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They brake for burgers

Authors and road food experts Jane and Michael Stern take a by-the-bun tour of Connecticut

With GPS as their guide, Michael and Jane Stern hit the road in search of steamed cheeseburgers in central Connecticut.
With GPS as their guide, Michael and Jane Stern hit the road in search of steamed cheeseburgers in central Connecticut. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)

MIDDLETOWN, Conn. -- Jane and Michael Stern are trying to focus, but that's easier said than done. We're embarking on a mini-tour of central Connecticut places that specialize in steamed cheeseburgers, but Michael lets up on the gas when he spots an old favorite of a very different stripe: Jerry's Pizza, next to a Home Depot in a strip mall.

''He makes the most amazing white Sicilian pizza," Michael says. ''Should we order one and have it ready by the time we come back this way?" His wife is tempted, but the schedule is tight. ''I think we should stick to the steamed-cheeseburger plan," Jane replies, then turns to me and a Globe photographer in the back seat. ''We have a kind of food ADD. We get easily sidetracked."

That's understandable. When you've spent decades sniffing out the best back-roads food in the nation, passing up one of your favorite finds takes not so much willpower as a complete change in mind-set. The Sterns, whose classic ''Roadfood" guidebook has elevated them to guru status, eat a dozen meals a day when on a research trip: multiple plates of pancakes for breakfast, pork-chop sandwiches for lunch, and sirloin upon strip steak for dinner.

A few cheeseburgers between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. is nothing. Besides, they need time to talk about their new memoir, ''Two for the Road," which departs from their usual approach by taking readers right along for the ride. ''People have this idea that all we do is eat and we never fight and it's always a sunny day and the food is always wonderful," Jane says from the passenger seat of Michael's copper Infiniti SUV, which the Connecticut residents take on road trips when they're not flying long distance and renting a car. ''We wanted to express the fullness of our lives, which is sometimes shrieking meltdown fights and completely disagreeing in our taste of foods --"

''Well, not really," Michael interjects.

''-- and also being each other's best friends in places where we really feel out of our element," Jane finishes. (At a North Carolina restaurant, for instance, Jane thought a waitress was offering them a special tea just for Jews. Michael explained that the woman had asked, with a drawl, ''Djyou wish tea?")

Along the way, they revel in something ''Roadfood" avoids. That is, the truly horrific: vinegar-steamed chitlins they threw out of their car window in Virginia, hog ''maws" they heaved into a dumpster in Mississippi, unrefrigerated flan that brought Jane to her hotel room floor in Los Angeles.

And they hilariously recount their differences. They're both 59, but he's tall and lanky; she's shorter and round. He'll eat tongue and testicles and corn fungus; she'll barely touch most fish and recoils at the very idea of condiments. (Don't get her started on the ketchup and mustard bottles that grace the cover of their latest book.) Threaded throughout the memoir is their joy in finding supreme examples of regional food, from the elusive stuffed ham of Maryland and the sweet stewed tomatoes of the South to the focus of this day's trek: the steamed cheeseburgers of central Connecticut.

They had lived in southwestern Connecticut for 25 years and had traveled the country before they discovered this unique specialty only an hour from home, served in a half-dozen restaurants in Meriden and surrounding towns. ''It's a great illustration of how it's sometimes the places you're closest to that you know the least about," Michael says as we pull over on Main Street in Middletown.

He swings his red-and-black cowboy boots (bought in Arizona) out of the Infiniti and circles the car to help Jane, who is using a cane because she tore ligaments in a knee. ''This is such a [expletive] nightmare," she says. ''It happened two weeks before the book tour. I may have to have surgery."

Outside O'Rourke's Diner, owner Brian O'Rourke is practicing a form of Filipino stick fighting with a friend, but after greeting the Sterns he heads inside the gleaming glass and steel diner car. We cram into a tight booth (complete with a working mini-jukebox), and O'Rourke comes over with a plate of sweet and savory breads.

''What are you two doing, working on another book?" O'Rourke asks.

''No, we're just eating," says Michael, then he points to his guests. ''These people have never had a steamed cheeseburger."

''Must be from Boston," quips O'Rourke, whose family has owned the place for 60-odd years. ''That's where they call steamers clams."

Jane orders the corned beef and cabbage (''I've never had his before") and the rest of us go for the cheeseburgers, with thin onions and mustard because that's the way O'Rourke suggests. Much to Jane's chagrin, there's no apple pie today.

O'Rourke and his cooks press ground beef into little rectangular metal trays, do the same with aged cheddar, and put the trays into a steam cabinet. When the trays come out, the cooks transfer the dripping meat to a bun and scoop the pudding-like cheese -- soft but not oozing -- on top. It makes for a delightful mess; there's no chew or crispiness to the beef, just soft juiciness offset by the tang of the cheddar. This style of burger was born in the 1920s, the Sterns say, probably because steaming seemed healthier than frying. But O'Rourke, whose creative way has put the place among the best-loved diners in the Northeast, is the first to admit that he's not the steamed-cheeseburger master. ''That's Ted's in Meriden," he says. ''Be sure to tell them I said that."

