It Came From The Library 10: Street Eats

By: Jonathan Milder

Canning, kitchen gardening, gourmet comfort food: There's hardly a food trend these days that doesn't owe something to the recession. This month's most attention-grabbing trend, street eats, is no exception.

From Austin to San Francisco to NYC to Portland to D.C. to Seattle, across the country a new generation of food trucks and carts is emerging and expanding notions of what street eating can be in the process. The trend is drawing strength from a number of factors: cheap prices, of course; but also low start-up costs; and, not least of all, a large and growing pool of the newly jobless (many of them chefs) looking for entrepreneurial opportunity.

For these and other would-be street vendors, street food presents itself as a tradition-bound corner of the food service industry ripe for experimentation and ideally-suited to thriving in an economic downturn.

As a result, the new wave sets many of today's prevailing food world trends-e.g. ethical eating, gourmet sophistication, cupcakes ( enough already!)-on four wheels. Increasingly taco and kebab trucks find themselves competing for curbside real estate with crème brulee carts, cupcake trucks, mobile purveyors of escargot-on-a-stick and the like.

For their part, chefs and restaurateurs have seized on trucks and carts as a marketing tool for their restaurants.

Twitter has proven a major enabler of the trend. As Serious Eats points out, in mobile vendors, who use the micro-blogging service to relay info to customers, Twitter almost seems to have found its raison d'etre.

Ironically, even as street food gains cachet in some urban settings (and increasingly shows up in the world of fine dining) taco trucks find themselves under assault across the nation, beset by increasingly restrictive ordinances designed to curb their operation. All of which serves as a worthwhile reminder of just how race- and class-specific this street food trend really is.

Fortunately here in New York, the rights and interests of the city's 10,000+ street vendors are fiercely defended through the heroic work of the Urban Justice Center and its Street Vendor Project. And it's probably fair to say that here in NYC, the Project, through its efforts to raise public awareness about vendors, and in particular through its wildly successful (and wildly awesome) Vendy Awards (full disclosure: our own Rupa Bhattacharya is a longtime Vendy backer, volunteer, and fiend) has been a major motivating force behind the current trend.

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