The term “street food” is one of those culinary grab bags that evades easy definition, but we all know it when we see it. As noted by Fabio Parasecoli, street food’s roots stretch back to the ancient world and was a welcome source of nourishment in cities such as Rome, where many residents didn’t have kitchens and fire was a regular concern and occurrence. Moving through time, culinary guilds throughout Europe regulated who, what and how certain comestibles could be sold on the streets, and again, limited kitchens made the ability to buy ready-to-eat snacks essential. The need for street food continued into New York, especially with the great waves of immigration in the late nineteenth century, were the crowded Lower East Side burst with sellers of roasted corn, breads, clams, and ice creams, to name just a few of the many treats available (and which can still be found in different neighborhoods). These themes
Anneke Geyzen has spent the past year pursuing the regulation of New York’s street vendors in the early twentieth century, culminating with Mayor LaGuardia’s efforts to eliminate street vendors from New York’s teeming neighborhoods through the opening of public markets. In addition to marvelous images that evoked both the nostalgia and the desperation of these sellers, Geyzen explained the claimed public safety reasons behind LaGuardia’s campaign to modernize these neighborhoods, efforts that had very mixed reactions among the vendor classes. Fixed shop owners were often eager to get rid of the non-rent-paying vendors clogging sidewalks and competing for trade; more successful street vendors were able to rent inexpensive stalls in the new market halls and gain respectability. The poorest, however, could not afford the spaces and faced loss of their modest subsistence.
Dave Cook brought us to the present with the 21st century take on New York’s street foods. Projecting his vivid photographs of the current street food scene, contemporary street food is both a low-capital entry into economic self-sufficiency for new immigrants who bring tastes of their former homes as well as creative outlet for culinary entrepreneurs seeking to experiment with new tastes and ways of attracting clientele through social media. Cook’s love of the authentic and colorful immigrant cuisines shone through.
Participants: Anneke Geyzen, Hoover Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow and visiting scholar at The New School; Dave Cook, photojournalist; Fabio Parasecoli, Associate Professor and Director of Food Studies Initiatives at The New School, and moderated by Cathy Kaufman, Adjunct Professor at The New School and Chairperson of Culinary Historians of New York.