In retrospect, it seems inevitable that award-winning food writer John T. Edge would write a book about the nation’s food truck scene.
Edge’s first magazine piece was about three nights he spent working a Lucky Dogs cart in New Orleans leading up to New Year’s Eve. He was fascinated by the hot dog carts described in John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces.” He and a friend once tried to operate a hot dog cart in the courthouse square in Oxford, Miss., but failed miserably.
And Edge fell in love with street food on a trip to Vietnam where he’d skip the group’s restaurant meals to eat from the street carts.
“I remember sitting on a curb in Saigon with my feet in a gutter eating a banh mi sandwich and thinking, ‘Wow. This is great,’” Edge recalled. “All the ingredients were beautifully fresh. One woman was raising cilantro in a patch near her cart, not because she was a fancy pants chef trying to establish provenance but because that was a cheap way to get cilantro on her sandwich.”
Edge says the country’s food truck revolution was just beginning, so he visited a dozen cities to document the scene. Edge will be at Durham’s The Regulator Bookshop at 7 p.m. Wednesday to discuss his new book, “The Truck Food Cookbook: 150 Recipes and Ramblings from America’s Best Restaurants on Wheels.” He talked to us last week about reporting this book and eating at trucks across the country:
Q: How do you quantify the research you did for this book? Miles traveled? Cities visited? Food consumed?
I tried to go back through my notes and figure out how many trucks I went to in total. It was north of 250.
Q: What did you discover that surprised you?
Madison, Wis., surprised me. You expect there to be a really great scene in L.A. Climate is conducive, and because of Mexican-American migration, taco trucks have been part of the fabric of L.A. forever. Yet you travel to a city like Madison, which is famously cold in the winter. I remember being there in December. There’s snow everywhere. There’s people selling on the university mall at the heart of the campus. To see Madison was really kind of eye-opening. ... Madison has a city employee (and) it’s his job to work with this coterie of citizen eaters who walk around once or twice a year with their clipboards looking very efficient and kicking the tires on the carts and trying to make decisions like, “Should we have two east African carts or is that too many?”...The city’s mothers and fathers think of street food as a civic asset. That’s pretty refreshing.
Q: Is there a city that dominates in terms of food truck culture?
It might be Austin. Austin – last time I checked – had about 1,000 vendors. They may not be active all the time. There’s 1,000 licenses out there.
In Austin, there is haute truck food and there is traditional, old-guard truck food. It’s just as important and just as good. The taco trucks of Austin are wonderful. You buy a well-made open-faced taco on a freshly made corn tortilla at a great taco truck. You look at the composition on the plate. There’s a beautiful aesthetic at work: the shingle of the avocado slices across the top, the hash of cilantro, a carefulness and kind of discreetness about the toppings. I think a city like Austin is interesting because it covers the spectrum.
When we talk about this food, there’s a tendency to talk about this and watch as foie gras-peddling chefs steal in to take over this category, I think that would be a shame. The old guard stuff, the traditionalist stuff from Mexico, is just as important as the haute stuff.
Q: What are some of your favorite trucks across the country?
There are a number. The Swamp Shack in Portland. This guy, Trey Corkern, who had worked the line at Galatoire’s and grown up in New Orleans. He was making amazing crawfish pies and made his own creole cream cheese. ... I think about the doughnuts from Chef Shack in Minneapolis, which are cardamom-spiced doughnuts with a really kind of muted, dusky curry flavor. I think about a very simple but by no means simplistic corn flour tortilla made in the moment topped with fat curds of scrambled eggs and blanched runner beans that I had at the Taqueria Las Palmitas in Houston. I think about the morning burger at Only Burger (in Durham).
All those dishes are representative of the best of what this food is, which is someone doing a couple or three things really well. It’s the modern equivalent of a barbecue joint. You don’t trust a barbecue joint that serves chips and queso. You trust a barbecue joint that says: “We got hush puppies or white bread. Which one do you want?”