Stern was in town for Buick's “Cultural Discovery Tour,” which teams the car company up with Food & Wine and Travel Leisure magazines in hopes that people who want to explore America’s roadside eateries will drive a Buick Regal to get there. Not to be outclassed by General Motors, I even took my VW to the carwash and swept out the dog hair for my guest.
Michael already had suggestions for “must eats” from Roadfood.com forum members. Roadfood, which was first published in 1977 as a handbook for hungry travelers, is in its seventh edition. It has also evolved into an active online community that’s all about genuine, geographically authentic food.
We planned to start our day with goetta since, chili aside, goetta’s probably Cincinnati’s most distinctive dish. Out of loyalty to Covington, we drove past and admired the Anchor Grill, but I opted for a nonsmoking breakfast at Tucker’s in Over-the-Rhine. When we arrived a little too early, we decided to visit Findlay Market, where we ran into the restaurant’s owner, Joe Tucker, picking up meat at Eckerlin’s. Eckerlin’s had already slipped a slab of goetta into the skillet for us, so we told Joe we’d see him in about an hour. Cincinnati Roadfood lesson No.
We nibbled the goetta sandwich on white toast over a cup of Bean Haus coffee in the market house. Michael painstakingly photo-documents everything he eats and, while he tastes everything, he never eats more than a bite or two. That allows him to experience the flavor of Schad’s ham at Gibbs and a waffle at Taste of Belgium, and then keep walking, while I babbled on about the specialties of each stand and shop.
Figuring Joe had enough of a head-start by now, we headed back to Tucker’s where we slid into a booth and Michael admired the history of the place through the Tucker family photos. Carla Tucker’s brother brought us menus and Joe’s mom, Maynie, peeled potatoes at a table in the corner. Michael took it all in — the history, the family, a delicious veggie omelet and a couple forkfuls of superb home fries — and we talked about food.
Though he lives just outside of New York City, his favorite meals are anywhere but there. He loves barbecued mutton in Owensboro, Ky., and pierogis in Cleveland. He laughs when people tell him they’ve had “genuine” Texas BBQ in NYC.
“They’ve had barbecue Texas-style, but they haven’t had the real experience,” he said. “It’s like Disneyland. It’s a veneer of a place.”
He was most engaged when he felt the history of what he was seeing, like when he took a photo of an old picture of Maynie Tucker, with her reflection gleaming in the restaurant’s countertop, and he said, “I feel like I’ve stepped back in time.”
We left Tuckers for a tour, past Ollie’s Trolley and up Spring Grove Avenue past the yesterdays of Cincinnati food heritage, the old Kahn’s plant and Queen City Sausage where he asked me about the difference between brats and metts. Embarrassingly, I wasn’t sure.
We took a quick trip around Northside, a great neighborhood for local dining and drove past Cincinnati State, site of the Culinary Institute where he’d be speaking the next day. We cruised past the lunch crowd at Camp Washington Chili, another road-food landmark, and then headed east to Aglamesis for ice cream. It was on his must-try list.
Here is Part 2 of Anne’s dining adventures with Michael Stern.
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