A roadtrip through the Roadfood Archives
In the postwar, pre-digital age, a long road trip often ended with piles of paper—maps, brochures, menus, postcards, scribbled notes, souvenirs—stuffed into every sliver of space inside the road-weary vehicle. For Jane and Michael Stern, authors of the popular Roadfood guides to America's regional eateries, the task of sorting through such treasures upon returning to home base was always a major undertaking. In addition to the research materials amassed for their Roadfood volumes (the first was published in 1977; the 9th edition in 2014), the Sterns were also collecting ephemera that appealed to their vast, eclectic interests, and informed their dozens of other publications on American cultural history.
How do we know this? When Jane and Michael showed up at the museum about a year ago and toured our exhibition, FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000, we learned how their interests coincided with many of the stories in the exhibition. Postwar convenience foods, diet fads and nutrition advice, recipes for exotic ingredients, ads for kitschy cookware, the politics of food in the 1970s . . . Jane and Michael had researched and collected their own notes on all of these. While commenting on some familiar objects in the show, they also mentioned a storage locker that was brimming with their stuff. Storage locker? These two words are catnip to a curator. We inquired about the location of said locker and finagled an invitation to take a look inside.
So, on a sunny day in June, National Museum of American History Archivist Cathy Keen, curatorial Project Associate Jessica Carbone, and I made the trip to the storage unit near Ridgefield, Connecticut, where Jane Stern had organized piles of ephemera into bins and boxes. We spent two days with Jane and Michael, examining the material they had collected over their 40 years traveling the country, tasting regional foods and documenting the atmosphere, stories, and history of various restaurants, diners, and traditional food events across the United States.
We were delighted to find evidence of their research method: scraps of field notes, photographs, and marked-up menus. As we examined the contents of box after box, we also interviewed Jane and Michael, asking about their travels and how they had come by so much stuff. In Michael's words, "You have to do something between meals," and going to tag sales and flea markets was a great way to feed their appetites for American cultural history. Jane chimed in, "We just collected these [items] because we liked them and they explained America to us in a way that wasn't regurgitated, second-hand by somebody else."
After two days of sharing stories and examining the fantastic array of historic papers in the storage unit, the Sterns graciously agreed to donate the items we had earmarked for the museum's collections. We packed and shipped over 17 cubic feet of archival materials, 18 books, and 2 objects to the museum, and now these road trip treasures are housed in the museum's Archives Center, the Division of Work and Industry, and the Smithsonian Libraries where they are available to the public. Taken together, these materials provide a significant and tremendously eclectic view into American foodways and vernacular culture.
On Saturday, October 29, visitors to the the National Museum of American History will be able to see more from the collection and hear Jane and Michael Stern speak about their epic travels across the country in search of American regional foodways and American vernacular culture. The Sterns will be participating in our Food History Weekend program and are looking forward to sharing stories about selected items from their recent donation. Complete our free registration to attend.
Paula Johnson is curator in the Division of Work and Industry.