Question: How did you select recipes to include in this book? It seems as if you have a bias toward authentic cooking, rather than new-school-fusion truck cuisine.
John T. Edge: Most of the best trucks and carts feature people cooking a dowry recipe — something their grandmother handed down or taught them. Or in the case of recent immigrants, the food they're making is a taste of home. So I looked for those recipes, but I also included dishes that were emblematic of particular carts and trucks — their ultimate dish, if you will. I had a bias toward food that was honest and authentic, but that can mean many different things. For instance, if you're Roy Choi of Kogi and you're a Korean American who grew up in a Mexican American neighborhood, making kalbi tacos on corn tortillas is not fusion — it's an honest reflection of your palate. But in general, yes, I'm far more interested in someone offering an elemental, beautiful bite of food, like a plate of scrambled eggs and green runner beans on tortillas, than someone who's trying to peddle foie gras off of a truck, which is just foolishness.
Q: The organization of this book is unconventional. You have chapters like "Fries and Pies," and a whole chapter devoted to "Waffles and Their Kin." How did you decide on this structure?
Edge: When I wrote the book, I wrote a travelogue, in essence, but my editor had the great sense to tell me I couldn't do it this way. She was the one who ordered the book and gave it the structure it has. I fought her until I lost, but she was right all along. The field is changing rapidly, and the experience I had is not replicable. But the idea of these categories of food really works. I always thought of waffles as something you have for breakfast with syrup, but it's street food in Europe, and really, it's nothing more than a puffy flatbread. It's also connected to crepes and pancakes. So really, they do all fit together.
Q: You mention how ephemeral food trucks can be — the now-gone Philly gem Ton-Ton gets a shout-out in your book, for instance. Changing the book from a travelogue resolved some of that issue, but how did you deal with the trucks that came and went in the run-up to print?
Edge: I could tell as soon as I interviewed [Ton-Ton owner] Keiko Naka, I knew somehow she wasn't going to be there much longer. Her vision was so pure and clear — almost too much so. But I wanted to write about her because her truck was one of the first places I stopped and one of the first carts I fell hard for on the trip. I realized that if I was going to write this book, I had to acknowledge that it is all ephemeral, but that's not a bad thing — I got to capture that moment in time and pay homage to her.
Q: It can be hard enough to get a chef on the phone as a food writer. How do you manage talking to someone up to their elbows in doughnut grease? What are some of the other challenges of writing about street food?
Edge: There are a number of challenges. One of them is trying to show up at off-hours and wait for an ebb in commerce to talk to the owner. I learned to take notes on my phone instead of using a notepad, because if you walk up to a cart or truck with a notepad, you look like a health inspector or someone who's come to challenge their permits. I found that in some ways, the traditional interview with the truck owner was less important than being at that truck and listening to other people's conversation and getting an overall feel for the experience.
Q: How would you characterize Philly's street-food scene?
Edge: I saw a couple things, mainly. One was the carts that were a response to student needs. Philly is a town full of colleges, so you get all of the carts around Penn and Drexel and Temple. Then there's the workman's street food, whether it's Yu Kee dishing great egg foo yung or John's lunch cart across from the UPenn hospital serving scrapple, provolone, and egg breakfast sandwiches. Almost invariably, they use that quilted-stainless-steel cart and there was an honesty and simplicity to the carts and food that seemed emblematic of the city. In some places, the trend of food trucks seemed to get in the way of the food, but not in Philly. That's not to say I didn't find inventiveness in Philly, because I did.
Q: As the trend has grown, it seems as though the ante has been raised for the marketing of trucks, with just as much emphasis going to the concept, name, logo, and presentation as a bricks-and-mortar restaurant. Did you find this to be true on your travels?
Edge: You find people doing street theater along with the street food, so in D.C., there are the Fojol brothers serving Ethiopian and Pakistani food. They wear turbans and roller skate around the truck. In New York, you have the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck — the owners took a Mister Softee truck and rebranded it. Now, if you call yourself Big Gay Ice Cream Truck and hang out a flag with a rainbow ice cream cone, you're engaging in street theater. It's part of the sell and the appeal. I really admire the marketing acumen and the chutzpah of these trucks — it's just brilliant.
Q: You mention the terms luxocratic, referring to the high-end, chef-centric trucks, and vendrification, the fear in many cities that the newer, flashier trucks would overtake the old-school, immigrant-manned trucks. Do these things concern you, and where do you see this all going?
Edge: I think the fancy-pants food trucks will come and go — if there's a trend at work, that's the trend that will be passé before too long. But it is interesting to see some of the farm-to-table connection playing out in the truck scene. I think that's great if trucks can source local ingredients and deliver the equivalent of artisanal food on paper plates. That's great for everyone, especially all of us who want to eat good food and fast, but don't want to eat fast food. I went to a burger truck in New York called La Cense Beef. They serve grass-fed burgers, and as you stand in line, you can watch the flat-screen TV mounted on the side of the truck and see cattle grazing happily as you got to eat their flesh. It was a surreal experience, and it wasn't delivered with irony. I mean, why not show the abattoirs?
Q: Hot dogs are one thing, but some of the food seems so labor-intensive. How do these mobile purveyors do it?
Edge: They do what restaurants do: They break down the dish into components and figure out how to assemble mise en place just like a restaurant would. But it's impressive. In Austin, Texas, I saw a truck make fried avocado for tacos, coating it in panko so it became this savory and texturally interesting alternative for vegetarians. At a place in Madison [Wis.] I write about called the Dandelion, they do peppers stuffed with artichoke crema.
Q: Did any particular ethnic cuisines out there surprise you?
Edge: I would say that there was nothing I was surprised by, per se, but I didn't expect to see ceviche on trucks as much as I did. In Birmingham, Ala., they're four hours from water, and just last week at a taqueria truck, I had a great ceviche tostada for $2. I also had ceviche from a van in Miami. There's an Ecuadorean guy who travels around the area of the city where all of the building-supply stores are located, and he makes ceviche à la minute for the workers.
Q: You write pretty frankly that cupcakes annoy you. What other overexposed trends did you find?
Edge: You see a Korean taco truck, a banh mi truck, a grilled-cheese truck, and a cupcake truck in almost every city. They're like the four horsemen of the food-truck world. And yes, cupcakes are overexposed, but when you have a really well-made one, it's great. As the phenomenon matures, I think we will find more people doing local food, a truck doing a really good job with a Philly cheesesteak, let's say, instead of a Korean taco. I was in Nashville last week and saw a truck that had taken one of the city's signature dishes, super hot-fried chicken, and putting it on biscuits with sausage gravy. So many restaurants are interpreting regional foodways now, so I could imagine that trucks won't be far behind.
Q: So what's your next project?
Edge: If you'd asked me before I went back on the road for this book tour, I'd say I know what the next project is going to be. But since I've been back on the road and revisiting cities, I'm finding food trucks are still incredibly compelling to me. Who knows? Maybe I will keep writing about them.