LIANE HANSEN, host:
Jane and Michael Stern have traveled America's byways and back roads for three decades in search of the perfect meal. But they don't look in places with linen napkins and long wine lists. The Sterns prefer Mom and Pop joints, diners, roadside barbeque stands. They make their living writing about these places for their column in Gourmet magazine and in some 20 books.
Their latest book is Two for the Road: Our Love Affair with American Food. They came by NPR and we took them for a bite at a place they know well. We found a table in a back room with candy-apple red chairs around a vintage Formica table and placed our orders at Ben's Chili Bowl.
Mr. MICHAEL STERN (Gourmet Magazine): An order of French fries. I would like a chili smoke, and also just a half-smoke, you know, without the chili. And to drink, I'll have a chocolate milkshake.
Ms. JANE STERN (Gourmet Magazine): What kind of cake do you have today?
Unidentified Woman #1 (Waitress): We have (unintelligible) and chocolate, lemon...
Ms. STERN: Okay.
Unidentified Woman #1: German Chocolate.
Mr. STERN: Sweet potato, get sweet potato.
Ms. STERN: Okay. A sweet potato. I'm sorry, could you just repeat that again.
HANSEN: I'm listening to you order and you ordered a substantial amount of food and you've already eaten...
Mr. STERN: Only four meals so far today. And it's already 4 o'clock.
HANSEN: Is there some secret you have about digestive systems?
Mr. STERN: Oh, here come the cakes and pies. Oh, boy. This is going to be tough. I was about to tell you that the secret is to only eat a couple of bites of everything. But it is a real problem when you get a piece of cake that looks like that sweet potato cake. I mean, I can't imagine eating only one fork full of that.
HANSEN: This is the sweet potato...
Mr. STERN: No, that's German chocolate, this is sweet potato cake and that's sweet potato pie.
Ms. STERN: It looks like old New English applesauce...
Mr. STERN: It looks like spice cake.
Ms. STERN: ...cake.
Mr. STERN: Yes.
Ms. STERN: Doesn't it?
HANSEN: It does. Oh, but look how thick, look how thick it is. These layers are inch a piece?
Mr. STERN: Layer cake is kind of a dying art. You just don't see it that much, you know?
HANSEN: This looks very good. This smells...
Ms. STERN: Do you like sweet potato pie?
HANSEN: I do.
Ms. STERN: Okay.
HANSEN: This smells wonderful.
Ms. STERN: Now, I know they didn't give me three forks all for - well, maybe they did give all for myself. But you're welcome...
Mr. STERN: They did, and I'm going to take a piece of this sweet potato cake.
HANSEN: So because life is short, we're eating desert first. Is that...
Mr. STERN: Well, that's what came first. You know, whatever they brought first, we eat first. No, but the trick here is to not -- to be -- feel free enough to not eat everything. I know it's kind of wasteful, but if you intend to eat 12 meals in a day, you can't eat everything no matter...
HANSEN: So you need...
Mr. STERN: ...how good it looks.
HANSEN: You just taste it?
Mr. STERN: Yeah. Yes.
Ms. STERN: And you truly are...
Mr. STERN: Like a wine, like somebody sipping wine. I mean, we don't spit it out after we taste it, but you know, you don't have to drink the whole bottle to know that the wine is good.
Ms. STERN: If we were here like normal civilians, meaning pretending we were not media people, we would order at least as much as this, but I would have a little Glad bag in my large purse and when our charming waitress was not looking, I would decant what we didn't eat, so she didn't think we were just like not liking the food. Because at Mom and Pop places, if you don't eat the food, you know, it's like a horrible insult to them.
And that works very well, unless you're eating lobster, clams or spare ribs, something with bones or shells. Because when they come back and that's all gone -- I love the shells. You know, it gives me extra calcium for my bones. So there you go.
Mr. STERN: Now, are we going to try our half smokes?
HANSEN: This is going to be really interesting to see how I hold a half smoke that is dripping with chili and onions and with a microphone in my hand at the same time.
Mr. STERN: You're going to do this one-handed? This is an amazing -- she's eating it one-handed.
HANSEN: Drum roll, please.
Ms. STERN: You're a pro. Oh my God, you didn't even get any on your chin.
