Years ago, I made a living of sorts by cleaning out horse stalls at a race track. Every day, at 10:15 in the morning, a truck would come by to signal the morning coffee break, and I would have a cup of tea and a honey bun which, if I remember correctly, cost me 74 cents.
Since those days, the food truck has had a special place in my culinary heart. It’s not that I looked so forward to the food truck — I just looked forward to a half hour outside the stalls.
So now, no matter where I go, I go looking for the Chinese / Italian / Austrian / English / Bahamian version of the food truck and the shengjian mantou / panzerotti / käsekrainer / Cornish pasty / conch fritter that substitutes for the honey bun. And I leave behind what I shovel in exchange for a taste of something better.
A pandemic that may well involve a virus that is airborne, loves crowded bars and may well be best battled by eating alone, or in very small groups, has brought the food truck back into its own. But it has a bit of an uphill battle. When you set up shop in a place on the edge of a windy prairie, for a relatively short season, among people with wildly different tastes and who, now, have to stay 6 feet away from each other, there are factors that need mitigating.
The Korean food truck in Moorhead, where you could get your bindaetteok in the subzero dead of winter and eat it all by yourself in your pickup, is gone. So, I took a trip to the Red River Market in downtown Fargo on its opening day last Saturday, July 11, to see what might be there.
Lots of people were there, for starters. Most were wearing masks and most, out of habit by now, keeping their distance. Of course, 15 years ago, this was pretty normal among Midwesterners, the social distancing part anyway. But times have changed and, thanks to a rich mix of cultures that call Fargo-Moorhead home today, keeping our distance isn’t second nature anymore.
And this mix shows itself in the food truck assortment at the market. Typical American bakeries share the parking lot with African food, and vendors of deep-fried waffles park themselves next to Mexican offerings. Juice merchants with exotic mixes of flavors are options along with lemonade peddlers, and coffee stands are parked alongside breweries.
It’s a nice mix. And it bodes well for the food truck because it solves one of the most pressing problems food trucks present to the adventurous diner: Where are they?
Facebook has solved some of the problem by providing up-to-the-minute news for a lot of the food-in-motion part of our culinary scene. But you have to know that a particular truck exists first, or, in the case of the Egyptian diner I tried to find last weekend, that it doesn’t exist anymore.
There are some drawbacks that show themselves in places like the Red River Market. First, and it’s no fault of anyone’s, there isn’t even the venerable wooden cable spool to put your dishes on while you eat. Until we are all more-or-less healthy again, we’ll have to stand in the middle of a parking lot or sit on the back steps of Romantix.
And some foods just don’t lend themselves to standing around. An African salad in a waffle bowl tucked safely in a paper bowl and a wooden spoon, that works. Rice in a cardboard takeout box is a little more difficult. Italy has a rich tradition of street foods, but some of what we have come to accept as Italian food just doesn’t come across on the street very well.
A lot of cultures have histories of street food designed for quick, fresh, hot delivery not designed for, but well suited to, pandemic dining. So everyone adapts.
Your best choice? It may be the good old-fashioned American hot dog. Hot, fresh, relatively cheap and sold off carts, at ballgames, in parks, on street corners, at fairs, markets, festivals and picnics all over the country. You can stand 6 feet away, and no one thinks less of you.
So hats off to food trucks, curbside pickup, door delivery and hot dog carts everywhere. You stood by us in the bad times. We’ll still be standing in line in the good times.
If you go
What: Red River Market
When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. each Saturday through Oct. 31
Eric Daeuber is an instructor at Minnesota State Community and Technical College. Readers can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.