The American Civil War created more long-lasting change than uniting the north and south and abolishing slavery. As early settlers headed west, many relied on meals carried and prepped in chuck wagons. What we can now fondly consider the first domestic food trucks, these mobile kitchens were said to be the invention of infamous Texas cattle rancher Charles Goodnight—though dubbed “chuck” wagons after the slang term for food, not after Mr. Goodnight. Water barrels and dry goods like coffee and beans were staples in the wagons, which accompanied groups ranging from intrepid travelers to cowboys driving herds west.
The transition from frontier provisions to metropolitan meals was a seamless one, as street food vendors in other parts of the world have long offered hot-meal options in otherwise underserved urban areas. America’s foray into portable food culture also coincided with the industrial age, giving chuck wagons space to evolve into the urban mobile kitchens we know and love.
Yellow umbrella-topped hot-dog pushcarts have been a New York City street staple for over a century. In the City of Angels, tamales have been hailed as the city’s original street fare. Before the widespread use of home freezers for novelty treats, ice cream trucks carted icy goodies through neighborhoods, their clanging bells signaling to children (and their kid-at-heart parents) that it was time for a snack.
Regardless of the dish served, by the mid-20th century, food trucks became part of American blue-collar culture, parked near construction sites to offer affordable, quick warm meals to exhausted workers. Mobile food service was also a necessary part of World War II, with nomadic canteens, which resembled today’s food trucks, popping up near battlefields and bases.
Advertising savvy ice-cream vendors introduced iconic delivery drivers in the 1950s, most notably the Good Humor Man, known for always politely tipping his hat to the ladies; it was company-mandated etiquette.
Food to go go where you are are
As the century rolled on, food trucks kept momentum alongside the evolution of outdoor multi-day tent revivals, summer music festivals, and site-specific gatherings like Burning Man.
In the past four years, we’ve seen explosive growth in the number of food trucks on streets and in parking lots in the U.S., as aspiring chefs and restaurateurs looked to catering trucks as a low-cost way to advertise and earn loyal customers before funding a brick-and-mortar café. Cooks laid off from fully stocked kitchens have also found new careers behind portable stoves, keeping their skills (and ingredients) fresh.
While their cuisine may not bring enterprising truck proprietors together, their business models do. Come lunchtime in many cities or on college campus side streets, Korean street food, cupcake bakeries, and Mexican pupuserias line up alongside one another, a diverse food court of flavors and entrepreneurial ideals.
Not everyone has embraced the resurgence of street vendors. In Chicago, restaurateurs unimpressed that the competition can literally drive up to their door have pushed back and lobbied for bans on mobile cooks. The city passed rules making it easier to operate a food truck, but making it nearly impossible to find a location from which to operate. In contrast, Portland, Oregon, embraced them fully several years ago, and now has over 500 trucks serving food on any given day alongside a vibrant restaurant scene.
In most cities, food trucks are required to get long-term parking permits just like any other vehicle. Not exempt from health and safety codes, food trucks are required to obtain operating permits but also submit to health inspection. Yet no amount of regulations can slow their growth.
Last year and for the first time, Zagat added a food truck reviews category, legitimizing street eats for the first time. Even food-free industries have taken cues from the boom as mobile shopping trucks stocked with the latest fashions have become yet another mobile movement to borrow from foodie culture.
Much like chuck wagons have long been seen a symbol of rugged individualism and American westward expansion, food trucks have heralded the can-do spirit of recession-era entrepreneurs. Food trucks of today may not traverse hundreds of miles and feed weary cowboys, but they often crisscross urban jungles, providing sustenance to hungry cubicle refugees.
Today’s mobile kitchens typically park in “streat” (sorry) corrals or “pods” with other food trucks—in Portland, these can fill parking lots—and use social media to broadcast their current location to lunchtime crowds. Wondering where the local kebab truck is parked today? Check its Twitter page.
It may not be Manifest Destiny, but some might still call it progress.
San Francisco-based journalist Brittany Shoot, the managing editor of The Magazine, writes about fascinating people and far-flung places. She is a contributing writer to Mental Floss, Spirituality & Health, and Sojourners, and also writes for magazines including Time, San Francisco, and Islands.
This article was produced by The Magazine, an electronic periodical that commissions original articles and essays. We publish regularly at Medium, and produce an issue of five (sometimes more) thoughtful features every other week. A subscription to our issues costs $1.99 per month for two issues or $19.99 per year for 26, and includes free access to over 160 past articles — our full archive. You can get a free seven-day trial via our iOS app or our Web site to try us out.
Banner photo by David DeHetre.