With recent news that even Paris has one, food trucks are certainly in vogue these days. In the U.S., they're now spreading from the hot scenes in Los Angeles and New York to smaller cities, like Milwaukee and Madison. Even school systems are jumping on the food truck bandwagon.
Southern food historian and writer John T. Edge set off on a road trip to discover what mobile chefs were cooking up and came back with The Truck Food Cookbook -- part recipe collection, part travelogue and part social analysis of the food truck frenzy.
I caught up with him at a taco truck in Birmingham, Ala., where we sampled the tostado de ceviche at Taqueria Guzman. The truck is parked at a Texaco gas station, just across the street from Steel City Bolt and Screw.
Edge is director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi and tends to view food through a cultural prism. He admires the composition of the tostado. "The bracketing of the avocado slices, the chop of the cilantro on top. It's not low-rent food," he says. "It's artisanal food ... on a foam plate."
But at $2 a taco, it is artisanal food — fast and within reach for just about anyone in Birmingham. Secretaries, hospital workers and Hispanic construction workers line up at Guzman's truck.
"It's a really democratic portrait of America," says Edge. "And in the same way that lunch counters were this great democratic space in years past, the democratic space where people of all walks of life are eating at trucks now."
His book includes recipes for Kogi tacos from the famous Los Angeles truck of the same name. There are fried Brussels sprouts from Austin, Ethiopian lentils from Madison, and a quirky Hawaiian treat from Seattle called Spam Musubi, which Edge describes as "a little lozenge of vinegared rice, with a slab of pan-fried soy-sauce doused Spam on top, wrapped with a piece of nori."
It's one thing for aspiring chefs to peddle their plates on the street, but what's the appeal of this cookbook for those of us just trying to get dinner on the table between homework and the soccer fields?
Edge says it's a natural fit when you consider that truck food cooks are working in really small spaces, with a limited number of ingredients, and with little time. "Sounds like a home cook," he says.
Here are a couple of recipes from The Truck Food Cookbook that might make family dinner a little more fun.
Grilled Cheese Mac And Cheese Sandwiches
These sandwiches, inspired by The Grilled Cheese Truck, are all about texture. But they're about goofball creativity, too — about adding cheese to cheese in an act of righteous excess. Optional additional fillings served at The Grilled Cheese Truck include caramelized onions and pulled pork.
Makes 2 sandwiches
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 slices white bread or Texas toast (see note), toasted
4 slices sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup macaroni and cheese (use your favorite recipe or, God help you, crack open a box)
1. Heat the oil on a griddle or in a large skillet set over medium-high heat.
2. Top all the slices of Texas toast with a slice of cheese. Spoon 1/2 cup macaroni and cheese onto 2 of the slices of bread and top each with one of the remaining 2 slices, cheese side down. Place the sandwiches on the griddle and let cook until the bread is nicely toasted, 2 minutes. Carefully flip the sandwiches and cook on the second side until the macaroni and cheese is warmed through and the Texas toast is golden, 2 minutes more. Reduce the heat if the toast is browning too quickly. To serve, cut the sandwiches in half on the diagonal.
Note: Texas toast is just white bread cut in double-thick slices. It's great for toasting.
Travel in Hawaii and you'll notice these tiles of rice and Spam, bound in wraps of nori, displayed in hot boxes on the counters at neighborhood convenience stores. Spam is a vestige of World War II, when canned meat rations fed soldiers stationed on the islands. In this musubi recipe, inspired by the Marination Mobile, those pink slabs of pork get a quick fry in a pan and a douse of soy.
Makes 8 musubi
1 can (12 ounces) Spam
1/4 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons mirin (sweet rice wine)
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
4 sheets of nori, cut in 2-inch wide strips (see notes)
4 cups cooked sushi rice
Furikake (see notes)
1. Remove the Spam from the can and set the can aside. Cut the Spam horizontally into 8 equal slices. Cook the slices in batches in a skillet over medium-high heat until a crisp crust forms on both sides, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer the cooked Spam to paper towels to drain.
2. Combine the soy sauce, mirin and sugar in a small saucepan over medium-high heat and let come to a boil. Reduce the heat so that the soy sauce mixture simmers, then add the drained Spam slices, turning them to coat completely. When the soy sauce mixture has thickened, use a slotted spoon to remove the Spam from the pan. Discard the soy sauce mixture.
3. Remove both the top and bottom from the can of Spam. Place a piece of nori on a work surface. Position the Spam can upright on one end of the nori. Using the can as a mold, fill it with some of the rice, pressing down on the rice with your fingers until it is about 1/2 inch thick (it helps to moisten your fingers with water when doing this). Sprinkle furikake (see notes) over the rice, seasoning it to taste, and top the rice with a slice of Spam followed by another layer of rice. Press hard on the rice to compress it. Carefully remove the can. Wrap the nori around the rice and Spam, moistening the ends with a bit of water to help seal the nori. Repeat with the remaining nori, rice and Spam, then revel in the porky goodness that is Spam.
Notes: The Sushi Chef brand of nori is widely available; it comes in .45-ounce packages.
