A Brief History of American Street Food

It’s no secret that street food is one of the most direct ways to get to know a place. Whether you’re a bleary-eyed traveler facing down an intimidating language barrier, or simply visiting the next town over, the ease of access remains the same. Simply follow your nose once you pick up a whiff of something pleasant, take your place in a comfortingly long line (trust the masses of discerning locals), point if you have to, and voila, you’re already well on your way to experience any culture’s most important aspect: what people eat.

While street food in America certainly isn’t exclusive to New York City, the city demonstrates the microcosm of the American immigrant experience. Street vending reflects patterns of migration and demographic makeup at any given moment throughout history. Perhaps most importantly, how they have filled the stomachs of their fellow citizens over the past few centuries. The city’s dense residential populations allowed for an organic ecosystem to take hold in many neighborhoods, as vendors could easily move to highly-trafficked areas to find customers.

“Midsummer in the Five Points” — New York Public Library

Street carts in the Big Apple were an uncomplicated affair during the country’s early days. Vendors with simple pushcarts could be found hawking any number of things on most city blocks in addition to dozens of open-air markets scattered throughout the city. Through the 1700s to the late 1800s, immigrants seeking to eke out an existence quickly found opportunities vending any number of products from basic goods including milk, corn, and oysters, to carts specializing in prepared foods, such as gingerbread, pears baked in syrup, hot muffins, and buttermilk among others.

Would-be vendors often congregated in the city’s existing open-air markets, doing what they could to sustain their livelihoods. These vendor communities mirrored the waves of migration in that particular period, with the late 19th century featuring Irish, Italian, and Greeks, a large number of Jewish emigrants from Russia, Poland, and Romania, who would vend side by side with Civil War veterans, who did not require a permit to vend their products. Open-air markets could be found from the Lower East Side and other densely populated immigrant enclaves, with a push from the city to move ‘out of the way’ to designated areas under the Manhattan, Williamsburg, and Queensboro Bridges in 1913.

These informal markets formed an essential pathway that allowed immigrants with limited language abilities to begin working right away in a context that was linguistically and culturally familiar to them. However, it remained a precarious way of earning a living. Vendors more often than not were completely exposed to blistering summer heat, rain, and bitter winter storms with little protection from the elements, and no option to seek access to ‘closed’ brick and mortar markets that were off-limits due to their status in society. Furthermore, the transition to more secure livelihoods was typically not a rapid one. A study conducted in 1925 found the average vendor spent around 10 years on the streets before being able to move on to other forms of making a living.

“Frankfurter Merchant” — New York Public Library

Remaining on the fringes of the economy continued the unfortunate history of discriminatory business practices. In 1906, a “Pushcart Commission” was formed to ensure stricter enforcement of nebulous requirements that were difficult to follow and equally difficult to enact, including a seldomly-followed “30-minute rule” that stated no vendor could remain in one place for more than 30 minutes. More often than not, vendors would simply move a few feet from their previous location. Using language such as “invasion” to describe what would become referred to as “The Pushcart Evil” as agents of neighborhood deterioration through the familiar NIMBY arguments of zoning, property value degradation, and a vague notion of “cleaning up the streets” from already established members of society. It was unacknowledged that vendors sold an estimated fifty million dollars’ worth of food and merchandise annually in the mid-1920s, with nothing being done to potentially integrate this revenue into the formal economy.

Starting in the 1930s, the city government began simultaneously shutting down open-air markets around the city in addition to restricting access to permits. By 1939, only 16 closed markets were allowed to operate in comparison to the sixty that had existed in 1934, and licenses granted to vendors dropped drastically from 7,000 to 1,000, further excluding marginalized immigrant entrepreneurs from access to previously relied-upon livelihood generating activities. Although this didn’t stop determined entrepreneurs from hitting the pavement, the increased marginalization allowed for more opportunistic extortion by corrupt city officials, police, and property owners who would extract “rent” in exchange for not reporting unlicensed vendors to the authorities.

Starting in the 1980s, new waves of immigration from different corners of the globe including Egypt and Bangladesh added even more diversity to the mobile food scene. In 1983, Fatima Khan pioneered the first of what would become a citywide fixture — the halal cart, serving curries, chicken and rice, and any number of other pan-middle eastern and south Asian-inspired dishes. These days, you don’t have to look very far to find one — Currently, there are over 20,000 vendors in the city, meaning that you’re never very far from any particular national cuisine that you may be craving at a given moment.

Unfortunately, trends of discrimination remain, with harsh policies being enacted on immigrant entrepreneurs who more often than not do not have access to the necessary resources to ‘formalize’ their businesses. The old familiar language of structural violence is still used: operating without a difficult-to-obtain permit, run-ins with police, obstructing foot traffic, and complaints from already-established brick and mortar businesses are all part of the unfortunate day-to-day reality of many vendors in the five boroughs.

History lives on, and perhaps nothing has caused a more uniform crisis in the food service industry than COVID-19. It doesn’t matter where you’re located, or what kind of businesses you’re used to frequenting; there are probably multiple restaurants that you hold dear that have been forced to close their doors over the past year. This reality is particularly true for minority-owned businesses, which have less access to the support and resources they need in comparison to multi-restaurant hospitality groups and corporate chains.

It is, therefore, up to us to do what we can to help support these small business owners that enrich our neighborhoods by providing a taste of their culture. You know better than I do the culinary makeup of where you live, but I urge you to do what you can to support small business entrepreneurs during this perilous time.

Additionally, here are some organizations supporting immigrant food entrepreneurs around the country:

Street Vendor Project — Supports New York Street Vendors across the city (and inspired this article).

Culinary Incubators — Providing marginalized food business entrepreneurs with resources and guidance to become successful business owners.

Spice Kitchen Incubator (Salt Lake City)

La Cocina (San Francisco)

Hot Bread Kitchen (New York City)

CommonWealth Kitchen (Boston)

Travel, culture, and food. I spend my days working for a Culinary Incubator Program in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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