For the past few years, food trailers, trucks, and carts have rivaled the traditional brick-and-mortar building as primary sources of delicious, affordable modern cuisine. In fact, take a look around the state of Texas and you’ll see cities like Houston, Austin, and even Dallas jumping on the mobile food wagon with their avant-garde takes on American street food.
In his latest book, The Truck Food Cookbook, renowned author John T. Edge travels across the nation to some of the most notable mobile food cities in America, including Houston and Austin. Below, the distinguished author discusses his experiences in compiling an exciting cookbook that includes recipes from some of the most well-known food carts, trucks, and trailers across America.
Tell me the background behind The Truck Food Cookbook.
The book really has two or three origin points. For the first magazine piece I ever wrote for the Oxford American, I had an idea of working a Lucky Dogs cart in New Orleans and writing about what life was like working on the streets of New Orleans in a hot dog cart. I did that for three nights and came away from that experience absolutely changed. I developed a better understanding of what is involved in street food. It is scary as hell to work one of those things, and I had a romantic notion of street food before that. Inspired by that experience, I opened a hot dog cart three years later called Dunce Dogs. We had natural casing hot dogs with pimento cheese, and if you wanted your cheese melted, we would melt it with these crème brûlée torches. It was goofy, but it was invigorated by this passion. Fast food doesn’t have to be bad or expensive, and I waned to contribute to that idea. I had no business doing [the cart]: I had a full-time job, a young son, and a month before we opened the cart, I got a four-book contract. It was completely ridiculous, but it was all working toward the same point, which really came to a head when I traveled to Vietnam. Great street food using local ingredients isn’t something precious over there; it’s mundane, everyday. I came home from that experience asking why we didn’t have great street food in America, and as I was asking that, this surge of street food was starting and gathering steam.
When did the idea for the book come about?
From 2009 to 2010, I was doing research for the book. Austin is an exception to this, but at that time around the country there were many cities that were developing their street food scene. I started out with a list of twenty cities that were possibilities, ended up going to about sixteen or eighteen, and settled on twelve as the primary cities. I was lucky to write this just as everything was changing.
Where all do you go in Texas in the book?
The two cities I concentrated on were Houston and Austin, and I thought about those cities as two sides of the same coin. Austin has great balance between novel trucks and trailers, but with more traditional trucks like Mexican-American tacos that don’t know what Twitter is, or honestly don’t care what Twitter is. I liked that about Austin. Houston, on the other hand, the point of interest was almost purely Mexican-American taco trucks. That was a great experience for me to see how these trucks serve the working class of Houston.
How did you get the recipes from these trucks? Did you develop these on your own, or did they hand them over to you?
That varied. I would come home with something from the truck, and in some cases the trucks were so savvy that they would have recipes ready on their website. In most cases, it was Angie [Mosier], [the photographer and recipe developer], working with the truck or trailer owner that would say “Here’s what I do. Here are the ingredients,” and we would try to codify that.
Where did you go in Austin or Houston that really made an impression on you?
In Houston, I had these really simple green bean scrambled egg tacos. After weeks of al pastor and meats, I couldn’t imagine that there specialty was green bean tacos. They were great. Also, I also admired the inventiveness of Torchy’s Tacos, whether it’s their migas inside a tortilla or using avocado as a garnish.
What else should people know about this book?
One thing I’d like to point out is that when people ask me, “Where’s the best street in America,” I always dodge that question, but you can make a good point that the cities that have embraced and supported street food, trailer food, and truck food most successfully are Austin and Portland. There is a connectivity between those two cities in terms of attitude, restaurant culture, and music culture, and I think that as we keep going and the trend evolves, I think those two cities will be the ones that everybody looks to. They are the exemplars.