Street food is for masochists.
Not the food part. As food, street food is as good as any other food, and sometimes better.
I mean the street part.
Why does street food -- sold outdoors and meant to be eaten there as well -- exist? Because around the world, millions of people need it. They have neither the time nor funds to eat in ordinary restaurants. They have neither the time nor funds to take their takeaway away. They lack the sorts of homes where one can eat enjoyably. Or they lack homes.
Thus street food is survival food for those who have no choice. Whether these millions who are eating tacos whose tortillas they watched being made by hand on streetcorners, eating fried spiders bought from brimming bowls at outdoor-market booths and eating noodles served from carts would choose to eat these things at all, or eat them while walking, sitting or standing on the sidewalk we will never know.
But we can't ask them, because we generally aren't on chatting terms with them, and not just because of the language barrier.
Meanwhile, street food is hipster-chic. When namedropping a favorite food truck or describing having waited half an hour on line for a twelve-dollar chèvre-fennel samosa handcrafted by someone just like you, which you then ate rapidly because you became so hungry standing on that line and then cheese was melting down your arm -- in such discussions, you must say loudly enough for everyone nearby to hear: "I love street food."
You have to say it in a tone boastful and challenging, blasé and giddy, elitist and falsely humble, as in "I love street food. I love eating outdoors among strangers with my hands. Don't you? Because those kimchee sliders, OMG!!!!!!"
As in: Street food is food for laborers who have no choice. By not just eating it myself but announcing my love for it, I prove my solidarity with all those laborers while those who eat indoors at ordinary restaurants reveal themselves to be ignorant redneck hicks or One Percenters, both of which do not in any way resemble me.
One says "I love street food" while nodding sagely, shuddering with pride and speaking with a calculated lilt that sounds offhand.
Street food is class war -- vicarious, sublimated, spritzed with jalapeño mayonnaise.
Despite how tasty any particular street food might be, and despite the viability of food trucks as a means by which skilled chef-entrepreneurs can gain a following when they can't yet afford to open their own restaurants, the soaring rise of street food as a concept is part of a social trend I call Gilt Guilt.
It afflicts those who are ashamed of being rich.
In troubled times when jobs are scarce, they enjoy making money. (Who would not?) They are your neo-tech types. Trustifarians. Executives, administrators, engineers, developers. Your sleek downtown types with their startling San Francisco and Silicon Valley salaries. Their bank accounts tell them they're rich. Their academic and political consciences tell them that rich people suck. How can they reconcile these inconvenient truths? How can they enjoy the delicious artisanal meals they love without looking or even feeling rich? By making themselves suffer, visibly, while spending lots of money on this food which they then eat fitfully while crouching on curbs. Jostled by strangers. Getting grease stains on their clothes.
This is self-torture, evoking the mortifications favored by medieval saints-in-the-making who wore itchy hair shirts, ate spoiled fruit and scourged themselves with barbed whips to shun comfort, thus proving their piety.
Watching the Gilt Guilty eat while inhaling fumes from vehicles driven by people poorer than themselves who are enroute to indoor restaurants, you can see their foreheads gleam with not just sweat but sweet relief. I'm authentic, they think.
Street food is our era's dis-comfort food.
Pretending not to notice the roar of nearby traffic and the spit and litter at one's feet is stressful, as those millions eating street food in Kingston and Jakarta would tell you.
One day last week I ordered lunch at a takeaway-only place in downtown Oakland -- not a truck or kiosk, but a tiny brick-and-mortar slot with a counter and stove. We who waited on a long line that streamed through the doorway onto the sidewalk stood inches away from diners who had already received their food and carried it outside to eat while standing, strolling, perched uncomfortably on bike racks, bus-stop benches, curbs. Shoppers and workers bustled past. Trucks backed up. Litter swirled coquettishly along the street. My sandwich was exquisite, lushly stuffed with grilled onions and cheese, but very challenging to eat outside, without a table. This was not its fault.
I envied everyone who worked and/or lived near enough to this spot to actually take their takeaway away. Watching my fellow street-food eaters grinning as they tilted back their heads and pushed deftly made, costly food into their mouths while standing up, I wondered: Are they faking it? Amidst this hubbub, we can't savor every bite. But we can hear the freeway. We can smell hot asphalt, garbage and exhaust. We have no privacy. Who, with a choice, would want to eat this way, and why?
My sandwich deserved better, and I pitied it.
All photographs by Anneli Rufus.
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