The story of American street food starts, as so many great stories do, in the Wild West. In the years after the American Civil War, chuck wagons would criss-cross the plains serving up breakfast lunch and dinner to hungry cowpokes. The wagons, with designated areas for pots, pans and food preparation, were the ancestors of today’s food trucks – without the social media following.
Food writer Richard J. S. Gutman singles out one Walter Scott for particular attention. A cook who, back in 1872, cut windows into his covered wagon and parked up outside a newspaper office in Providence, R.I. to sell his sandwiches and pies. Within 20 years, businesses sprung up offering commercial versions of his DIY operation, with options that included spittoons and carriage lamps. Things were getting fancy.
The petrol engine revolutionised the street food industry and, in the 1950s, ice cream trucks started appearing on the streets of the USA. By the 60s, the “roach coaches” arrived, nearly killing off the business in its infancy (literally) with sub-standard health and safety – and a habit of pitching up on the rougher, dirtier side of town.
But times change. In recession America, chefs started to recognise that food trucks were an affordable way to get their food in front of a new crowd. Without finding the $1,000,000 venture capital to fund a restaurant opening. Politicians started to realise that street food was bringing a young, hip crowd into the city centres. It made their cities taste better. So where is the epicentre now? Where will the first ever American street food champion come from?
Portland is the street food capital of the US. CNN even went too far as to call it the street food capital of the world. It’s a city where it’s never been about the trucks, but the 600 or so carts and tiny kitchens gathered together in communities they call “pods”. Each with its own identity. And each one redefining what street food means to the world…
Because of street food, Portland has undergone regeneration. A no-go square once known as “crack park” is now a flourishing market. And everywhere from parking lots to street corners and brewery forecourts you’ll find exciting food start-ups, whether classically trained chefs and home cooks are doing their thing. The place that invented the foodie as hipster now has a deep-rooted food culture to be proud of.
New York – one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. With tastes to match. And it all started with oysters. When Henry Hudson first arrived in the city, back in 1609, he found over 220,000 acres of beds on the harbour floor. Entrepreneurial vendors set up shop selling oysters as big as dinner plates. People went crazy for them.
But times change. And cities change with them. New York’s street food has changed according to each and every new immigrant group that has made the city its home. From the oysters to knishes, and hot dogs to Halal, the street vendors reflect the Big Apple’s constant evolution.
The street food scene in New York has always had an air of NYPD Blue about it. There’s always some ongoing battle with the authorities, with City Hall squaring up to The Little Guy. From the Thirty Minute Law, where pushcarts had to be moved on every half hour, to today’s latest crackdown on permits, it’s never been an easy relationship. But New Yorkers are clear on one thing – they love their street food.
New York might have given us street food – but it was Los Angeles that first thought to put it into trucks. Raul Martinez was the founding father of the modern food truck movement, converting an ice cream truck into a taco wagon in 1974, and parking up outside bar in East LA. One day we’ll unveil a plaque to honour that guy…
Roy Choi’s Kogi BBQ hit the streets of Los Angeles in 2008, and his Korean-Mexican fusion immediately captured the city’s imagination. He updated customers on his truck’s changing location using twitter, and created real excitement around where he was trading – and when he would sell out. Social media is still a cornerstone of the food truck movement. So is LA.