By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
@body:TUCSON--Bagging rays under a crisp blue sky backed by a postcard-perfect view of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains, the husband-and-wife writing team of Jane and Michael Stern rhapsodize over the Western wonderland we know as Arizona.
"If we were driving down a highway and saw the Grand Canyon on our left and a flea market on our right, our eyes would automatically be riveted to the right," says Michael, a tall, lanky fellow in a theatrically cut Western jacket. "Of course, we'd be hoping to find something like a great 1940s guidebook that we could use when we visited the canyon the next day."
"Yeah, right," laughs the zaftig Jane, resplendent in a black squaw dress and Indian jewelry. "That gives you an idea of the great depth of our aesthetics, comparing a cheap piece of junk to one of the best things in nature."
Fortunately for the prolific pop culture scribes, thousands of readers seem to share their particular skewed world view. Authors of nearly 20 books in as many years (including Roadfood, Elvis World and The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste), the Sterns also pen a syndicated newspaper column and have churned out dozens of articles in magazines ranging from The New Yorker to Gourmet. In the process, the peripatetic pair have double-handedly legitimized America's most trivial treasures, intellectualizing the country's fads, foibles and fancies for posterity in an urbane literary style that might best be described as Mensa Goes Tilt-A-Whirl. If the world is not yet Jane and Michael Stern's oyster, America is certainly the couple's meal ticket. With tongue in cheek, fork in hand and a dog-eared map on the dashboard, these Connecticut-based subculture vultures make their living cruising America's highways, byways and back streets, lifting up Pet Rocks every inch of the way. In the process, they've taken fans on a vicarious joy ride through the country's pop culture past, a guided tour filled with astute observations about such phenomena as white lipstick, Ronco products, pantyhose crafts and aerosol cheese. Indeed, few aspects of American life have escaped the piercing gaze of the Sterns' X-Ray Spex.
As their rabid public will readily tell you, the word "writer" seems painfully inadequate to describe the seemingly fun-filled life work of Jane and Michael Stern, who have been hailed by critics as everything from "latter-day DeTocquevilles" to "a cross between Charles Kuralt and Calvin Trillin." "Someone even called us 'the Ma and Pa Kettle of American anthropology,'" groans Jane, who admits she herself is at a loss to describe exactly what it is that she and her husband of 25 years do.
Longtime fans who unfailingly follow the couple to the ends of the pop universe are now lining up for the Sterns' latest dishy dissection of society's detritus, this one a lavishly illustrated, full-color volume titled Way Out West. The pair's most ambitious work to date, the hefty opus is a loving, if largely loony, tribute to a territory that never existed in any history book or on any compass. Instead, the 400-page tome maps out a West that is probably perhaps best appreciated by those who have never actually seen it--a rootin'-tootin' region populated by singing cowboys, Hollywood starlets in war bonnets, Cacticraft lamps, Roy Rogers lunch boxes, corny postcards, Sleep-In-A-Wigwam motels, jackalopes and rubber tomahawks. Pointing out that there are now nearly two dozen Western films in release or in varying stages of production, the couple claims the mythology of the West still holds the rest of the nation in thrall. "Look at a movie like City Slickers," Michael says. "In that movie, there's a sense of the West as being this completely foreign, completely exotic--and, in this case--absolutely life-transforming experience. And even though it's a total fantasy, it's obviously a fantasy a lot of people have.
"And if you think about it, even Thelma & Louise was a Western; two people getting into a vehicle and just zooming away from their troubles."
Unfortunately, the doomed heroines of that film did not follow the Sterns' lead. Had they only stopped at the flea market across the street from the Grand Canyon, they might have lived to see a sequel.
The coyote is a small desert dog that typically inhabits gift shops of the American Southwest.--Way Out West
Married shortly after graduating from college, Jane and Michael Stern first sprang to prominence in the early Eighties with Roadfood and Goodfood, two coast-to-coast restaurant guides. Filled with anecdotal reports of visits to backwater barbecue shacks, all-you-can-eat clambakes and out-of-the-way burrito stands (places run by the sort of colorful characters who, when asked about hours of operation, were apt to answer, "We're always open--usually"), the two books redefined the genre.
Thanks to the Sterns' chatty writing style and the zest with which they tackled even the most vile-sounding regional delicacy (Anyone for a fried brain sandwich or a bowl of Cajun blood pudding?), their culinary adventures made for good reading even if you never left home. Actually, that may have been the best--and, in some cases, the only--way to enjoy the couple's salivary opuses. Because of the vicissitudes of the restaurant business, drooling readers often drove for hours to visit one of the Sterns' "finds," only to discover "Gone Fishing" signs and, in some cases, empty lots where the restaurants had once stood. Equally disappointing were the overzealous restaurateurs who, flush with success over new business generated by national exposure, ruined exactly what was once so charming about their down-home eateries. One hole-in-the-wall Mexican cafe in Socorro, New Mexico, reportedly experienced such a boom in business that the owners tore down the original building, built a larger one, installed a salad bar, and even expanded the menu to include surf n' turf. "It was pathetic to see what the owners had done to this wonderful little place," says a disheartened diner who revisited that eatery several years after the Sterns had immortalized it in print. "The first time we ate there, it was exactly as they had described it in their book, with this little old lady in the kitchen cooking. The second time, we drove four hours out of the way to eat there and the old lady who had been in the kitchen was now greeting customers at the door like a token mascot. I felt like we'd walked into the Sizzler."