For some reason, food always tastes better on the road. There's something alluring about mini, mobile food establishments. Whether they are rugged, homey stands along the country highway, or the fast, efficient and ultra-compact food vendors scattered about city street corners, they can be irresistible.
Although street vendors thrive around the world, especially urban areas in Asia and the Middle East, the vendors in the United States reflect the quintessential American melting pot. Throughout the immigration waves of the late 19th and 20th centuries, immigrants without strong English skills or much education increasingly found success as street vendors. As a result, Americans have been exposed to ethnic food on the street.
New York is perhaps the city most known for its street vendor food. And even there, the city has not always embraced the practice. Because they crowded the streets, the city started enacting laws restricting food vendors as far back as the 17th century [source: Simopoulos]. And today, a fair amount of politics surround street vendors -- partly due to the bureaucratic complexities of getting a proper permit. In exploring them for her New York Times article, the writer Julia Moskin found that many street vendors would not seek legal redress in battles against other vendors (and would not even talk to her on the record) lest authorities inspect them [source: Moskin].
And with the modern concerns about food safety and health, vendors are facing as much criticism as ever. But despite the adversity, street food remains enduringly popular.
Getting Fresh: Produce Stands
Perhaps the oldest kind of food vendor on the street, fruit and vegetable produce stands remain a ubiquitous sight along country roads. Few can resist the occasional stop along the highway to pick up fresh berries in the Spring or pumpkins in the Fall. With an old-fashioned appeal, fresher produce and often cheaper prices than grocery stores, produce stands aren't likely to fall out of favor anytime soon.
But produce stands haven't been restricted to rural areas. Even as recently as the 1930s, horse-drawn wagons traveled to urban areas from neighboring farms to sell the farm's produce [source: Simopoulos]. Although they are less common than fast-food stands, you can still often access produce stands in the city today, often through farmers' markets set up in city squares on weekends.
Produce stands are a great way to access local produce, which is especially popular lately because it is considered better for the environment. When you consume produce close to wear it is grown, you theoretically "save" greenhouse gasses that would have been produced when transporting it.
A Middle Eastern Treasure: Falafel
Cosmopolitan urban dwellers in the United States have embraced many worldly treats, borrowing a few traditions from the vendors of the Middle East in particular.
This includes one of the most popular snacks on the streets: falafel. If you've never had falafel, or even if you have, you may not know exactly what it is. Falafel is commonly made from chickpeas or fava beans (and often a combination of the two). It is mixed with spices and water, and the mixture is molded into balls or patties that are deep-fried. They are often enveloped in pita bread for easy utensil-free consumption.
New York City's love of falafel was evidenced in the 2010 Vendy Awards, when a falafel vending cart called "King of Falafel" won the top prize. Since 2005, the Vendy's have been an annual competition in New York City between street food vendors, and falafel vendors are consistently among the finalists.
The popularity of falafel among Jewish people in Israel after World War II has caused them to claim falafel as Israel's national dish. However, many Palestinian Arabs believe their culture better deserves the credit for falafel [source: Pitcher]. But credit for an older ancestor of the falafel may go to Copts, early Egyptian Christians, who ate a similar snack during Lent, when they were abstaining from meat [source: Roden].
Mexican Snack: the Taco
In the 160-some years since the United States acquired Texas and other Southwestern land that borders Mexico, the country has grown a deep affection for Mexican cuisine. Numberless Mexican restaurants dot the highways of the Southwest, and are always good for a quick, tasty meal. And cities all over the country are full of street vendors dishing out Mexican snacks. The demand for the food and the proliferation of Mexican restaurants and vendors have been further fueled by the influx of immigrants from Mexico.
Perhaps the most popular Mexican treat for street vendors is the taco -- a small, simple tortilla-wrapped snack with a choice of meat, often beef, chicken or pork. Also usually tucked inside are cheese, lettuce and tomato. Common accompanying condiments include salsa, hot sauce, sour cream or even guacamole. Interestingly, the soft tortilla taco is more authentically Mexican, whereas the hard-shelled tacos are an Americanized Mexican food, as are nachos [source: Smith].
An American Staple: the Hot Dog
Because so many foods were brought over or perfected by newly assimilated immigrants, it's hard to classify many food items as authentically American. The hot dog is one of these disputed foods.
The hot dog, in all its simplicity as a sausage on a bun, has captured the hearts of Americans since the 1860s. They can be served with all the trappings of ketchup, mustard, relish and onions. Others prefer sauerkraut and even chili on their dogs.
