Blog Topic 4: The Long Tail of a Culinary Carte Blanche

In Uncategorized on October 12, 2010 at 10:55 pm

Fifteen years ago, if you told someone in Manhattan that you had grabbed lunch at a food cart they would likely look at you a if you were a) secretly bankrupt, b) conducting dangerous amateur experiments on yourself, and/or c) looking for a quasi-legitimate way out of Friday night dinner with your mother-in-law via internal self-mutilation.

The ill repute associated with the majority of New York food carts was always overblown, yet rarely questioned. Out-of-towners didn’t deign to even look the way of a Sabrett hot dog cart and squirmed at the thought of a hand reaching out from a shiny steel box to offer them a falafel. For the proliferation of over-priced restaurants in Manhattan, this meant profit fueled in equal parts by ignorance and snobbery. With the internet still in its nascent, pre-mass adoption phase (read: no effective way for foodies to connect), Petrossian was king and Nuts 4 Nuts was scraping by with a customer base comprised mainly of a few brazen locals and broke college students.

In 1995, I lived in a house divided. My family needed an automotive vanity plate that would proclaim our bitter internal disagreement over the locational origin of our next Würste. My father, ever the amateur chef and proto-foodie, stood in fanatical defense of the hot dog cart that was usually parked down the street from his office, from which he said he had taken one bite and seen God. To this day, his desktop background at work is this poetic homage to the food truck industry:

My mother responded with equal vigor in the opposite direction, passionately dropping words like “salmonella,” “ecoli,” and “scurvy,” the latter of which I now suspect she’s a bit confused on the specifics of.

Nevertheless, at eight, these words scared the bejesus out of me, and were enough to trump the magical smell radiating from a honey roasted nut cart. Experimentation be damned, my food would come from a proper grocery store in the proper form (e.g. the shape of a Lunchable, Capri Sun pouch, or a tape measure of faux-fruity fat). Because what could be safer than a pouch containing a cube of “cheese product” and a rubbery, surprisingly resilient stack of “turkey?”

With the exception of one foray into the genre of roadside boiled peanuts outside Savannah, Georgia, my food cart familiarity remained weak at best in the following years. My father continued to defend the wonder of meals on wheels, and my mother continued to look like she’d swallowed a lemon every time the topic was brought up. And then I went to college.

And thus commenced my era of reckless and unbridled experimentation…of food. I went to college in Miami, a city where food carts did not accompany virtuous pagans in the outermost circle of hell.  When you went to the beach, you went to the food carts. When you went to Coconut Grove, you went to the food carts. University of Miami had long since harnessed the trend and provided mobile campus vending services via…you guessed it, food carts. We had nomadic Starbucks food carts, dependably-situated breakfast food carts, and even a Latin food cart. I had platters of fried plantains on Calle Ocho, I tried juevos rancheros from a cart in Homestead. I deified the man outside the Orange Bowl who sold churros prior to football games. Some people seek revenge on the parents and their strict high school boundaries by doing the walk of shame. I just walked to food carts.

And then came Los Angeles. Before living in LA, my newly acquired fondness for mobile meals was just that – a fondness. But after a month in LA, it had turned into a full-scale interest, joining other weird inclinations including Humphrey Bogart movies, a musical genre that can only be described as “most likely to randomly be heard on Thursday night TV shows or while standing in line at Starbucks,” historical fonts, murder mystery parties, using Web MD to tally the number of unforeseen ways I might kick the bucket (Did you know that if your back hurts, you might be dying?), ironic Canadian signs, old maps, and, yes, knitting (though as of yet, I have not tackled pink socks). And this new formal interest in food carts, it turned out, was both made possible and fueled by the internet’s long tail.

Los Angeles, with its laid back creative culture and quirky sense of humor, was the perfect city to lead the food truck revolution. California has always enjoyed the benefit of a savvy tech culture whose web savants know that the internet is there not to extend the iron fists of corporations, but to alert the good people to a wicked delicious locomotive burrito. And alert us they did.