HANSEN: Oh my God. This is delicious.
Mr. STERN: All right. This is a half-smoke with onions and mustard but no chili.
HANSEN: How did you find this place, Ben's, in particular? Where were you on your travels? How did you know that this would have potential?
Mr. STERN: Ben's was, to some degree, elusive, because you know what? What Jane and I always try to do is to find a restaurant that serves the local specialty, whatever that may be. And that was very hard for us, at first, to figure out what the local specialty of Washington D.C. is. I mean, there -- you know, you can eat your way around the world in this city. And it was actually a reader of one of the early editions of Road Food who wrote us a note, because we didn't include it in the early edition, saying you've got to write about half-smokes. We had never heard of half-smokes.
HANSEN: Did you immediately know that you would eat something good and memorable here?
Ms. STERN: Before we walked in, I think just the façade of the restaurant outside -- it's absolutely the kind of place where if Michael and I were driving in our car and we drove by, we didn't, if we didn't know anything about it, we'd hit the brake and say, oh, what's Ben's Chili Bowl...
HANSEN: You get some homemade sign in red and yellow and...
Ms. STERN: Yes, it just glows.
Mr. STERN: And furthermore, the moment you do walk in, if you look to the right, there's that grill with all the half-smokes sitting on it, and they are a beautiful thing. They have that kind of darkened, charred crust on them. And if you just sniff the air in here, it has that kind of chili smell in it. I mean, so we knew before we even sat down this was going to be a winner.
HANSEN: Are there still places that you haven't been into that you've heard about that you're -- you want to go to?
Mr. STERN: More than I can count...
Ms. STERN: Every day.
Mr. STERN: More than we could eat in, in three more lifetimes.
Ms. STERN: Really, it's endless. And also all of our books are very idiosyncratic. We're not the Mobile Guides. We're not Zagat's. It's the two of us and we've never hired stringers or other writers. So the books are really chronicles of where we've gone. And it's never going to be all-inclusive.
HANSEN: Okay. You've driven hundreds of thousands of miles to eat -- millions, millions of miles. Your relationship still exists. How do you manage it? I mean who controls the radio, who navigates, who decides where to stop?
Ms. STERN: We haven't killed each other yet.
HANSEN: That's the question.
Mr. STERN: We've been married 36 years; we've never had an argument, never had a dispute.
Ms. STERN: God. Tell another one, dear. Actually, it's -- it is amazing that we're able to get along so well. We just do.
Mr. STERN: But you know what it is, I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we share a mission in life.
Mr. STERN: We're not on vacation. As much fun as we have eating our way around the country, it's -- I don't even want to say it's work, but it's a job. You know, we really have a mission. We have things we want to find out and, and in that sense we're partners in a way that I think other couples, when they travel together, are not. You know, we have a common interest and a common goal. I think that helps us get over those times when Jane wants to stop here and I don't want to, or you know, whatever. I think we respect each other's choices of where to stop, even if the other one doesn't like it.
Ms. STERN: We also realize that the -- that marital bliss depended on a wide enough car, because early on, when we had our little VW, our upper arms used to rub together all the time, because it was such a small car. And we used to -- I mean we were like six-year-olds, we used to have like fights, like pinch each other and you know, we were all like black-and-blue. But now we have a big, wide car. So we're happy.
HANSEN: Well, Jane and Michael Stern, I can't thank you enough for talking to us...
Ms. STERN: Well, thank you.
HANSEN: ...here at Ben's Chili Bowl.
Mr. STERN: It's our pleasure to be here and to talk with you.
Ms. STERN: You drive us around in your cool convertible, so what more can we ask.
Mr. STERN: Thanks for the ride.
HANSEN: My pleasure. Jane and Michael Stern are the authors of Two for the Road: Our Love Affair with American Food. It's published by Houghton and Mifflin. And they were able to join us for some chili-cheese fries, some German chocolate cake, some sweet potato cake, sweet potato pie, half-smokes with chili, half-smokes without, some sweet tea and chocolate milkshakes at Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C. Thanks a lot.
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HANSEN: By the way, one of the recipes in the Stern's book is for a chocolaty radio cake, created in the 1920s by radio homemaker Jessie Young. You can try it out for yourself. The recipe is at our website, npr.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
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