TT: Food, Glorious Food!

JANE: The Good Humor Man led us to ice cream trucks, and from there we went to coffee vans.  Tell me, do you folks have food trucks there?

Food Truck!

Food Truck!

ALAN: Yes, we do – there’s a particularly famous one known as the White Lady  which turns up in downtown Auckland in the small hours of every morning to save the lives of starving drunks. It’s been doing that since 1948.

JANE: And a noble cause that is indeed.

Food trucks seem to be undergoing an evolution here.  In one sense, they’ve always been around.  However, their appearance tended to be tied to specific events: fairs, sporting events, and the like.

One of the things I find interesting about the new incarnation is that, like the Good Humor Man of old, these trucks stalk their potential clients.  They don’t just show up near the ballpark, or buy a vendor’s slot at the fair, they’re alert to opportunities.

As soon as the kiddie soccer leagues begin practice on fields near the library, food vans offering a variety of snacks and treats start showing up.  No kids playing soccer (complete with bored siblings who need to be bribed to behave or parents dying for a hot drink), no trucks.

ALAN: That’s clever of them. I’m not quite sure what ours do (I don’t have much experience of them) but I do know that the White Lady is always in the same place at the same time. It’s never seen anywhere else.

JANE:  An ambitious food truck vendor recently realized that out where Jim’s office is now located, there is nowhere to buy food other than a golf course snack stand.  These people came visiting and did very well by the staff – many of whom don’t have transportation and are bored with brown bagging.

ALAN: Brown bagging? What does that mean?

JANE: Carrying your own lunch.  The term comes from the cheap brown bags that were the usual means used to carry lunch by almost anyone who had outgrown the colorful lunchbox used by children.  Do you folks have a term?

ALAN: No – we’re very boring by comparison. We just take our own lunch. It’s very common for children to take their own lunch to school. Sometimes they don’t approve of what their mother has lovingly packed for them and they just throw the contents away. Jake and I go for our morning walk close to a school and one day he came across a ham sandwich, an apple and a slice of cake. Best walk ever! He still sniffs that same spot hopefully every day, but we’ve never had that much luck again…

JANE: From what you’ve said about Jake, he’d probably have eaten the brown bag, too.

Even where there are restaurants available, such as downtown, the food trucks do good business with office workers who don’t have time for a sit-down lunch, but don’t want a fast food burger.

ALAN: I assume from what you say that these trucks don’t serve burgers and the like? Ours are really just mobile burger places with vast vats of bubbling grease for deep frying. They sell cholesterol on a stick to anyone in need of hard arteries.

JANE: I’m sure those are out there, too.  However, these days, food trucks offer cuisine that is a lot more varied and interesting.

ALAN: So what kinds of food do they serve?

JANE: I did some research and learned that Southwestern food is, unsurprisingly, popular, especially dishes like burritos and tacos, which are easy to eat without utensils.  You can also get pizza and a wide variety of barbecue and smoked meats.

More ambitious food truck vendors venture into specialties.  There’s “Cheesy Street” which specializes in cheese dishes – including a homemade tomato soup with cheese.  Europa Modern Kitchen promises a European dining experience.  I found a listing for a food truck that specializes in Argentinean cuisine as well as several offering a wide variety of Asian foods.

A friend of mine was telling me that in San Francisco, there’s a food truck that serves nothing but various types of crème brulee.

ALAN: Wow! We don’t have anything like that. However, we do have food halls in shopping malls and the like. A food hall has a large number of small counters, each specialising in a different type of food. So you’ll have a choice of sushi, or curry, or Chinese, or Thai, or pizza or… The quality of the food is amazingly good. It’s all delicious and they always do a roaring trade. Your food trucks sound like mobile versions of our food hall counters. Do you have food halls?

JANE: Oh, yes…  Here they’re called “food courts,” and have been around for decades.   Maybe you’re just catching up with us.

Back when you mentioned coffee vans, a thought occurred to me.  I don’t claim it’s deep philosophy, but I do think it says something about a shift in culture, a shift that may go all the way back to the Good Humor Man.

ALAN: In what way? Tell me more…

JANE: It seems to me that all these coffee vans and food trucks reflect a shift toward not only a desire for instant gratification, but an almost childish refusal to plan to have that gratification met.  Farewell to the picnic basket or thermos bottle.  Food and drink shall appear wherever one goes, ready to cater to every whim.

When you think of it, the food court (or hall) is part of the same trend.  Taking the family shopping, maybe to a movie?  No more need to compromise as to where you’ll eat.  Little Jimmy wants sushi.  Fine.  He can have sushi.  Annie wants pizza?  She can have it.

What do you think?

ALAN: I think you are on to something there. A lot of people that I know tend to do things spontaneously rather than planning for them. So once you have decided to do something on that basis, you simply don’t have any time to create food or drink or indeed anything else. I hate that – I’m a careful planner and I’m decidedly uncomfortable with spontaneity, but clearly I’m in a minority on this one.

