By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Bar food has a bad reputation because most of it appears to be floating in formaldehyde; you have to be pretty drunk to find glass crocks filled with pickled hard-boiled eggs appetizing.--Real American Food
If it's any consolation, the Sterns have had their share of bum steers themselves. "Montana is the absolute worst for bad tips on restaurants," volunteers Michael, who recalls once driving 200 miles to eat at a restaurant that reportedly used a sourdough starter that was 60 years old. "As it turns out, this place didn't even serve sourdough bread--they used Wonder bread! I don't think we've ever had a good meal in Montana."
Judging from the dearth of Valley restaurants in any of their guides, one might surmise that the Sterns had come to the same conclusion about Phoenix. Not true, they claim.
"We've eaten some really wonderful, swanky sorts of meals in Phoenix," explains Jane. "But to be honest, we've never really found a great 'roadfood' place there. Phoenix gives the impression that they built it all at once, so it's harder to find the kind of funky place that we write about." Finally coming to grips with the highly limited shelf life of restaurant guides, the Sterns turned their talents to a handful of cookbooks (Real American Food, Square Meals, American Gourmet) that celebrated the sort of bygone cuisine that brought a snicker to the lips of sophisticated foodies of the Eighties. And while the rest of the country's food writers rhapsodized over such state-of-the-Cuisinart fare as radicchio, goat cheese and free-range chicken, the Sterns blithely rifled through pantries past, rediscovering the down-home pleasures of tuna noodle casseroles, hams basted with Coca-Cola and Frito pie.
In spite of the Sterns' admittedly heavy interest in food (even Way Out West addresses such knife-or-death issues as chiles, prairie oysters and the proper way to brew cowboy coffee in a sock), some readers will be crushed to learn that, no, the couple does not subsist on a steady diet of fried pickles, barbecue Jell-O squares, pot likker and other culinary oddities that fill the pair's books.
"Today, I think I had granola and yogurt for breakfast and Michael had shredded wheat," says Jane. "We don't eat like Haystacks Calhoun"--a reference to the 500-pound pro wrestler who routinely invited the press to watch him devour a dozen barbecue sandwiches before flattening opponents in the ring. Michael nods. "It's not like we eat double chili cheeseburgers with bacon every day."
"But we sure will eat a good one if there's one around," smiles Jane. "Or a big slab of ribs--no problem."
To understand why The Brady Bunch maintains its queer fascination, you have to see it. Synopses and descriptions and theatrical homages do not convey the power of the TV show's awesome blandness any more than a psychiatrist's notes can really reveal the visceral grip of a patient's dementia.--Jane and Michael Stern's Encyclopedia of Pop Culture
Having temporarily exhausted the literary possibilities inherent in yesteryear's leftovers, the couple began dining out via a series of books that glibly made magic of the culturally mundane.
In Sixties People, for instance, the onetime hippies looked back at that period through rose-colored granny glasses, reliving history through the eyes, hemlines and hairdos of such Sixties folk as "Young Vulgarians," "Perky Girls," "Rebels," "Playboys," "Mr. and Mrs. Average" and other denizens of the decade. Acknowledging Vietnam, the Sterns include a reproduction of the front of a 1966 issue of Teen magazine, featuring a toothpaste-perfect cover girl in a jaunty Green Beret and a tag line promising "Superteen Fashion--The Front Line Look." Elsewhere in the book, the pair further details the horrors of war by describing a typical USO show of the era.
"It had to be worth risking injury and death if you had the chance to hear Bob Hope's famous witticisms in person," they wrote. "Vietnam has me a little nervous,' he began his show. 'This morning my Rice Krispies popped and I surrendered to the maid.'"
Jane and Michael Stern's long, strange trip from college hipsters to the way-out West actually began some 40-odd years ago.
"I was just like millions and millions of other kids growing up in the 1950s," says the tall, lanky Michael, who developed his Western consciousness while parked in front of a TV set in Chicago. "In those days, the great cultural heroes were Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and Gene Autry. Hopalong, along with Gorgeous George and Milton Berle, were the three people that made people buy television sets during the early days," he explains. "To give you an idea how popular Hoppy was, in 1950 American clothing manufacturers completely ran out of black dye because so many kids wanted Hopalong Cassidy outfits." Lest anyone doubt it, the book's flyleaf includes a snapshot of a pigtailed Jane, circa 1952, decked out in one of those much-coveted get-ups. Unlike her husband of 25 years, however, Jane actually received a firsthand taste of the legendary West. "In the late Forties, my father decided that Tucson was his future," says Jane, who moved from New York when her father arranged to operate a shoe boutique in a Tucson department store. When the venture failed to pan out as well as hoped, the family returned to the East; inspired by the novel footwear he'd seen in Tucson, Jane reports, her father later became quite successful by designing squaw boots and cowboy boots for "rich white women in New York City." But even Jane concedes that she's glad her family returned to the East while she was still young enough to harbor illusions that she'd actually lived a cowgirl lifestyle. "My Tucson years are very lodged in my pysche," confesses Jane. "The Tucson of the Forties and the Fifties was very different from the Tucson of today, which from a Western standpoint, might as well be Chicago or New York. Looking back, I'm glad I left when I did because the West left such a pure image in my mind.