eating as much as 12 meals a day during some 200 annual road trips.

They’ve made it their mission to stop for the likes of chess pie and pig’s ear sandwiches along every turn in the road. She hates ketchup. He loves kishke and together they’ve traveled to joints with names like Putz’s Creamy Whip, fending off waitresses offering “Jewish tea” (er, that’s “Do you wish tea?”) and attempting to avoid the worst of the no-tell motels.

When they’re not on the road, gathering material for their Roadfood books and Web site, they’re on the radio — dishing with Lynne Rossetto Kasper on “The Splendid Table.” You’ve read their columns in “Gourmet,” seen them on “CBS This Morning” and portrayed on the Lifetime movie “Ambulance Girl,” based on Jane’s memoir of a food writer turned small town EMT.

Today, they’re in Seattle talking about their favorite subject: eating. And it’s not too late to join the conversation tonight at 6 p.m. when they’re hosting a benefit dinner for Seattle Arts & Lectures at the Palace Ballroom. Or you can catch them tomorrow, January 12, when they’ll be yukking it up with a lively lecture at 7:30 p.m. at Benaroya Hall (tickets available at the door for both events, or via the SAL Web site: details here).

Jane and Michael, doing what they do best (AP photo/Jim Cooper).

Last week, I had a chance to chew the fat with my fellow food-loving fressers, comparing notes on eating for a living during a coast-to-coast phone chat from their home base in Connecticut — with Jane’s French bulldog Elmer listening in. Here’s what they had to say:

NL: I can still recall the autumn evening a million years ago, when I drove through Virginia at sunset and got a firsthand look at purple mountains majesty. Where were you when you had your “America the Beautiful” moment?

Michael: Mine was more “amber waves of grain” — in Eastern Oregon. We’d come in for the Pendleton Roundup, and it was too beautiful to be real.

Jane: Monument Valley on the Utah/Arizona border, on the Navajo reservation: high desert, where the sky is literally turquoise blue. [“Those classic John Ford westerns were filmed there,” says Michael.] I remember, I got out of the car and was dancing around the road in a self-styled tribal dance. I was channeling an eagle. Fortunately no one was around to see it.

NL: If I was going to sing “On the Road Again” and hoped to have some great laughs along the way, which state would you be quick to pinpoint?

Jane: Almost any route in Kansas will take you past the world’s largest ball of twine, or the Garden of Eden — in Lucas, Kansas. Some guy created a folk art-like sculpture garden there, and there’s a glass casket where he’s been rotting away since the 1930s. I think you have to pay extra to see his corpse.

NL: Hmmm. That doesn’t sound like fun if I had my kid along. Speaking of which, how about a spot for a great family road trip?

Michael: Route 66 has great roadfood that’s inexpensive and fun — places like the famous Cozy Dog in Springfield, Illinois, or the onion-fried burgers at Johnnie’s Grill in El Reno, Oklahoma.

NL: As someone who’s written my fair share of cheap eats reviews, what’s your professional take on the percentage of the good, the bad and the horrid?

Michael: it’s gotten better over the years. Our radar has improved, the quality of suggestions we get has improved, and to a certain extent restaurants have improved. We have to go into four or five restaurants before we find one worth writing about. It used to be one in 10.

NL: With the same chains cropping up everywhere, are there any chain restaurants you actually love?

Michael: Well, not love. Steak ‘n Shake in the Midwest, that’s OK.

Jane: I’m dismayed that even the little places that are popular are starting to franchise. The beloved shrine, Pepi’s Pizza in New Haven, now has eight locations and that weirds me out, I have to say. For many people who run “roadfood” restaurants, their dream is to franchise — like Rubios did with his fish tacos. Originally, it was just a San Diego thing, and now you can get them all over. Back in the day [roadfood restaurateurs] were happy to have a single place. Now you want to franchise and the do the entrepreneurial thing and that leaves me cold.

NL: I know you’ve eaten your way around Seattle on earlier visits. Any place here that really rings your chimes?

Jane: We loved Top Pot Doughnuts when we were in Seattle, but now we get them at Starbucks — and they’re awful!

NL: Eaters turn to your Web site, Roadfood.com, to glean information. Which sites do you use?

Michael: If we’re going to a particular place, I’ll look at sites like Chowhound. But we’re more likely to turn to local journalists . In Chicago there’s the LTH Forum that covers Chicago food very well. I wish they did it for Salt Lake City!

NL: Food TV: love it or hate it?

Jane: Jealous of it. I look at somebody like Guy Fieri. Michael and I have spent 30 years doing what he’s doing and nobody knows our name. Nowadays, unless you’re on TV, nobody knows who the hell you are anymore. If you say, “I used to write for the New Yorker or for Knopf,” it’s like, “Eh!” We kind of invented the whole diners and dives thing, but it’s like Rodney Dangerfield: we get no respect. [That said] As far as I know, Guy is not an overweight, middle-aged Jewish EMT, and Kathy Bates will never play him in the movie.

NL: Julie Powell and Julia Child aside, it’s not every day that food writers have their life story made into a movie — sporting warts and all. What was that like?

Jane: I was just so happy it happened. I think there should be a movie of my life every year. I made money on it, and spent it instantly. I bought a big plasma TV. When it first came on TV I went to the fire department and watched it with the guys. And though this sounds like bullshit, it isn’t: they were the only people I cared about seeing it. They were laughing and weeping, and that meant a tremendous amount to me.

NL: As the long-lived and long-loved food tell-all team “janeandmichaelstern” (as you’re known on stage, screen, the airwaves, the Internet and in print), can you speak to the fact that you’ve (how do I say this delicately?) recently divorced.

Jane: By working together still, we have been able to retrieve something that really was a terrific part of the relationship. Our books and our writing are comparable to other people’s children. When people with kids get divorced, they say “We’re still friends for the sake of the children.” We’re still friends for the sake of the work. We both honor it enough to want to continue it. [“It wasn’t the traveling that broke us up,” says Michael. “That we still do.”]

NL: When you face a hungry crowd tonight and tomorrow at the Palace Kitchen and at Benaroya Hall, what do you expect your fans to get out of it?

Jane: It’s Jane and Michael unscripted. We don’t have a pat soapbox, it’s very freewheeling.

Michael: I want people walking away saying, “Hey! Let’s got on a road trip!” I hope it will encourage people to enjoy what we enjoy, to convey the joy of American food in general.

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