O'Rourke brings out things he's working on: tastes of an oyster stew, split pea and barley soup, crab cakes, and little Irish soda bread muffins dipped in raspberry jam. As much as the Sterns like him and his food, they bristle at special attention. ''There are certain restaurants we avoid because they like us too much," Michael says. ''We can't just be a normal person there."

''Michael and I so thrive on the anonymity," Jane says.

''That's one of the great things about Ted's is we've probably been there like a dozen times, and nobody there gives a [expletive]," Michael says.

Jane: ''Which puts them way up on the list."

After O'Rourke's, we stop at Farrell's, a large, tavern-looking place in Portland, to see if the steamed cheeseburgers would be as good as they had heard. They're immediately wary. At the height of lunchtime, it's empty, and the sign out front reads ''Hiring experienced line cook." Worse, an odd chemical smell greets us on the way in. Michael forges ahead, trying to get a closer look at the food going to one of the only occupied tables. Jane stays back, and when he returns, they give each other a look. Jane tells the host, ''I think we'll come back later."

''We know a waste of time when we see one," Jane says.

Michael spots Jerry's again on the way to our final stop. ''OK, last chance: Should we get one?" Nope. We have to get in line at Ted's, where at 1 p.m. customers are snaking out the door waiting for one of the handful of counter seats or booths. There's a 50-something white businessman in a suit, three African-American teenagers, and a young Latino couple. Michael gets in line, while Jane rests at a picnic table outside.

In ''Two for the Road," they write about their weight gain in the 1970s after a year of driving and eating. Michael's pants cleaved in two when he bent over at a restaurant in New Mexico. He took up running and quickly trimmed down, but Jane, they write, ''was not so lucky" and took to wearing expandable clothes.

Thirty years later, Jane still isn't worried. ''I'm healthier than all my skinny friends," she says as we dig into Ted's steamed cheeseburgers, which indeed are bigger, juicier, and more meltingly drippy than at O'Rourke's. ''Before I tore the ligaments I was dancing flamenco and riding horses."

The Sterns don't write only about road food. In 2003, Jane wrote ''Ambulance Girl: How I Saved Myself by Becoming an EMT," a memoir about her recovery from depression that became a Lifetime movie starring Kathy Bates. They have also published, together and separately, books on pop culture, Elvis, dogs, and the cooking of various beloved regional restaurants. But it is ''Roadfood" that has earned them legions of followers, who keep up with their monthly column in Gourmet, log on to www.roadfood.com, listen weekly to ''The Splendid Table" radio show, and even sign up for bus tours such as one earlier this month on Boston's North Shore.

Every now and then, Gourmet would have an issue without a Stern piece in it, says executive editor John ''Doc" Willoughby, ''but not anymore. We get so many letters and e-mails from people saying, 'Where are the Sterns? I buy your magazine for the Sterns.' "

Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of ''The Splendid Table," says the duo seeks out ''the underside of food, and they do it brilliantly." The couple, who met at Yale University, are ''wonderfully verbal and truly articulate," she says. ''Every other word out of their mouth is not 'wonderful' or 'fabulous.' "

Indeed, their editor at Houghton Mifflin, Rux Martin, remembers North Dakota flapjacks described as ''thin as flannel." Nonetheless, this book required a different approach from ''Roadfood." ''They had to weave all those little profiles of road food joints into an autobiographical story," Martin says. ''The genius of what they managed to do was put that into a really witty story form."

Beyond chronicling their roadside eating, though, their books act as a tribute to the kinds of places they fear are vanishing. ''We wanted to sort of document what life was like before Applebee's and Outback and cellphones and GPS," Jane says. ''It seems very primitive what we used to do compared to what we do now."

Now they keep track of recommendations by e-mail and on their website, punch in addresses on a GPS console, and call from the comfort of their car.

In fact, once Ted's starts emptying out, we say our goodbyes, and the Sterns get in the SUV to speed Jane to a doctor's appointment. I think I see Michael pulling out his phone, and it's not hard to imagine that he's ringing up Jerry's Pizza for a white Sicilian. You know, just for the road.

Where to find them

Ted's Restaurant
1046 Broad St., Meriden, Conn., 203-237-6660
www.steamedcheeseburger.com

Cram into this tiny place and order the specialty: a steamed cheeseburger ($3.50), served here since the place opened in 1959. The only other sandwiches on the menu are no-cheese burgers, no-meat burgers (cheese only), steamed hot dogs, and BLTs.

O'Rourke's Diner
728 Main St., Middletown, Conn., 860-346-6101
Brian O'Rourke bought this beautiful diner from his uncle John, who founded it in 1941. He and his crew make a mean steamed cheeseburger ($3.50) with sharp cheddar but also serve up a vast menu of sandwiches, soups, omelets, and such anti-diner food as gravlax salad and Creole chicken.

Joe Yonan can be reached at yonan@globe.com.

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