From Chuck Wagon To Gourmet Vietnamese Bahn Mi — The Long Strange Trip of The Food Truck

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chuck wagon

A bunch of cowboys relaxing and eating in front of a chuck wagon.

In 1866, the first chuck wagon rolled out onto the Texas range feeding cowboys who were driving cattle all the way to Denver, Colorado. These days, people are getting top notch refreshments out of the back of smart cars, pushcarts and trucks shaped like pigs, but the basic premise remains the same. Delicious food, served up fresh, right where you are.

How did we get from a specially designed buggy to retrofitted trucks-as-rolling-kitchens? Essentially each vehicle has been it’s own era’s answer to the universal problem of satisfying hunger in the most convenient way possible: by bringing the food directly to the consumer, rather than the other way around. And they came in many shapes and sizes along the way. Hop on board as we check out the history of the food cart.

Charlie Goodnight’s Chuckwagon

chuckwagon

In action: a chuck wagon from the mid 1800's feeding those hardworking cowboys.

In the 19th century, large herds of cattle were being run great distances by groups of hard working cowboys who were in desperate need of substantial meals to keep up their stamina. Or so thought Charles Goodnight and his partner Oliver Long as they made preparations to shepherd 2,000 longhorn cattle from northern Texas to Denver, Colorado. Goodnight bought a government wagon, fortified it with the strongest wood available and fitted it with a box full of special compartments for holding food (or chuck, as the cowboys called it) and supplies with a hinged lid that could be opened up and used as a cook’s work table.

The chuck wagon became the center of the social scene, such as it was, on those long trips across the range. There were all sorts of specific etiquette surrounding mealtimes (never tie your horse to the chuck wagon, don’t use the work table as a dining table, etc) and Cookie, as the cook was often called, became not only the chef, but oftentimes the barber, moderator, letter-writer and all sorts of other roles on an as needed basis.

The Pushcart Onslaught

hot potato man

A pushcart selling hot potatoes was typical on the crowded streets of major cities by the late 1800's.

But those commercial skirmishers whose mart is the sidewalk, and who cover their heads with the sky, increase in numbers every month. They are the Bohemians of trade, the Bedouins of traffic.

– Junius Henri Browne The Great Metropolis (1869)

Working people in the cities had to eat too, and while they weren’t spending months on the range, many were working long hours with little time to shop daily for fresh food for their families.

Enter the pushcarts, which sold many of the same goods as the official markets, but were often much closer to home. Their horrible reputation as being unsanitary and unsavory did not stop them from becoming a nearly ubiquitous fixture on city streets. Especially as they provided a valuable service to an increasingly large number of families.

In New York City, the pushcart problem, as it was dubbed, inspired all sorts of legal action, and attempts were made to cordon off special areas (under the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges, for example). Scores of licensing regulations were enacted, though not many were ever strictly enforced, and the pushcarts continued to be a regular part of the urban landscape. Most sold ingredients meant to be taken home and cooked, but there were some early adaptors out there who were selling prepared food for immediate consumption.

Restaurants On The Move

early chicago food truck

An early food truck in 1920's Chicago. Photo courtesy of chuckmanchicagonostalgia/wordpress.com

Sure it’s 1920’s Chicago, but here is the modern food truck, in all it’s splendor, albeit without the artisanal gourmet reputation they have today. By the 1950’s, lunch trucks, ice cream trucks and breakfast trucks serving up hot coffee and egg sandwiches had become the norm in cities all over the country, and even spread to the suburbs, largely in the form of the diner.

zep diner

The Zep DIner, in Los Angeles, California, back in 1931.

Little more than glorified trailers with a long counter and prep area in back, diners first made their appearance in the 1870’s. But as they were largely mobile and easy to set up, they made it possible to bring restaurants to areas where there had been none, which was revolutionary. Plus they began to sprout up in all different shapes and sizes, which made dining in them all the more fun.