Making them closely associated with another American pastime, hot dogs are sold in the stands during baseball games. And, of course, they are perhaps the most common food sold from street vendor carts across America. Street vending, in fact, is probably where the American hot dog got its origin, when Coney Island vendor Charles Feltman started selling sausages on buns [source: Smith].
Although Americans like to claim it as their own, the hot dog is a clear descendant of the sausages from Eastern Europe. Consider, for instance, the hot dog's German-sounding alias "frankfurter." Whether putting it on a bun qualifies Americans as the true inventors is a matter I'll leave to you, dear reader, to decide.
Answer to Our Prayers: Pretzels
Because the American pretzel industry has its roots in the Pennsylvania Dutch, Philadelphia is the city most known for soft pretzel vendors. However, they are also extremely popular in New York City and cities all over the country.
Soft pretzels are baked bread snacks in a unique twisted shape, usually topped with either salt or sugar and served with mustard. However, not many people know its holy history.
Although the exact time and place is disputed, one of the most likely stories of the pretzel's origin dates back to a 7th century German monk. Supposedly, the monk concocted the pretzel's unique shape to make it look like arms crossed in prayer. The monks then gave a pretzel out as a "little bribe" (from the Latin word, pretiola) for school children who learned their scripture [source: Patrick]. Other accounts say the monk was in Italy; however, the name that stuck came from the German, "bretzel" [source: Smith].
And pretzel street vendors are nothing new either: One historian cites a baker in the 15th century who wheeled around an oven selling pretzels [source: Snodgrass].
A Southern Favorite: Roadside Barbecue
Barbecue is a food soaked in Southern culture. Innumerable roadside restaurants and stands along the highways of the South can be detected from a mile away from the aromatic smoke billowing from them. In fact, barbecue has been associated with roadside grub since the inception of the car [source: Jakle]. These roadside locations proved to appeal to hungry travelers and also were inexpensive compared to urban areas.
Essentially, barbecue is slow cooked pork (usually pulled pork or ribs) and, less commonly, beef and even chicken. It can be slathered in sweet and tangy "barbecue sauce" or dry with spices.
Many find barbecue so intoxicatingly delicious that they'll make road-trip pilgrimages to the famous spots in search of the best barbecue. The American South also hosts several annual barbecue competitions. Indeed, the hours of cooking needed to perfect many barbecue recipes is testament to how much people love the dish. Smoking meat for barbecue can often take anywhere from four to 16 hours.
A Philly Tradition: Cheesesteaks
As much as Americans love hot dogs, it is possible to get too much of a good thing. One can probably guess how quickly hot dog vendors themselves can get sick of them. That's what happened to hot dog vendors (and brothers), Harry and Pat Olivieri.
The brothers ran a stand selling hot dogs in the 1930s. The story goes that Harry concocted the original steak sandwich one day for Pat when he was working the stand and couldn't make it home for dinner. Harry brought him some steak and a loaf of italian bread. When a cab driver, equally sick of hot dogs, saw what the Olivieri brothers were eating, he wanted one for himself and offered to buy it.
The brothers became successful selling what was called at the time "steak-wit" -- short for steak with onions. Because so many customers were Jewish and ate Kosher, the brothers didn't introduce cheese in their sandwiches until later (melting it separately before pouring it on for customers who wanted it) [source: NPR].
Today, the restaurant they started, Pat's King of Steaks in Philadelphia, is still very successful, despite fierce competition right across the street. In 1966, Joe Vento opened a rival cheesesteak shop, Geno's Steaks, across the street, whose die-hard patrons say is better and cleaner.
You'd never guess it from looking at it, but the humble potato yields some of the tastiest, and profitable, snacks. Often a side-item for roadside sandwiches, french fries are easy and filling finger food for when you're on the go. They are deep-fried potatoes that have been cut lengthwise, topped with salt and usually eaten with ketchup.
Despite their name, historians don't think French fries had their origin in France, but rather Belgium (where they make up half of the national dish, along with mussels). The name probably came from the way they were cut -- long and thin. Or, some speculate U.S. soldiers eating them for the first time in Belgium during World War I mistook the French-speaking Belgians for French.
Somewhat surprisingly, the baked potato is now a popular street vendor food in New York City. Customers like to load it with butter, cheese, sour cream, chives or even chili.
