POP GOES THE WESTROADSIDE-CULTURE MAVENS FANE AND MICHAEL STERN TAKE ON COWBOYS, INDIANS AND WIGWAM MOTELS
@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."
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.
"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."
Girls wrote letters to the Elvis Yearbook describing their Elvis dreams (I was a plum in a pudding, and he stuck in his thumb").--Elvis World
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."
Despite some evidence to the contrary, the distaff Stern insists that researching dozens of retro-recipes in the line of duty has not taken its toll on her figure.
"Did I look like Kate Moss before we started writing these books?" asks the woman who looks less like Kate Moss than Kate Smith. "No, I've always been the classic yo-yo dieter--but the thin phases were always abnormal." Jane addressed this weighty issue in a recent issue of Allure, an article she says resulted in the most mail she's ever received on a single magazine piece, virtually all of it supportive. "The thrust of the story was, 'Hey, this is what I look like, kids, so you better get used to it because I'm not going to starve myself until I feel like I'm about to pass out,'" she explains. "Richard Simmons and Susan Powter and all these lunatics on TV make millions convincing people that they look like crap if they have any meat on their bones. I personally have never thought that I was an incredible eyesore or hideously ugly even though I don't wear a size 6. There are a lot of people in the world like me who are really tired of being shoehorned into this image that they can't possibly maintain." Pause. "And it's not like I'm unhealthy. When we're home, Michael and I ride horses all the time; I chop down trees. I could probably snap Susan Powter's head in a wrestling match. In fact, I'd love to."
Unburdened by middle-class rules of good taste, young vulgarians positively dripped with splendiferous cheapness. If you want a quick mental picture, think of Priscilla Presley in 1963.--Sixties People
After 20 years of staring into America's rear-view mirror, the country's leading chroniclers of blasts from the past don't see much future in what currently passes for pop culture.
Which is not to say that the couple want to spend the rest of their lives in the Way Back Machine. "Just the other day, we were discussing how the world is a better place now because of X, Y and Z," says Michael. "There are better potato chips today and there's better ice cream. Plus, you can get club soda all over the country now, which you couldn't always get before."
"TV reception is better, too, except now most of the programming is hideous beyond belief," adds Jane. "Cable TV? Well, it's a good idea, but there's still never anything on you'd want to watch. VCRs are good, and so are answering machines. And you can get better clothes now if you're fat. Before you used to have to wear polyester all the time and look like something out of a John Waters movie.
"It's not like we're trying to stay perpetually young and hip," insists Jane. "Instead, it's probably the opposite--I think Michael and I have grown to be farty old curmudgeons." Reeling off a list of trendy things that drive her up the wall, Jane mentions the grunge look, rampant political correctness, Beavis and Butt-head, the words "toon" and "zine" and the career path of actor Johnny Depp. "Did you see him in Edward Scissorhands or Benny & Joon?" she asks. "He's practically in the same league as a mime these days! I hate all this culty stuff."
Laughing, Jane recalls a telling run-in with the editors of Monk, an alternative travel magazine published by two gay men who travel the country in a 26-foot motor home. "These guys are big fans of ours and since we were going to be in Seattle the same time they were, they wanted to interview us for their big Seattle issue," Jane recalls. "When we got done talking to them, they got very excited and said, 'You're never going to guess who we got for the cover!' I said, 'I give up--who?' They said, 'Nirvana!'
"I said, 'Who?' So much for our with-it-ness factor.
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