We rarely consider where we eat. From the home kitchen, restaurant, café, to the outdoors with picnics and street food, the place where you eat is important. It can influence the type of food you eat, who you interact with, what you talk about, and even how the food tastes. Through the lens of food, we demonstrate the importance of place and space in your identity. We focus on the social and cultural meanings of street food, including the food rituals and etiquette.
In any urban context, the street is a theater. Food trucks tempt passersby with specialty foods such as Korean BBQ and Belgium waffles, as well as daily baked pitas and freshly baked cookies and cakes. Colorful truck displays and alluring smells– maple cinnamon to smoke and rosemary—compete for lunch tickets. Pushcarts sell hot dogs and cool drinks, markets’ produce spill out onto the streets, and cafes offer beverages, buttery croissants, and a seat to watch it all.
The street is where you can discern the patterns and communications of a neighborhood. Consider the Jewish expression “Shikt dayne oyern in di gasn” or “Send your ears into the street.” It means: be aware not just of the street but find out what is really going on inside the homes of the neighborhood. Food trucks, delis, and grocery stores serve as places of social encounter and information exchange. You can find work, post gigs, and make announcements via local groceries and delis.
As the architect Louis Kahn famously noted, “A street is a room by agreement,” meaning synergy is created by the buildings, businesses, pedestrians, and other travelers and their means of communication. In the neighborhoods of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc., the culinary streetscape engages all senses to bring a walker into a food world.
Street food provides safe spaces to connect. Whether pausing to eat or grabbing to go, pedestrians communicate with and acknowledge one another, however brief the nod. Francis Lam, host of the Splendid Table podcast, describes street food: “it makes you feel anonymous, maybe weirdly intimate. You can eat and be on your way. Or you can end up finding out the most personal details of the person next to you, scarfing down tacos.”
There is a freedom in talking with a stranger. The anonymity, the knowledge that we’ll never see the person again, frees you from having to meet expectations. Studies have shown that people self-disclose more on internet discussion boards, behind which one can define his/her own identity. Street food itself encourages a sense of authenticity. The open grills and kitchens made visible through the order windows provide a model for the talk among its diners.
On a practical level, street food meets the need of urban dwellers for fast, ready-to-eat food. Portable, hand-held street food provides a quick refueling of the body, and if the space is right, of mind and spirit. In cities such as Austin, street food parks have been established with wooden benches, courtyards, and trees shading diners. A rotation of 1,000 food trucks come and park, serving up an incredible variety.
The appeal of ‘fresh’ and ‘natural’ rather than convenience foods makes street food considered a ‘proper meal.’ Food is cooked rather than cold or heated up and involves methods of preparation. A ‘proper meal’ also is defined in terms of the social context, in which meals are eaten together with others. Street food is to be eaten immediately, resulting in a space, a “room” for communal eating around the food vendor. Street food helps to create and sustain a community.
By exploring street food, we consider the influence of food on space. Food makes place. This foodscape is not just foods alone; it includes the performance and display associated with food. It includes the intentionally created productions, like delis and food stores, as well as incidental culinary displays, perhaps the traveler passing by with a sizzling hot grilled cheese in hand. Through food, we see how performance creates space and space itself performs.