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Feature Fri Jan 21 2011

Talking With Their Mouths Full

EDogz.jpg"Dining is and always was a great artistic opportunity."
—Frank Lloyd Wright

"I just like to throw a party," Eric May told me when I interviewed him about his newest endeavor E-Dogz, a mobile culinary community center run out of a trailer hitched to the back of his truck. "If we can show people how to live better and have a really crazy good time while we're doing that, it's a successful project to me."

May has a background in both food and art. His best-known project is an art gallery-cum-cultural center in Noble Square called Roots and Culture, which he opened in 2006. His plan for E-Dogz is twofold: to plant the seeds for a mobile food truck movement in Chicago and to inspire good, old-fashioned positive and progressive human interaction out on the street in the process.

The reputation of the food concession truck has long been stigmatized as being unhygienic and questionable. Recent years have favored mobile munchies; however, with outright food truck movements taking shape in New York, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Baltimore and Austin, for starters. Some go so far as to call it a revolution.

"Celebrity chefs, acclaimed restaurateurs and everyday entrepreneurs from all backgrounds, own the new food trucks," proclaims the collective of foodservice professionals behind Chicago Food Trucks, a source of industry news for future food truck entrepreneurs. "They are serving exciting high quality foods, and everyday people are flocking to them."

Although there have recently been steps toward the development of a regulated food truck movement here in Chicago, progress has been accomplished at a glacial pace; we are one of the last major American cities to subscribe to the trend. Prohibitive licensing is only one of the hurdles that a potential food truck owner in Chicago has to face.

Restaurant owners are another. The Chicago Sun-Times reported last week that Chicago restaurant owners were mobilizing to block City Hall from creating an "unleveled playing field" for their brick-and-mortar businesses by legalizing mobile food trucks with cooking done onsite. Illinois Restaurant Association President Sheila O'Grady suggested a possible compromise: confining rolling restaurants to "food deserts" and neighborhoods with a shortage of brick-and-mortar restaurants.

These conflicts are no sweat off E-Dogz' back. In addition to selling food in areas commonly known as food deserts, May intends to offer fresh and healthy snack food to kids at the end of the school day. "I worked in public schools for five years, and seeing what kids eat day in and day out. The worst possible foodservice--fries and pizza--that's really all they know about. And I know they're not initially going to be exited about roasted corn soup, so I want to package this as sort of a fun and demonstrative situation. I'm hoping to raise awareness. I have a project called grow room that is housed in the basement of Roots and Culture. I have UV lights set up to grow lettuces, herbs and edible mushrooms. Nothing illegal, of course."

growroom.jpg

In the recent past, May has done a lot of urban foraging projects, but it's probably not exactly the sort of foraging you're used to. "I've done projects where I've prepared pigeon meat and Asian carp. The food cart will be a platform for some of these projects of mine that address food sources and food source awareness."

"In a lot of cultures, street food is born out of necessity," May told me. "I've always been really interested in what sort of cuisine develops with very few resources. Families will jerry-rig these amazing setups. In my travels, I've seen a lot of cookers made from 55-gallon oil drums, either cut horizontally and sort of made into grills or charcoal cookers, or the tops or bottoms being hammered out and made into shallow woks. But that's illegal in Chicago. We've got the Maxwell Street market, which I think has its own set of licenses. I know the Park District can issue mobile food licenses, like in Humboldt Park; there are those really great Puerto Rican food trucks. And downtown in the winter there's the German Christkindlmarket. But its not a culture here like it is elsewhere. So it seems like the right moment for that to happen."

underpass.jpg

May has already received a grant for his Mobile Cultural Community Center from Northwestern University, where he is an MFA candidate. He accidentally underbid when he applied for the grant, because his research gave him the false impression that a functional food trailer is cheaply and easily procurable. "I've driven all over the Midwest," he lamented. "I've looked at old school ice cream trucks and you name it, but they all seem to have some sort of major mechanical flaws that I can't take on." To cover his costs, May raised $3,000 through a recent Kickstarter campaign.

May is excited to begin this project. "I will vend very reasonable street food items like hot dogs--Chicago-style and LA-style street dogs," he explained. "And we'll do vegetarian versions. I've been making tamales for years and I've got a pretty good knack with those. And we're going to do Jamaican patties, because they're really fun and spicy, and easy to eat out of your hand. I don't know how the licensing will work with this, but I'd like to sell a dollar cup of soup for the kids who don't have a lot of cash. I'd like to provide something healthy at a reasonable price."

When talking with May about E-Dogz, you sort of get the sense that he thinks of it as a traveling school of sorts, but more fun. An educational culinary sideshow, if you will. "It won't operate like your average food truck," he insists. "I want it to create its own events, rather than me taking it to events like a conventional portable restaurant."

Eric May is not the first Chicagoan to mix mobile food with social activism. Mike Bancroft, founder of the Co-Op image group, a youth arts education not-for-profit, and also the maker of the locally adored Co-op Hot Sauce, started a late-night foccacia style bun delivery business called Bun Pow with girlfriend Anne Kostroski (of Crumb Bread). They are now the Tamale Guy's biggest competition.

BunPow.JPG
Kostroski and Bancroft started Bun Pow last summer to offset operation costs so that Co-op Sauce could continue to raise more money for Co-op Image. Bancroft told me the goal of these projects is to develop into an economically viable social entrepreneurship that creates job opportunities for non-violent ex-offenders, contracts with local growers in both our community gardens and throughout the Midwest, and creates a return on his personal investment.

Like Eric May, Mike Bancroft sees his work with food as an avenue to tap into the minds of people. "The work I do around food is a prized communal practice for me, and is always a central part of the collaborations and collaborators that I enjoy playing with," he wrote in an email. "...Not just because I love food....but the whole ritual of the sharing that happens around food and drink inspires me. Whether doctoring ramen with the Co-op Image kids on the set of Chi-Town Chefs or eating pupusas at a grandma's kitchen table in El Salvador, food is only as good as those you share it with. Bun Pow is a way that we can share great food that we are really proud of with complete strangers and regulars alike while telling a story."

Bancroft.JPG
As Chicago's mobile food movement inevitably trudges on, albeit a bit belated, it is in the right hands and is working toward a good cause. This is socially responsible food at its latest and greatest--art and activism at their best. "I feel like if what I'm doing is engaging in a conversation that's socially relevant, it's a worthwhile endeavor, regardless if it's something that can be packaged and sold," explained May. "Art tends to be things that are really veiled and inaccessible. I'd like to present a different type of production. I just want to share good ideas, good food, and good times."

~*~

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information. More information here.


Pictures courtesy of Eric May and Mike Bancroft.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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