JANE: I have a whole bunch more thoughts on this, but I think I’ll save them for next time.

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8 Responses to “TT: Food, Glorious Food!”

  1. mittsusaru Says:

    A discussion about food trucks and no mention of kebabs?

    Actually, Alan, locally the food trucks seem to follow the various markets around the region and there is quite a variety. So while you are doing your fruit & vege shopping you can get kebabs, curry, crepes, pork dumplings, salads, baked goods and so forth from these vendors. I presume you can also see them at sports events and fairs.

    The one that always caught my eye at our local market was the guy who only sold goat pies. It just seemed so specialised.

    I’m a bit wary about buying from such places though – food hygiene standards look a bit dodgy. But that might just be me.

  2. Peter Says:

    I’ve always seen food courts/halls in shopping malls/centres as a way of hearkening back (whether consciously or otherwise) to the days of open-air markets. No street market in Latin America, the Middle East, or Asia I’ve been to would be complete without a plethora of little stands (and sometimes carts or trucks) selling a variety of roasted, fried, steamed, or boiled foods, usually intended to be eaten with the fingers, although some have spots to sit especially those selling things like soup or noodles.

    Mobile food stands are nothing new either – in a city where I used to live in China there’s a local snack called an “Ear-Hole Cake”. Rather than being named for its shape (or flavour) it’s named for the street (Ear-Hole Street) where the snack’s creator first sold them, operating his business from a fryer in a wheelbarrow he could be found rolling up and down the street a hundred years ago.

    Another variant you see where zoning or bylaw-enforcement officers are unlikely to descend on you in seconds and shut you down are sessile-but-temporary food courts. Late last year a major construction project opened a few blocks from where I work, and within a day of workers showing up at the site a nearby empty lot began filling up with “restaurants” knocking together rough tables out of scrap lumber, setting out folding chairs, and offering meals and snacks cooked on barbeques or camping stoves. When construction finished a few weeks ago the food stands vanished overnight.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      I’m not sure it’s harking back so much as recognition that the creators of the modern mall got it fundamentally wrong: in the cities of Classical Antiquity every 3rd or 4th taberna [or the local equivalent] sold some sort of food or drink, or both. It seems to have been long-established then and cities throughout Eurasia [I don’t know enough about sub-Saharan Africa or the Americas to include them] seem to have followed the same pattern through into the modern period. In fact, it’s a rare part of Paris where you have to walk more than 2 blocks to find something to eat, and central Rome seems pretty similar. I’m trying to remember if the first mall in Winnipeg [called Polo Park because it was built on the old polo grounds] even had 2 restaurants, but there weren’t more than 2 when it opened, and it’s a pretty classic example of the breed. The assumption was that people wouldn’t _need_ a quick bite to eat, or to grab something to munch while charging off on the next errand.

      Experience suggests that the Greeks and Romans were closer to getting it right than the developers of the ’50s 🙂

      • Peter Says:

        I can’t speak to sub-Saharan Africa, but the pattern certainly holds true for much of Latin America.

        I find it interesting how the pendulum is swinging the other way again – last time I was in Canada two of the three local malls had been demolished to make way for “big box” malls that have no restaurants, food courts, or any sort of shared social space at all.

  3. Sally Says:

    I had a lunch truck for awhile with a friend back in the late 70’s: The Daily Bite – We Fly By Night (visualize a graphic of a very large set of teeth with wings). It’s a relatively cheap way to go into the restaurant business / be self-employed. I say relatively, because here at least getting a license requires a lot of jumping through hoops. We had to install 4 separate sinks, which is a trick in so small a space. We weren’t fancy — sandwiches and soup and drinks, including cold-brewed coffee (on which we got compliments, BTW, though only after it was several days old). My partner had worked a quiche cart in Washington DC for awhile, as well. I have also had friends who worked hot dog carts, the most basic local sort of food cart.

    Food trucks are always hungry (you’ll excuse the expression) for locations where they can find customers. Some areas are very difficult, such as areas where parking is hard to come by. Also, non-mobile restaurants get very bent out of shape if you park in front of them.

    I think food carts and trucks are more likely to start up when the economy is pinched and people need alternate ways to make a living. They are a sign both of necessity and creativity.

    • Peter Says:

      Bureaucracy is definitely a factor – at one extreme you have people on some Caribbean islands strolling down the beach selling hand-made sandwiches out of a bucket, then running home to make more when they sell out. At the other you have the city of Montreal, which banned food trucks in 1947 (the mayor at the time thought they were unsightly, same reason newspaper vending machines were banned), and only reversed the decision in 2013.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I never knew this about this part of your life, Sally!

      Got to say, this would make a fabulous frame for a bunch of urban fantasy short stories…

  4. Paul Dellinger Says:

    Variety is the spice of life!

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