A matter of taste
Celebrity chef and Chicago-based restaurateur Rick Bayless, MA ’75, has observed cooks in kitchens all across Mexico, keeping meticulous and detailed notes of his discoveries.
Roadfood co-founders Michael Stern, BA ’68, and his wife, Jane Stern, have spent decades crisscrossing the U.S., sampling regional cuisine and collecting restaurant menus, brochures, napkins, and other ephemera.
Both collections are now part of the Smithsonian Institution’s archives. And each brings a unique perspective to the table of culinary arts.
The contrast between the collectors’ methodologies rose to the surface during a slide presentation at the second-annual Smithsonian Food Weekend in October 2016. Stern says he couldn’t help but laugh upon seeing Bayless’ beautiful handwriting and typed records in comparison to his own haphazard notes.
“Ours are scribbled on the backs of menus and drenched in barbecue sauce,” Stern says.
Every dish tells a story
Much like the unique foods they research, each collector has a completely different working style, says Paula J. Johnson, food history curator at the National Museum of American History.
“Both Michigan grads — Michael Stern and Rick Bayless — are great storytellers and through their very different approaches to food history, have made substantial and lasting contributions to American history and American life,” she says.
Bayless has spent decades exploring and presenting Mexican food through several cookbooks and his public television series “Mexico: One Plate at a Time,” which recently wrapped its 11th season. He received the Julia Child Award, given by the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts in October 2016.
“[Child] was my biggest influence,” says Bayless, who as a youth watched the chef’s TV show and recreated her elaborate French dishes for his family. Receiving an award named for his idol “kind of fell on me like a ton of bricks,” he says. “It was a little too close to a lifetime achievement award and I still have a lot I want to do.”
The Sterns, meanwhile, have traversed the nation in search of unique American dishes for their series of more than 40 books, their Roadfood website, a monthly column in Gourmet magazine, and weekly contributions to NPR’s “The Splendid Table.”
Digging into each collection was a feast for the senses, says the Smithsonian’s Johnson.
“During his early field research, Rick (with his wife Deann) was a disciplined ethnographer, writing careful field notes and documenting the sights, smells, and sounds of growing, preparing, selling, and enjoying the foods of Mexico,” she says. “Michael, along with Jane, was more of a free spirit — going wherever the back roads took them to diners and cafes that had that certain ‘Roadfood’ look about them. Michael’s notes are scribbled and telegraphic, while his photographs are beautifully composed and documentary in their own right.”
From doctoral research to Mexican food authority
Oklahoma City native Bayless came to Ann Arbor by way of a bachelor’s degree in applied linguistics at the University of Oklahoma. When the program’s director moved to U-M and the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, Bayless followed his mentor to the Department of Linguistics.
He had always had an interest in cooking (his family includes restaurateurs and grocers) but it wasn’t until arriving at U-M that Bayless considered it a possible full-time profession. As he pursued doctorate work at Michigan, he shopped at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, founded a catering business, and taught cooking classes.
His academic work taught him to look at how language reflects culture, and the young chef began to apply that same thinking to how one prepares and eats food.
“Ann Arbor gave me everything I needed to launch my whole career,” says Bayless.
He combined his studies with an enduring love of Mexican food, which he developed as a teenager living in Mexico with his family. Also, he found it baffling that Americans knew so much more about the foods of far-off European lands than the dishes of their close neighbor south of the border.
“Mexico has so much to enrich our lives,” says Bayless, who opened his first restaurant, Frontera Grill, in Chicago in 1987. In the years since, he’s launched a line of prepared foods bearing the Frontera label. Bayless also operates nine Mexican-inspired restaurants across Chicago, and he is the author of nine cookbooks, starting with Authentic Mexican,which enjoyed a second life via its 20th anniversary edition, released in 2007.
They’ve come to look for America
Michael and Jane Stern, who met while they were art students at Yale, never intended to become experts on regional, down-home cooking. They wanted to make a documentary on long-distance truckers, and the best way to meet truckers was to hang around at truck-stop restaurants.
“We kept thinking we should get a guide book to find the best places to go around the country,” Stern says. “And we realized that guide book didn’t exist.”
That inspired them to write about foods rarely known outside specific communities, and that meant long days meandering on back roads, meeting locals, checking out ads in the Yellow Pages, and collecting materials like menus for research.
While they were out on the road, they “had to do something between meals,” Stern says. So he and Jane scoured flea markets in search of folk art, cooking brochures of the 19th and 20th centuries, and nudist magazines, all of which joined their growing collection in a rented storage locker. The Sterns also saved correspondence with food legends M.F.K. Fisher and James Beard.
As the Smithsonian’s team dived into box after box of memorabilia, the Sterns shared their experiences. “They would pull out some menu,” says Stern, “and we would tell them a story about it.” Some of the most eccentric items helped put local food in context, showcasing pop culture or regional influences.
Feasting on culture
Throughout their travels, the Sterns came to appreciate the importance of coffee shops and diners as community gathering places, along with the memories people associate with those places and their cuisine.
These dishes often express our heritage, Stern says. “As much as anything, certainly as much as music, the food that we eat and the ways that we eat, for many of us, it’s our identity.”
Bayless concurs, adding that food is something we all can relate to so it’s an accessible starting point to understand cultural traditions, historical experiences, and immigration.
“The way to tell our story is through food,” he says.
Bayless’ research notes, as well as the portable typewriter and the coffee pot he used traveling Mexico, join the Smithsonian’s archives, along with the Sterns’ souvenirs and notes. They are available to researchers but there are no current plans for a public display in the museum.