Saturday, March 5, 2011

Two For the Road

I enjoy the NPR food program "Splendid Table." Frequent contributers are Jane and Michael Stern (Or at least I THINK that is how they are still billed. I understand they are now divorced, but continue to work together. Wow. Diligence.) who taste their way about the country, stopping mostly at diners, coffee shops and the occasional bar.

They've written several books and, to my surprise, they are not all about food. Some are more specifically about travel or about American culture. This should come as no surprise since, in the tone of their writing and radio segments, they seem so sweet on the people living out small town culture, be they open-hearted midwesterners, crusty easterners, bigger-than-life southerners or loosey-goosey west coast types.

All I want to think about or talk about lately is our upcoming summertime road trip "out west." I've read, or at least browsed the Stern books "Road Food," "Eat Your Way Across the USA," and "500 Things to Eat Before It's Too Late: and the Very Best Places to Eat Them" in anticipation of these two weeks on the road.

Only by happenstance did I find this book: "Two For the Road," the Sterns' memoir about their travels. The good news: this book made me laugh out loud three times in the first eight pages. I was expecting to find culinary opionions that I trust, but funny, irreverant writing was a happy suprise. The bad news: their conclusion is that the people of the great plains undoubtedly eat well at home, but they offer very few public eateries worth a mention. On this matter I cannot be consoled.

Here comes a cute story, however - For the dearth of lovely roadside diners in that part of the country, the Sterns' very favorite diner story takes place in South Dakota. The coffee shop is easy enough to imagine. It was the one and only such place in town, privately owned with simple, hearty fare - open only for breakfast and lunch. In this particular community, the folks used it regularly and knew they could count on it, but they really never thought much about the service it offered to them all. And then, after decades of business, the owners closed up shop and moved on to other things. Like most can-do folks, the South Dakotans considered the new situation, clucked their tongues and shrugged, getting back to life as usual.

But as time wore on, they found they missed the daily opportunity to meet with their neighbors. Because the typical lifestyle was limited to: being alone in the house, being alone in the barn and being alone on the tractor, the coffee shop was such a comfort when one was looking for a little human contact and conversation.

This is where the story gets especially nice. Volunteers were recruited from the community in order to staff the kitchen on a monthly basis. Here I read stories of husband/wife teams splitting the labor on their assigned days of feeding their neighbors. One hog farmer might do kitchen duty (with an apron tied across his belly and a spatula in hand), preparing breakfast ham, waving away the instructions of how to prepare Earl's eggs because he knows already; hasn't he been cooking them for three years? And the hog farmer's wife rings up the orders and makes sure the coffee cups don't go too cool or too dry. Whomever makes up the menu and does the shopping plans for cinnamon rolls an another day, when a certain farm wife is in the kitchen because she's known for that particular breakfast and folks would be disappointed if they weren't on the menu when they know she's cooking.

I just thought that was such a cool story. I love that kind of community, folk and diner, don't you?


  1. I'm going to get my hands on this book. I will love it, I can tell.

    I gather you're going out west for two weeks this summer? The great American road trip? I hope you take a laptop and blog from the road so we can discover the food along with you!

  2. Yes, Margo, and I just cannot wait. I'm thinking The Great American Road Trip would include the Grand Canyon and we simply cannot get there this time. We're sticking to Wis., Minn., SD and Wyoming.

    I'm sure I will have a lot to say and I'm thinking a lot about how I will keep up my blog. Can't wait!


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