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ROTARY MEETING: Michael Stern, National Food Critic
July 26, 2021 @ 12:30 pm - 1:30 pm
When longtime food reviewer Michael Stern relocated to Aiken, the move wasn’t initially for the area’s plethora of local restaurants; it was for Hitchcock Woods.
“There is no place that I personally enjoy as much as Hitchcock Woods. I’m a horse person, but, even I wasn’t and if I was just somebody who liked to walk with my dog, I would love Hitchcock Woods,” Stern said. “In my experiences, there is no place like it.”
For decades, Michael and his previous wife, Jane Stern, have trekked around the country to sample different cuisine for their “Roadfood” book and website.
Over the last few years, Michael has immersed himself into the CSRA’s food scene.
″(It’s) just heaven. I’m just a pig in slough here, you know,” Michael said, laughing at the image. “The kinds of places that I write about are not the cutting edge, four-star dining establishments that people pay hundreds of dollars to eat at in New York or San Francisco or something. I write about sleeves-up food that people enjoy every day – barbecue, Lowcountry boil, things like that. That’s what I love. South Carolina is a great state for … a restaurant of the people and by the people. … I’ve had a great time exploring Aiken.”
A search for Aiken on the Roadfood website will pull up at least four pages filled with links to restaurant reviews and entries about the area.
Each featured restaurant receives its own page that contains Michael’s review and recommended dishes, photos of the food and the business’ hours, address, phone number and general information, including whether alcohol is served or if credit cards are accepted.
“Most restaurants don’t even know that I’ve been there except the ones that I keep returning to again and again because I really like them, especially around here. I’ve been to the Red Shed like 25 times since I found it down here,” the food writer admits.
When Michael and Jane went to produce reviews for products such as the Hartford Courant newspaper in Connecticut, their covers as critics were sometimes blown, thus they were given special attention.
“In a barbecue parlor or a fish fry, it doesn’t matter that much to them, which is great because it makes it very easy for me to experience the restaurant just as anyone else would,” he said.
A couple of weeks ago, Fexy Media, the company who bought the Roadfood website a few years back, and Michael spotlighted a handful of establishments for a video. They went to JC’s Seafood, Deshawn’s Seafood and Chicken in North Augusta, Red Shed Diner in Graniteville, Shealy’s Bar-B-Que in Batesburg-Leesville, Peaches ‘n’ Such in Monetta and Perry’s Pig in Augusta.
Michael said he tried to choose an array of places that would give a general impression of the food available here.
He added that he is just getting started with his culinary tour of the area.
“I have a long list of places that I still haven’t tried in Columbia, Augusta, down in Waynesboro, up in Greenville. I’m checking things off that list as I go to them, but I’m adding more as I check them off so I don’t think I’ll ever run out of great places to visit,” he said.
Michael met Jane at Yale University, the original reason he had moved to Connecticut in 1968.
Through the 40-plus years that followed, the two writers have released more than 40 books, including the “Roadfood” series.
“Roadfood, 10th Edition: An Eater’s Guide to More Than 1,000 of the Best Local Hot Spots and Hidden Gems Across America” was released in the spring. This release marked the 40th anniversary of the series and listed places in the Aiken area.
The team’s travels have carried it to all ends of the United States and into Canada.
“I’ve seen some great editions of ‘Roadfood’ that people carried with them around the country, and they are all, they have like barbecue sauce and gravy and sticky stuff and grease and fried chicken all over the pages. These sort of like war-torn editions of ‘Roadfood,’” Michael commented.
Jane stayed in Connecticut, and she and Michael remain in contact and occasionally collaborate on projects.
Michael is originally from Chicago. Though he has seen a number of cities since moving to Connecticut, he was never fully motivated to pack his things and make another state his home until he found Aiken.
“For me, Aiken is heaven on earth,” he said. “I get up every day, and I’m so glad to be here. Even when it’s 95 degrees and humid, it’s fine with me.” MJ