STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) — The lunch crowd is just beginning to pile into Super Duper Weenie in Fairfield when Jane Stern arrives and is greeted by owner Gary Zemola as, if not an old friend, then the longtime customer she is.
In the hubbub — Zemola is already busy at the grill — their exact words are lost, but they are appropriately casual, for the place and for Stern. The exchange is a mutual, “Hey, how are you? Good to see you again,” spoken quickly across the counter, before Zemola turns back to his cooking and she moves to the register to order french fries.
These, though, are not just any fries, and Stern is not just any Super Duper fan. She is the Jane of Jane and Michael Stern, the now-divorced but still inseparable writing duo, who helped put Super Duper Weenie and places like it on the national map they created with their “Roadfood” guidebooks.
When the first “Roadfood” was published in 1978, it contained about 450 assorted entries, the result of years of travel and ordering, if not consuming, as many as 12 meals a day. In the newly published 10th edition, there are 1,000 entries and Super Duper Weenie (which was a food truck before gaining its permanent location in 2000) has been elevated to the “Roadfood” honor roll of 100.
“We’ve been on the Super Duper Weenie bandwagon since it was a food truck,” the entry begins. It ends with the command to order the fries, “beautiful golden twigs … made extra special by a perfect sprinkle of salt AND pepper.”
Stern carries her order of fries and a Boylan soda into the Super Duper dining room, which consists of two banks of picnic tables. Asked if Super Duper Weenie was on the honor roll in the previous edition, Stern says she doesn’t think so. It probably was promoted because, she says, “It stood the test of time,” like the other two Connecticut places on the honor roll: Frank Pepe Pizzeria in New Haven and Zuppardi’s Apizza in West Haven.
Over decades, the Sterns have stood their own test of time, their guidebooks (and complementing website, roadfood.com) acquiring a greater significance with each edition. Stern reaches across the table for a copy of the 10th. “People may not notice this,” she says, flipping to the dedication page that names as “guiding lights” James Beard and M.F.K. Fisher.
“They told us go for it. Do it. It’s the right thing,” she says, recalling the early days when the Sterns had trouble persuading food editors America had authentic regional foods worth writing about. What may be the ultimate vindication came just in the past year. The Jane and Michael Stern Collection is now part of the permanent holdings of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
“They sent three curators up and they went through everything we’ve collected or written — ephemera, postcards, menus. Physically, it took five trucks to bring it back to Washington (D.C.),” Stern says. The material was in a storage unit near Ridgefield, where Jane Stern lives. She says the search over two days was almost embarrassingly thorough, since the curators also uncovered some lost underwear.
The origin story of the Sterns and “Roadfood” is they met as graduate students at Yale University, where Michael, who was from Illinois, was pursuing a doctorate in art history and Jane, from Manhattan, was pursuing a master in fine arts degree in painting. They had their first date at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven, married in 1970 and moved to a converted “chicken coop” in Guilford, where they undertook their first joint project: Jane’s book about long-haul truckers, for which Michael took the photos.
It was their travels with truckers that gave them the idea for “Roadfood.” But Stern says she and Michael are vagabonds by nature, averse to making plans, who nevertheless mile-by-mile, meal-by-meal created a body of work worthy of a museum.
“We just do what we want to do, and it’s lovely now that this book has hit its 40th anniversary and that it is really getting recognized for what it is. And what it is the first food book that recognized regional American food and made a point that food in the South is not the same as food in Vermont; that food in Montana is not the same as food in Texas.”
Their work began so long ago Stern says she and Michael worried the unique “mom-and-pop” places they were discovering would be swept away by the tidal wave of fast-food franchises. Instead, many survived into a new era, their ranks in what she calls “America’s culinary heritage” added to by ethnic restaurants of all sorts.
“I could spend the next three years just doing the Peruvian restaurants in Danbury,” she says to make the point. She believes the “Roadfood” books, which she says “begat” the Food Network, are at least partly responsible for the present popularity of regional food.
“While I’m not as much a narcissist as I may like to be, I don’t claim credit for (“Roadfood”) saving every restaurant in America. But it didn’t hurt,” she says.
Stern recently achieved another more personal kind of vindication for a choice made long ago. She had gone to Yale to study painting, and did her thesis on Philip Guston, an abstract expressionist. But she came to realize, having grown up in Manhattan, that she could “never do the New York gallery scene.” So she took steps to assure she wouldn’t.
“I burned all my paintings the night of graduation,” she says. “It was very dramatic. I did it as a statement of ‘don’t go back’ from me to me.”
With painting eliminated, she turned to writing. Over the years she has written several books of her own. But the long-term reward came when the very literary magazine, Paris Review, featured the Sterns in a 2015 “Art of Nonfiction” issue and subsequently invited Jane to be a contributor.
“I thought I was being punked,” she says. “Oh, the Paris Review is interested in doing a 45-page article on me writing about hot dogs? I thought it was a joke. But it wasn’t a joke. It really is the jewel in the crown, if I have any literary pretensions.”
So far she has written nearly a dozen articles for the Review. “It’s the most fun I’ve had in my entire life because I don’t write about food. I write about anything other than food. And my interests are very broad, to say the least.”
Even so, she says she has no thought of abandoning “Roadfood,” or even has the choice. “What am I going to do? It’s my life,” she says.
Stern says she expects to continue doing the series with Michael. They still collaborate, even though he recently left Connecticut and lives in Aikens, South Carolina.
“It’s complicated. Each of us does reviews in our own area. And probably for three months out of the year we get together and plan routes and travel together like in the old days and find restaurants,” she says. “But now we also do a lot of events together. So we’ll meet a week before (to scout the area). We’re still doing it absolutely together, when we’re together.”
Information from: The Stamford Advocate, www.stamfordadvocate.com