A roadtrip through the Roadfood Archives

A photograph of a couple smiling from the chest up standing in front of a building

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.

A woman with dark hair and glasses stands in a supermarket and holds a box of alka seltzer up to the camera

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.

A lid to the box sits overturned on another box. It holds many notes and papers. Some of them have handwritten notes on them.A photograph of several people inside a storage unit. A woman looks through papers in the back. Another woman sits in the foreground, her head and arm the only visible parts of her body. A man kneels with some sort of paper or notepad in his hand. He points to something as another woman beside him with purple gloves holds a microphone up. She wears a machine with a black strap on her side, which the mic connects to.

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.

A piece of paper from a notebook. It has handwritten notes on it about food.A sign from a Rhode Island hot dog restaurant. There is an illustrated hot dog with eyes, legs and a blue hat on giving two thumbs up

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."

A piece of paper from a legal pad with notes written on it in black inkThe cover to a menu, presumably, for Mary Mac's Tea Room.

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.

A sign about Eggs. It says "give eggs a break!" at the top and has an illustration of an egg man that looks sort of evil in the middle. Someone threw a cookbook at his head and broke it but he didn't seem to notice.A photograph of a cook book entitled Chop Suey, a la carte. There are a number of fancy Chinese bowls positioned around with food in them, like shrimp.

A woman stands in a black outfit during a bright day. There are a row of Cadillacs which appear to have plunged headfirst into the ground in a row. They are different colors.

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.

Posted in Food History