After you've satisfied your hunger with a street meal of meat and potatoes, you might be craving a dessert to complete your day on the road or walking through the city. Lucky for those of you with sweet-tooths, dessert carts are increasingly popular.
Cinnamon buns (aka sticky buns) are another specialty of Philadelphia vendors. They are dough that has been rolled up with a cinnamon-sugar filling and cut into slices before being baked. Known as "schnecken," cinnamon buns are believed to date back to the Middle Ages and share a similar lineage to pretzels, coming over to America through the Germanic heritage of Pennsylvania Dutch.
Cupcakes, previously associated with simple home-baking, are now very fashionable and have even crossed over to gourmet thanks to popular posh bakeries, according to author Krystina Castella. As a result, cupcake carts have popped up on streets all over the country. Dating back to at least the 1820s, they were a quick and easy alternative to baking a full-sized cake [source: Castella].
We All Scream for Ice Cream
Few things represent an iconic American childhood so well as the thrill of a coming ice cream truck. Unlike the other roadside vendors we've discussed that try to attract passers-by, this is one will come to you. Throughout the 20th century, wagons, vans and trucks have wandered through suburban neighborhoods, ringing bells or playing music to attract customers.
It would seem that something that needs to be kept cold would be an unlikely food for a street vendor to carry. However, don't underestimate Americans' insatiable desire for the frozen treat. Even before modern refrigeration, wagons would come through towns selling ice cream that they kept cold in buckets of ice [source: Simopoulos].
The Good Humor ice cream truck, still popular today, dates back to 1902, when it was sold from a motorized wagon. What would eventually be known as the Eskimo bar, an ice cream bar dipped in chocolate, was invented in 1919 and wildly popular for ice cream vendors [source: Quinzio].
Although we haven't nearly exhausted the kinds of food you can get by the side of the road, you can bet there are choices for almost every preference, taste and passing whim.
Curious about where to begin a great motorcycle trip? Read about classic motorcycle trips in the United States at HowStuffWorks.
- AP. "Philadelphia's Geno's Steaks Adopts English-Only Ordering Policy." Associated Press. Fox News. June 8, 2006. (Oct 13, 2010) http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,198757,00.html
- Castella, Krystina. "Cupcake History." Crazy About Cupcakes, 2006. (Oct 13, 2010) http://www.crazyaboutcupcakes.com/learning.htm
- Jakle, John A., Keith A. Sculle. "Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age." JHU Press, 2002. (Oct 13, 2010) http://books.google.com/books?id=0nYcgnWKWXgC
- Moskin, Julia. "Turf War at the Hot Dog Cart." New York TImes. June 30, 2009. (Oct 13, 2010) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/01/dining/01truck.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all
- NPR. "Harry Olivieri, Philly Cheesesteak King, Dies." National Public Radio. July 21, 2006. (Oct 13, 2010) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5573992
- Patrick, Bethanne Kelly, et al. "An Uncommon History of Common Things." National Geographic Books, 2009. (Oct 13, 2010) http://books.google.com/books?id=bcaXzXPP8ooC
- Pitcher, Jeffrey M. "Food in World History." Psychology Press, 2006. (Oct 13, 2010) http://books.google.com/books?id=GcwgxnOBXwMC
- Quinzio, Jeri. "Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making." University of California Press, 2009. (Oct 13, 2010) http://books.google.com/books?id=9OEmdcwYhfEC
- Roden, Claudia. "The New Book of Middle Eastern Food." Random House, Inc., 2000. (Oct 13, 2010) http://books.google.com/books?id=2eIA5SrLXVcC
- Simopoulos, Artemis P., Ramesh V. Bhat. "Street Foods." Karget Publishers, 2000. (Oct 13, 2010) http://books.google.com/books?id=QQgwVl22fXkC
- Smith, Andrew F. "Encyclopedia of Junk Food and Fast Food." Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006. (Oct 13, 2010) http://books.google.com/books?id=4jIOEZ5F9fAC
- Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. "Encyclopedia of Kitchen History." Taylor & Francis, 2004. (Oct 13, 2010) http://books.google.com/books?id=D7IhN7lempUC
- Walter, Carole. "Great Coffee Cakes, Sticky Buns, Muffins & More." Random House, Inc., 2007. (Oct 13, 2010) http://books.google.com/books?id=HCygqxJdoU0C
- Zanecosky, Althea. "French Fry Facts." Scholastic Choices. Nov-Dec, 2005. (Oct 13, 2010) http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_hb3415/is_3_21/ai_n29217448/