New York Food Trucks: Taking a Bite Out of the Big Apple
Food trucks may be all the rage in New York, but “mobile dining” in “The Big Apple” is as American as apple pie. From “street vendors” who served our Founding Fathers, to today’s New York food trucks taking hungry customers on a culinary tour of the world, “The City That Never Sleeps” is the perfect embodiment of our nation’s centuries-long “food revolution.”
New York is inextricably linked to food, representing the city’s social and multicultural history through the centuries. From the 17th century, when eating “shellfish on the streets” was the hottest trend; to deliciously innovative New York food trucks of the 21st century, “street eats” are part of what makes N.Y.C. home to some of the world’s most diverse dining options.
NEW YORK’S OYSTER OBSESSION
New York’s food trucks are as sophisticated and culinarily adventurous as some of the world’s trendiest restaurants, but at a fraction of the cost. From trucks dedicated to making you feel like it’s The Roaring 20s serving up Italian Prosecco and craft cocktails, to trucks bringing fusion cuisine from the streets of Seoul and Tijuana right to Midtown.
But, the earliest known street foods in New York were oysters and clams that came straight from the harbors Henry Hudson discovered when he first arrived in New Amsterdam in 1609. According to Untapped New York, they first became delicacies after European settlers were introduced to them by the local Lenape tribe. Oysters became so widely popular in New York that by the turn of the 20th century, over one billion were being pulled, in what is now the Gowanus Canal, each year.
One of the most notable pioneering figures in this era was Thomas Downing, a former slave who moved to New York City in 1825 and opened up an oyster catering business on Broad St. in 1825. Downing’s “oyster house” soon became one of the go-to establishments in the city and he used his success and popularity to become a well-respected activist in the abolitionist movement.
A TASTE OF HOME
Between 1892 and 1954, over 12 million immigrants passed through New York’s Ellis Island. But, escaping religious, social and economic persecution in their native countries did not mean many of them fared better once they settled in New York. Facing anti-immigrant prejudice and consigned to destitution, living in tenements in the poorest neighborhoods, immigrants of the first-half of the 20th century were forced to make their own way and fend for themselves.
New York’s early Eastern European immigrants found success as “street vendors.” Pushcarts have been weaved into the urban landscape of New York for centuries, but became a fixture on city streets across the Lower East Side when, between 1880 and 1924, nearly 2.5 million Ashkenazi Jews immigrated to New York. Mostly impoverished, Jewish immigrants made ends meet by operating pushcarts.
In 1929 alone, New York’s Department of Public Markets reported over 6,000 pushcarts in operation, which made such Jewish delicacies like “knishes” and “Kosher dill pickles” as being synonymous with classic New York cuisine.
By the 1930’s and 1940’s however, city officials began eliminating pushcart stands (by 1943, less than 400 pushcarts were in operations) for various reasons with the biggest being (that’s right) the rapid increase of automobile traffic on New York streets.
The East Side Chamber of Commerce put it bluntly all the way back in 1929. Getting rid of pushcarts would “eliminate troublesome obstacles to traffic, raising property values and relieve crowded streets.”
Simply put, New York’s pushcarts were pushed out to make way for the rise of New York’s food trucks.
FOOD TRUCK FRENZY
The first food trucks rolling around New York City streets were none other than ice cream trucks (that still get their infectious jingles stuck in our heads) in the 1950’s.
Fast forward 50 years, from L.A.’s King Taco in the 1970s to New York’s hometown heroes Halal Guys in the 90s, and food trucks have become a billion-dollar business. According to IBISWorld, last year there were more than 23,000 food trucks operating in the U.S. alone, with an annual gross of nearly a billion dollars.
New York’s food truck frenzy has reached a fever pitch, serving millions of hungry customers, who are in-a-hurry, each year. While simple fare like hot dogs, pretzels, and the intoxicating smell of roasted peanuts remain ubiquitous staples, the new wave of New York food trucks are more sophisticated and culinarily adventurous, yet remain reasonably priced. Today, you can find N.Y.C. food trucks serving authentic Ethiopian, Vietnamese, New Zealand cuisine and more.
Food trucks have also become more than an easy way to grab a satisfying lunch. Food truck catering has become the latest trend in culinary entertainment, specializing in weddings, corporate events, and even branded promotions that help brands create unique and memorable experiential marketing experiences for their target audience.
NEW YORK FOOD TRUCKS:
From the earliest days of the settlers and colonies to how it afforded minorities and immigrants the ability to become entrepreneurs and escape socio-economic prejudice, New York food trucks in 2020 are simultaneously at the cutting-edge of the mobile dining experience while also appreciated and recognized for its past.
So, take a bite out of “The Big Apple” with a culinary tour of New York food trucks and discover (in the most delicious way) the city’s rich history and cultural influence that has helped shape the American landscape.
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