Furikake is a Japanese condiment made from a combination of flavorings including ground dried fish, sesame seeds and seaweed. It can be found at Asian groceries or ordered online.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
With recent news that even Paris has one, food trucks are officially in vogue. Here in the U.S., they're spreading from the hot scenes in Los Angeles and New York to smaller cities. Food writer and critic John T. Edge set off on a road trip to discover what mobile chefs were cooking up and he came back with "The Truck Food Cookbook."
NPR's Debbie Elliott caught up with him, where else? At a taco truck in Birmingham, Alabama.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: We park at a Texaco gas station just across the street from the Steel City Bolt and Screw Factory. John T. Edge quickly spots the special, handwritten on a paper plate.
JOHN T. EDGE: They've got ceviche, which is great to find in a parking lot in Birmingham, Alabama.
ELLIOTT: This is Taqueria Guzman, one of the first food trucks to show up in Birmingham.
EDGE: I think I want a Tostado de Ceviche. How about you?
ELLIOTT: Let's get one of those and let's get - you tell me.
EDGE: They've got brain tacos.
ELLIOTT: I'll pass on that. We settle on Tacos el Pastor, the tostada and two ice cold bottles of Mexican coke. Owner Jaime Guzman is taking orders inside the truck.
How long have you been doing this?
JAIME GUZMAN: Like, the business? Since I was a little kid. It's been in my family for a long time already from California to Atlanta, from Atlanta to Birmingham.
ELLIOTT: Truck food has had a similar evolution, Edge says, starting in L.A. and New York, then booming in places like Portland and Austin. Now, it's a hit in a third tier of cities, like Milwaukee and Birmingham. When the food comes, Edge is impressed.
EDGE: Look how beautifully this is composed. I mean, the bracketing of the avocado slices, the chop of the cilantro on top. It's not low rent food. It's artisanal food in this place on a foam plate, you know.
CORNISH: But, at $2 a taco, this artisanal food is within reach for just about anyone in Birmingham. Secretaries, hospital workers and Hispanic construction workers line up at Guzman's truck. Bail bondsman Terry Sylvester is waiting for her regular lunch.
TERRY SYLVESTER: (Unintelligible) burrito. That's only thing I ever order. He knows exactly what I want. That's how much I come.
ELLIOTT: TV technician Thomas Lauer comes every Friday. He says it's more fun than a sit-down restaurant.
THOMAS LAUER: You meet interesting people while you're standing in line. The whole experience of standing there with everyone else waiting on your food to come up and you kind of get to know the people around the truck and that sort of thing, so the community is a big part of it.
EDGE: It's a really democratic portrait of America.
ELLIOTT: John T. Edge tends to view food through a cultural prism. He's the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi and a frequent contributor to newspapers, magazines and the Food Network. His "Truck Food Cookbook" is part recipe collection, part travelogue and part cultural analysis of the food truck frenzy. There are recipes for fried Brussels sprouts from Austin, Ethiopian lentils from Madison and a quirky Hawaiian treat, Spam Musubi.
EDGE: A little lozenge of vinegar and rice with a slab of pan-fried soy sauce doused Spam on top wrapped with a piece of nori. This is from Marination Mobile in Seattle.
ELLIOTT: It's one thing for aspiring chefs to peddle their plates on the street, but what's the appeal for those of us just trying to get dinner on the table between homework and the soccer field? Edge says it's a natural fit.
EDGE: These truck food cooks are working in really small spaces. They're working with a limited number of ingredients in a limited amount of time, which sounds like a home cook, like, you know, I don't want to go back out to the grocery store. What's in my pantry?
ELLIOTT: A recipe he's tried at home is the mac and cheese sandwich inspired by the Grilled Cheese Truck in Venice, California. It's macaroni layered between two slices of cheese and white bread buttered and griddled.
EDGE: When you bite in, you get this textural symphony. You bite in and you get the crisp toast on the outside, the gooey cheese, then the chewy pasta. I mean, it's goofball food, but my son, age 11 - he's a happy goofball while eating it.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: John T., you're up.
ELLIOTT: Now, we're at the Shindigs truck in Birmingham. Co-owner and chef Chad Scofield says the truck moves around to different parts of the city and updates its menu daily.
CHAD SCHOFIELD: Today, we have a Willis burger, which is the grass-fed beef with a creamy gorgonzola, bacon, blueberry (unintelligible).
ELLIOTT: All served on a locally made sweet potato bun. Bob Carlton orders one.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Would you like a side salad or the fries - the truffle fries with your burger?
BOB CARLTON: Yeah. The truffle fries would be...
ELLIOTT: Carlton is the food writer for the Birmingham News and has been watching the food truck scene here gain in popularity.
CARLTON: I just think the idea of getting something fast and, you know, getting it relatively inexpensively and, you know, being able to walk outside your office and there's the truck there. And also I think there's a huge cool factor. It's like, you know, we're a real city now. We have food trucks, you know.
ELLIOTT: Cookbook author John T. Edge says foodies can now test that cool factor at home, no wheels required. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: To sample recipes from "The Truck Food Cookbook," visit NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.