… … … … … …

My favorite line in Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail comes at the end of Chapter 7 when he concludes his thoughts on “the new tastemakers” by saying, “Soon everything will make it to market and the real opportunity will be in sorting it all out.”

Not only do I feel this simple thought to be the most poignant and important of the book, but I also do not fail to recognize the purely coincidental culinary language employed. “New tastemakers?” “Everything goes to market?” The puns are a stretch, and somewhat cringe-worthy, but they’re there nonetheless. And that irony was not lost as I read, knowing that I planned on writing this blog post about food. And to Anderson’s actual point, had it not been for the ascendancy of those men and women populating the internet’s long tail with an ever-increasing number of laudatory thoughts about Los Angeles food carts, the trend would likely have next gained momentum. My mom would still belong to a great majority of old-school critics blaspheming the food truck institution. As it stands, because of internet buzz, food trucks are the new Petrossian. There are multiple food cart festivals throughout the country – DC’s was just last week – and there are many social media sites that have pages devoted to mobile food fanatics.

There is a food truck Wikipedia page. Many cities now have their own food truck Facebook pages. Twitter pages, detailing the real-time locations of food trucks throughout various cities, abound. There are Flickr communities to prompt virtual cravings. There’s an Amazon thread prompted, of course, by a book. The are communities on Digg. There is this.

Los Angeles Magazine featured the food cart phenomenon, and it’s pride in having pioneered the trend, in its most recent food issue.  The first of many food truck blogs continues to grow in visibility and popularity with thousands visiting the site every day. Food Carts Portland even sells t-shirts on its site. Atlanta’s page includes a Cluetrain-esque manifesto (“Anyone who wants to sell food on the street will have to follow rules concerning waste disposal, sanitation, safe temperatures and the like, but too much protection of the consumer squelch a scene we feel is ready to roll. Let the revolution begin!”).

Articles have recently appeared in New York Magazine, A short Gothamist thread brought a surprising number of comments. In the Boston Globe, a Harvard Economics professor opined on the deeper significance of the phenomenon (…but isn’t it possible that we just have grown to like that hand reaching out and handing us a warm falafel nestled in cellophane?). And perhaps the ultimate sign that food carts have thoroughly saturated even the most square corners of the marketplace is the article that appeared in yesterday’s – try not to pass out – Wall Street Journal. If you follow the search query “food trucks” down the rabbit hole of the Google News, you will learn that LA is actually contemplating applying restaurant grading criteria to the once laissez faire carts.

All jokes aside,  the food truck ascendancy exemplifies the trends Anderson describes in The Long Tail. People, now having access to information about food carts and the ability to virally spread their enthusiasm, have created a growing trend that would have been unthinkable fifteen years ago. Not only is the ability to patronize food carts functionally facilitated by the social online community (How else would one go about finding their favorite cart on any given day?), but this same community has also created an entire subgenre of culinary specialization. And what does this mean? Along with the increasingly admired hole-in-the-wall gems that have always peppered our cities but flown beneath the radar of The Food Critics, we now have far more vibrant, unique, and affordable choices for dining.

Even more exciting to me is the fact that, because of this seemingly small phenomenon, we have more opportunities to connect in a very real way with interesting people who can improve the quality of our days, and therefore the richness of our lives (see last Friday’s Washington Post article). Frequenting a food cart isn’t like accompanying coworkers to Le Pain Quotidien for lunch. It’s more like getting your hair cut or going to the dentist. We all have to get our split ends trimmed, we all have to have fluoride treatments to prevent cavities, and we all have to eat.  These are commonplace, necessary activities. But if your hairdresser of five years is kind, if your dentist of eight years is funny, and if your food cart chef is there every Thursday with a quirky take on what goes on in the West Wing, these people become more than points of service. They become our friends, our confidants, our empathizers, and the people we think of as being on Our Team.

And all of this because the kids in Los Angeles liked their mobile tacos and thought it was time to share them with the world.

Viva la Revolución, indeed.

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