Haute Cuisine, Mobile Style

maximus minimus

Seattle's Maximus Minimus. Pork served up straight from the Pig's mouth. Or side, as the case may be.

These days, food trucks are everywhere. And in many cases, the food you can get is not only on par, but better than the food served up in the old-school restaurants. You know, the kind without wheels.

Los Angeles has established a whole letter grading system for it’s mobile vendors, Zagat’s has a whole website (still in beta) dedicated to reviewing food trucks in New York City. Food trucks in Portland, Oregon are organized into groups, called pods, and are located in various parking lots and corners around the city. There is even a website (foodcartsportland.com) dedicated to helping you find each and every one of them.

Off The Grid SF Takes Today’s Mobile Food Scene To A Whole New Level

off the grid

An Off The Grid event... Yum!

But leave it to San Fransisco to up the ante. Off The Grid, a mobile catering consultancy is dedicated to, in it’s own words, “making street food happen… all the time.” And not just any street food either. Founder Matthew Cohen and his team vet every one of the vendors that operate under the OTG umbrella, and their stellar reputation is far reaching as a result.

More than just an events company, Off The Grid supports around 100 food vendors at various weekly events around the Bay Area, helping them out with truck esthetics, social media marketing and, most importantly, by allowing them to bypass San Fransisco’s complicated permitting structure because they all operate under one umbrella. As of now there are 10 different events in the Bay Area, with more being planned for the near future.

There is a charge for the privilege of membership, both a small per-event fee and 10% of the day’s (or evening’s) take, but it’s well worth it, as many individuals wait for years before they have all the proper permits and are legally able to operate. And the reputation of these food markets is such that the people come, and eat, and keep coming back for more. A vendor’s dream.

It’s a food lover’s dream as well, and one can only hope that various similar collectives will spring up all over the country, so that we can all eat like royalty while standing on a street corner. It would be a tough job, sure, but somebody’s got to do it, right?

New York Fights Back

But wait! New York’s not gonna just sit still and let San Fransisco take the crown in terms of organizing it’s street food venders. Enter a brand new (like just this Tuesday!) player named Tweat.it, a website and mobile app that maps the exact location of your favorite food trucks in real time, all over the city.

Described as a mapping visualization engine for Twitter, Tweat.it tracks the tweats of all the mobile food folks in it’s network and then rebroadcasts them to us in the form of an interactive map, with all info just a click or a tap away. Saves us the trouble of wandering around, looking for that awesome lobster roll truck that was on the corner just yesterday.

OK midwest, you’re on! Show us coastal folks what you got.

Oh and if anybody out there knows of cool food truck orgs or apps for other metro areas, let us know in the comments!

 
  • . Let yourself be captivated by a country that has worked hard to rebuild itself after a troubled past.

  • Brookefrom Krrb

    I know! The US is such a fast food culture… food trucks just fit right in. What’s great is that there are now so many delicious and healthy options (so we don’t have to go to McD’s for a quick bite, knife and fork or no) And I just spent some time in Portland, OR, where multiple trucks often park in lots and then share an outdoor eating space with tables and chairs and everything!

  • Brookefrom Krrb

    I know! The US is such a fast food culture… food trucks just fit right in. What’s great is that there are now so many delicious and healthy options (so we don’t have to go to McD’s for a quick bite, knife and fork or no) And I just spent some time in Portland, OR, where multiple trucks often park in lots and then share an outdoor eating space with tables and chairs and everything!

  • In Paris, we don’t have food trucks, it is simply not part of the culture since eating is seen to be a seated activity (I’ve even witnessed someone eating McDonalds with a knife and fork). Every once in a while, you’ll come across a crepe stand where you can get a delicious crepe on the go. Yum! The other on-the-run option is popping into a bakery and getting yourself a simple sandwich. We don’t even have convenient stores where you can grab a fast snack … which I guess is a good thing and probably why the French don’t snack between meals!