“Street food is one of the most intimate ways to understand a place or culture, but cities rarely provide that experience anymore.” As we sat down to watch the new Netflix series, “Street Food,” my boyfriend lamented a noticeable absence of the same bustling street food scenes he experienced in his travels overseas here in America.
Why might that be? And what else might be lost?
At risk of stating the obvious….the United States is a younger country. It developed with newer, more “advanced” planning and design principles. It used lessons-learned from older European cities (to be clear, our founders believed they were learning from ‘mistakes’) in attempts to create better, more orderly places and streets.
As a result, however, our cities lost some of the positive qualities inherent in the fussy, cluttered streets in old villages and cities. Our search for order was successful in limiting the chaos. And that’s not exactly good news.
As the “Street Food” series explores, bustling streets in old villages and downtowns are home some of the most delicious and culturally-significant vendors. They’re a celebration of food, of history, and of people.
I’m pressed to think of similar experiences in North America. There are a few—Portland’s Alder Street food cart pods is really the only place that comes to mind— but street food simply isn’t celebrated quite as enthusiastically here. Moreover, wherever it exists, it’s the ‘Disney’ experience. Sure, we have food trucks and hipster street-side coffee and taco windows, but these are the sanitized versions of truly gritty-in-a-great-way places you’d find in, say, Thailand. Even hot dog carts in Manhattan feel like the theme-park version of something that could have been a true, place-based and people-oriented experience.
Instead, in North America, we prioritize convenience and trendiness over authenticity and personality. Even if we wanted to have something great, most permitting laws or health codes put absurd restrictions on what can be done.
Sadly, the world of street food is threatened. The Street Food series even starts off remarking on the loss of vendors in Bangkok, resulting from a sort of ‘war on street vendors.’
A recent Citylab article explains how essential street vending is to communities; yet street vending and the people who make it happen are threatened. Of the Bangkok example, author Sarah Orleans Reed writes, “[t]he government’s push to clear the sidewalks is not a long-term solution. It has left a trail of social and economic hardship and, with few alternatives…”
Reed’s piece focuses on the impact on women, specifically. “Street vending fills urban unemployment gaps, especially for women,” she explains.
Fortunately, some advocacy organizations are fighting back.
Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), for instance, released a new toolkit for local authorities. Supporting Informal Livelihoods in Public Spaces looks at street vending as a prominent avenue for lifting women workers.
I’ve only seen the first episode of Street Food. It’s not the most vegan friendly in terms of the food being prepared, but it’s true to life and true to the people who make life so interesting. It’s a fascinating picture into finding purpose in food, and sharing that purpose and passion with strangers.
From what I’ve seen thus far, it promises to be an exciting series. And as I continue to watch, I’ll continue to look to WIEGO to discover the progress they’re able to make. And to see the ways that we all can advocate for a more equitable, just, and culturally-enticing world.
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