Keep On Truckin'!- Immigrants Keep Food Trucks in High Gear
I’d like to take this opportunity to wish all my visitors and EOL Community members a very happy holiday season and Happy Thanksgiving.
One thing that this season brings to mind is that we are all immigrants here in the US (unless of course you are 100% American Indian which is highly unlikely) and I would like to combine that fact with one of my pet themes here on EOL- Food Trucks.
I was approached by Joyce Li from the Vilcek Foundation to publish these articles on how immigrants have contributed to the Food Truck movement and there is no better time to start adding them to the site than now, just before Thanksgiving.
This first piece is written by Zach Brooks of the NYTimes who was a judge in last year’s Vendy Awards.
I will also be publishing a link to all the recipes from this series.
INTRODUCTION BY ZACH BROOKS
When the Vilcek Foundation first approached me to write this introduction, I labored under the belief that it was due to my recent publication of an opinion piece in the New York Times on the uneasy relationship between traditional street-food vendors and their newer, gourmet counterparts. Or, perhaps, someone had noticed my service as a judge for last year's Vendy Awards in New York City. It turns out they were merely dazzled by the number of food carts and specials I have patronized as the founder of Midtown Lunch, a website dedicated to picking out the best of urban lunch offerings, and considered me a veritable expert on the midday meal. Expert or not, I couldn't agree more enthusiastically with the Vilcek Foundation about the vital role immigrants play in shaping our national appetites especially when it comes to the heady, enticing meals served by street vendors and I am thrilled to introduce this issue of the Foundation's newsletter in which are profiled some of the best immigrant and first-generation food truck operators around the United States.
For anybody who lives to eat, it is undeniable that we have entered into a golden age of street food in this country. Turn on the television, hop on the internet, pick up a newspaper or magazine, and you'll find no shortage of people falling all over themselves to declare food trucks the next big trend in dining. It may be the next big trend, but it's hardly a new one; in fact, in cities from Los Angeles to New York City, street food has been popular for decades (centuries even!). Most cities with large immigrant populations have some history with street food, for the simple reason that it is practically impossible to separate selling food on the street from the immigrant experience in the United States. True, many of the new food-truck entrepreneurs are as American as the business schools they attended, but their success did not come out of nowhere. It has its roots in a long history of immigrants selling delicious food on the sidewalks of their communities.
Until recently, street food has been a uniquely immigrant profession here. Throughout this country's history, street vending has traditionally consisted of immigrants selling a quick, inexpensive meal to other immigrants. According to research done by the Street Vendor Project, at the turn of the century there were over 25,000 vendors in Manhattan alone and 93 percent of them were foreign born. From smoked fish on the Lower East Side to halal carts in Midtown Manhattan, almost every new population that arrives in New York City has used street vending as an entry-level stepping-stone to other occupations. In the eighties, it was the Greeks who ran most of the carts in New York City, which might be why many of them serve gyro meat covered in white sauce that bears some resemblance to tzatziki. But it was the vendors from Bangladesh and Egypt, who started taking over in the nineties, who introduced halal food (sanctioned by Islamic law) to the streets of New York. Originally, it was meant to be a late-night meal for Muslim cab drivers, but soon enough these delicious plates of chicken and lamb over rice with white sauce and hot sauce could be found on every street corner of the city, day or night.
At the same time, in Los Angeles, loncheros (Mexican lunch trucks) started appearing all over Latino neighborhoods offering a similarly low-cost food option to their communities. Tacos and burritos are plentiful, but it doesn't end there. Food trucks also sell tortas, cemitas (an Oaxacan sandwich featuring string cheese), ceviche, and even more regional specialties, some of which can't even be found in brick-and-mortar restaurants in most parts of the country.
One excellent example is the El Naranjo truck in Austin, Texas, operated by Oaxacan-born Chef Iliana de la Vega. Although parked squarely in Tex-Mex territory, Chef de la Vega relishes the opportunity to serve authentic Mexican specialties such as stuffed molotes (cigar-shaped corn masa with various fillings), and the truck's seven signature moles (spicy sauces made with chilies and, usually, chocolate).
Immigrants are not just part of the old-school history of street food; they are also helping to take it into the future. Many of the new-school trucks are run by immigrants selling popular food from their home countries, such as Tábor in Portland, Oregon, which ushered in a new wave of recognition for Czech food nationwide, as evidenced by features in the New York Times and Bon Appétit. Meanwhile, the fleet of Elena's Lunchwagons in Waipahu, Hawaii, serves the Butuyan family's take on home-style Filipino cooking as well as a few new dishes so delicious they've been trademarked.
Then you have Kogi, the Korean taco truck headed by Seoul-born Chef Roy Choi, who many credit with launching the new-school, new-media, food-truck explosion. With tasty menu items like short rib tacos and kimchi quesadillas, the influence of lonchero culture is fairly obvious. And just as the Mexican taco trucks influenced Kogi, its menu has influenced scores of even newer food trucks in Los Angeles and around the country, whose patrons have been smitten by the Korean-Mexican fusion phenomenon launched by Chef Choi.
The original relationship between street vending and immigrants is a natural one. For newcomers to this country, what more fitting occupation could there be than selling food in the neighborhoods they live in to others like themselves hungering for a taste of home? That original connection still is strong, not just in the old-school taco trucks and halal carts, but in many of the twittering trucks as well. That inspiration continues to be passed from vendor to vendor, ensuring that as food becomes more and more corporatized and homogenized, we'll still be able to get an interesting, low-cost, and most importantly tasty meal on the streets where we live and work.
So please join us in learning more about the immigrant chefs profiled in this newsletter. Afterwards, try your hand at preparing some of their signature dishes contained in the Vilcek Foundation's first-ever recipe collection! Included are Dessert Truck's recipe for Chocolate Bread Pudding with Bacon Crème Anglaise (which was tested in a trial by fire and emerged the victor in an episode of Throwdown with Bobby Flay) and Veronica Julien's Vendy Award-contending recipe for jerk chicken, straight from Veronica's Kitchen in downtown Manhattan. You may develop a newfound appreciation (and appetite!) for what these hard-working immigrants bring to our streets, whether rain or shine, snowstorm or heat wave.
Published by permission of The Vilcek Foundation, © 2011. The Vilcek Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to honoring the contributions of foreign-born artists and scientists to the United States. Learn more at www.vilcek.org.