By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"In France, Italy and other countries where everything is sort of homogeneous, people know exactly what's north, south, east and west of them," Jane explains. "In the United States, it's a different story. We have dozens of friends in the East who have never been west of Pennsylvania. They go to Europe--or maybe Los Angeles--but they've never seen the Southwest. That's exactly what's so wonderful about America--the enormousness of it."
Adds Michael, "We have a friend in Santa Fe, which God knows is a sophisticated city. But when she moved there from Los Angeles about five years ago, she brought 20 pairs of contact lenses and a case of toilet paper with her. She was sure they had never heard of these things in Santa Fe."
When Caesars Palace opened, [cocktail waitresses] were instructed to approach gamblers and say 'I am your slave' and respond to drink orders with 'Yes, master.'--The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste
Despite the aforementioned comparisons to everyone from Charles Kuralt to Ma and Pa Kettle, the working relationship between Jane and Michael Stern seems to have a lot more to do with the nonstop one-upmanship of The Dick Van Dyke Show's Sally and Buddy. "Sure, we work together, but we don't have a four-handed typewriter, if that's what you mean," says Michael.
Jane nods in agreement, chiming in, "I do the nouns and he does the verbs." Michael shakes his head. "I write the good parts."
That said, the couple maintains that one of the best things about writing nonfiction is the ability to divide subjects up between themselves. "Michael might decide he wants to write about Gila monsters and I can decide I want to write about Andy Devine, so it works out well," Jane reports. "Then we always rewrite and re-edit each other's stuff. By the time we've completed the final manuscript, I honestly couldn't tell you who wrote what because our writing styles have become so similar. But we each have our specialty."
So which Stern specializes in, say, hair, a recurring motif in almost all of the couple's nonfood books?
"It depends on what kind of hair you're talking about," answers Jane, who currently wears her own hair in a slicked-back bun. "Having spent the better part of my life having one hair emergency after another until I finally decided to streamline, human hair is my specialty. Poodle hair is Michael's specialty."
Writing about that specialty for the couple's Encyclopedia of Bad Taste ([A clipped poodle] is a stunning sight, like topiary shrubbery but able to beg, fetch, roll over, and play dead," reads part of the entry POODLES), Michael ran across a Tucson woman who claims to have originated several doggie dos (the "Scottsdale Exquisite" among them) that are now poodle-cut perennials. Shrugging in unison, the Sterns make it clear that the innovative poodle stylist is neither the first--nor the last--person they've ever run into who has claimed to have invented or created something incredibly mundane. Over time, they've also encountered the putative inventors of everything from the fried clam and the Buffalo wing to the chimichanga--the latter brain child the object of a long-term custody dispute between two restaurateurs, one in Phoenix, the other in Tucson.
"There's a person in New Haven, Connecticut, who for years has claimed his grandfather invented the hamburger," says Michael. "He even got the historical society in New Haven to put a plaque on his little third-generation restaurant. It's a really wonderful, old-fashioned restaurant, but I don't really believe this man's grandfather invented the hamburger. Still, it's kind of fun to imagine that he did."
"Short of shooting these people up with sodium pentothal, who can tell if they 'invented' whatever it is they claimed to?" adds Jane. "You also have to wonder how many people would make such a federal case about inventing something like a chimichanga."
Not surprisingly, many of their fans assume the Sterns have the ultimate dream job, a nonstop paid vacation filled with food, fun and frivolity. Jane laughs derisively. "It seems like we always get one of these 'I want to be you' letters right after one of us has come down with food poisoning and we're staying in some crummy motel with cockroaches crawling all over us," says Jane. The duo has also laid waste to two vehicles in their quest for America's funkiest fare. While driving through Georgia some years ago, the pair purchased a jug of presweetened iced tea from a drive-in that boasted its version of the regional specialty was "the sweetest tea in the South." The jug leaked, permeating the interior of the car with a rotten, fermenting odor, a stench that eventually forced the couple to sell the car. On another trip, the couple was involved in a collision with a fully loaded cement truck, a crash that accordioned their vehicle. "Miraculously, both of us came out of it without a scratch," Jane remembers. However, the couple's cargo--some 30 gallons of barbecue sauce that they'd collected while driving through the South--was not as fortunate. "The entire highway was covered with barbecue sauce," she continues. "It looked like the worst accident in automotive history. I think ambulances from eight counties showed up, and when they did, here was Michael, licking the asphalt."