Sunday, April 24, 2016

Meals On Wheels: Food trucks

The chuckwagon was supposedly invented by one Charles Goodnight in Texas in 1866. His was a meal supply vehicle for cowboys herding cattle across the vast expanses of the Wild West. The food served up by the wagon trail "cookie" was rudimentary and needed to be easy to preserve. The means of cooking was likewise basic: water and kindling were used to heat food.

One hundred and fifty years after Goodnight first modified a Studebaker army-surplus wagon, the descendant of the chuckwagon has become a mobile gastronomic experience. This development was also of American origin and a very much more recent one. Economic crisis, so it is said, caused there to be a surplus of out-of-work chefs, while mobile vehicles supplying food in particular to construction sites themselves became surplus to requirements. Throw in a healthy spoonful of hip street culture, and the food truck of the new age was born.

There have of course been all sorts of mobile food vehicles in different countries and over many decades. The British roadside caff, for instance, was often a semi-permanent caravan, modified to provide hamburgers, bacon sandwiches and mugs of brackish tea. There was rarely anything particularly sophisticated about the forerunners of the contemporary food truck, with one very notable exception: the mobile catering crews for filming locations. Highly-paid actors and directors would settle for nothing less than transportable à la carte.

The food truck phenomenon, as it has become, was only first being truly observable (in the USA) some seven or eight years ago. Being American, it drew on the folklore of the truck in the country's culture, one dating back to the wagon trails and then to the enormous transport trucks traversing the nation. Along the way, this folklore acquired all amount of outlandish qualities. The food truck is an amalgam of this folklore brought up to date to create a gastronomic experience, one being exported worldwide. Hence, there is no translation. In Spain, in Mallorca, a food truck is a food truck.

On 16 May last year, the grounds of Palma's Es Baluard Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art were the setting for an event called Van Big, the first street food festival "made in Mallorca", and these English words were used to describe it, thus reinforcing the imported culture. In Spanish, though, it was explained that this was a "nomadic, gypsy" festival and one of the street - creative gastronomy on wheels. The food truck had truly arrived in Mallorca. 

There were seven trucks in all, their cuisine ranging from hamburgers to organic veg, to homemade Mallorcan and black pork and vegetarian tapas, to cakes and to ice-creams. The names of the trucks explained much: Manduka Street Food, La Pickup, El Perrito Callejero.

The Es Baluard event was a great success. And suddenly, therefore, the food trucks were popping up elsewhere. In Inca last November, for instance, the Van Big gastronomic experience took over the courtyard of the one-time General Luque Guardia Civil barracks. In addition to the "implosion" of this gastronomy, there were the trappings of a fiesta within a fiesta (or fair in the case of Inca's Dijous Bo). Music, artistic performances and what was described as "urban sketching", a sort of controlled exercise in graffiti art.

So we come to this weekend and to the Streetfood Festival Mallorca, the First Street Food Primavera in Puerto Alcudia. It started on Friday afternoon and goes on today. Trucks from Es Baluard are there, as are Kitchen on Fire and Toni's Food Truck. Music, cocktails, children's entertainment, charity events: a fiesta in its own right.

And creating a fiesta, with full town hall or other institutional support and permission, is how, pretty much, food trucks have to operate. This is Mallorca, this is Spain. Anyone fancying just taking a truck out with some food on it and parking in any old street will run up against the labyrinth of regulations for this or that. This is not the land of the truck, as might be the case in the US. Nevertheless, the food truck phenomenon is growing, so much so that there are businesses from which ready-converted trucks can be bought or hired.

At heart though, the food trucks are part of what isn't the erroneously styled "implosion" of gastronomy, as it was described at Es Baluard and in Inca, but of the explosion of Mallorca's gastronomy. Cuisine and its promotion is everywhere, and the chances are it will be coming to you, wherever you are in Mallorca. Coming to you on wheels.

* Photo of a couple of the food trucks which were at Puerto Alcudia's recent sepia fair.

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