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Food Trucks Fri Apr 18 2014

Street-Food Brings Culture to Chicago

cr3.jpg"I think of [street food] as the antidote to fast food; it's the clear alternative to the king, the clown and the colonel. It's faster, and chances are it's healthier than something at a traditional fast food restaurant. I would much rather give my money to a neighbor or an individual than to a gigantic corporation that owns half the world. Maybe it's naïve of me, but I prefer food made by an identifiable human that's actually cooking." -Anthony Bourdain

Street food is pure food--no frills, no tipping, no chatting. A simple transaction of money and treasured sustenance, a cultural exchange rooted in the most basic of human commonalities. I grew up eating street food. Right at sunrise, my grandmother and I would meander through the markets of Shanghai, grabbing a box of shengjian before hustling to our favorite congee stall. The smoky and savory aroma of jianbing, chickens squawking, tea-boiled eggs, the grassiness of fresh produce wafted through the air as we ate on little plastic stools, watching people ride past on motorcycles and bikes.

Compared to its international counterparts, the US street food scene is relatively weak, especially in Chicago. Yes, there are food trucks, farmer's markets, and occasional vendors scattered throughout the city, but street food is isolated, fragile, and for most, an indulgence. The system in Chicago hinders the mobile food scene, imposing licenses and penalties designed to dissuade entrepreneurs and to protect the restaurant industry from "competition." Chicago currently has 74 licensed trucks, compared to 114 trucks in 2013. The food-truck ordinance issued by the Chicago City Council not only impacts trucks, but also carts. Regulations restrict what types of carts are allowed to sell food, including carts that sell whole, uncut produce and carts working under the Chicago Park District.

5411.jpg Food safety concerns and city rules are poor excuses for the bureaucratic barriers that mobile food businesses face. Street food is more than just tax revenue or a quick food alternative--like art, it's incredibly cultural. Look at the intricate artwork of Chicago food trucks, the uniqueness of street vendors. The creativity and passion people pour into their small business reflects American entrepreneurship, local community, the utter simplicity and joy of feeding others.

There is nothing as humble and elegant as a freshly grilled skirt steak taco--double-shelled corn tortillas, cilantro, onions, still steaming and sizzling in a shoddy waxed wrapper. Or a hangover-worthy hot dog, topped with mustard and caramelized onions. Street food provides that fleeting, yet meaningful exchange between a seller and buyer, in an unassuming environment free of elitism and propriety. Max Falkowitz of NY summarizes it quite elegantly:

"Street life" is just that: a manifestation of public energy. And it's a democratic energy, one that's open to everyone and treats everyone equally. Street food helps transform sidewalks and public spaces from transit ways to destinations. "Street life" is just that: a manifestation of public energy. And it's a democratic energy, one that's open to everyone and treats everyone equally. In midtown, $100,000 salary-earners wait in line with bike messengers and construction workers for $5 plates of chicken and rice. That's a healthy, necessary thing in a city where it's far too easy to get siloed in socioeconomic subcultures. Street food helps to build and maintain community across economic, ethnic, and regional boundaries. It's a vital part of urban life here.

Limiting street food perpetuates the idea of an aesthetically-pleasing Chicago, a disciplined public space where different cultures reside along a stagnant spectrum from Linden to 95th. But if street food embodies culture, can you imagine if people used their recipes to transport art, history, and ideas across Chicago? Can you imagine the power of mobile culture?


Just / April 18, 2014 12:42 PM

So do the 100 of Walgreens/CVS's, McDonalds, Corner Bakeries, Potbelly's etc that are packed into a 15 block area. Lots of character.

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I was using Rick Bayless' restroom, I mused, staring up at the ceiling window that was projecting a heavenly beacon of light upon my less-than-angelic duties. I could barely distinguish Rick's faint murmurs through the orange walls, something about how...
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