American Food Trucks in the World: Street Food and Food, the Public Humanities and the Humanities

The following post was written by Brian Russell Roberts, a Faculty Fellow at the Center. 

14 September 2015

In April 2014, one of the BYU Humanities Center’s research groups hosted Yale English professor Wai Chee Dimock. During Professor Dimock’s visit to campus, she graciously sat down for an interview with our Humanities Center Director, Matt Wickman. The conversation was enlightening, often centering on what has been described as the public humanities, or, to borrow a definition from Brown University’s Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, a type of humanities that is focused on “education, research, and public engagement initiatives to connect individuals and communities to art, history, and culture.”

Responding to Wickman’s question about “the obligations of scholars vis-à-vis communities,” Dimock replied that “scholars certainly have an obligation to those people who are actually enrolled . . . but there are other people who would have wanted to enroll . . . and I think we have an obligation towards them as well.” A sense of these obligations is something that both Dimock and the BYU Humanities College have felt keenly, as reflected in our Humanities Center’s work in documenting and showcasing faculty members’ community engagement. As stated on our Center’s main Public Humanities webpage: “The public humanities represents a series of dynamic interactions between faculty, students, and communities outside the university. The global reach of BYU lends a tremendous diversity to these communities.”

For me, thinking about the public humanities and a global stage turns some of Dimock’s concluding commentary during the interview into particularly intriguing food for thought. When asked about “things happening right now . . . in the university or in culture suggesting new directions of thought,” Dimock referred to food, literature, and the public humanities: “I’ve been thinking . . . to have kind of a food truck festival . . . in New Haven. . . . Food trucks are an important feature of New Haven, so we could have that in conjunction with a class—I have a class called American Literature in the World.” Here, and in a genuinely inspiring way, Dimock’s interest in American literature’s worldwide presence meets her interest in engaging the local community. But I want to ask what would happen if the course Dimock taught were called not “American Literature in the World” but rather “American Food Trucks in the World.” And I want to ask what the subject matter in a course like this might be able to tell us—and what questions it might prompt us to ask—about the public humanities.

In the United States, of course, food trucks and street food have coalesced into a movement and craze during the past five to ten years. At its best, the movement has given rise to heightened senses of community across the country. At its worst, in my opinion, it has worked in analogy to a Hawaiian luau hosted specifically for tourists, offering a questionable sense of authenticity in response to a boutique, touristic demand. But US street food culture, like US literature, hasn’t stayed inside the borders of the United States. And after spending last semester in Indonesia, teaching American Studies at Universitas Sebelas Maret in the city of Solo, I’ve asked myself new questions about the US-based street food movement, and by extension about the public humanities.

The city of Solo has an unbroken, centuries-long tradition of street food (much longer than the US-based street food movement that hit its stride around 2010), with food prepared and sold on Solo’s streets playing a vital role in the day-to-day lives of people on all rungs of the economic ladder. In fact, in Solo, food prepared and sold on the streets isn’t called “street food.” It’s simply called “makanan” (food). For the most part, the US street food movement is moot in a culinary environment like this.

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A chicken sate vendor, stopping to fill an order, during his 11 p.m. walk through a Solo neighborhood.

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A Solo vendor preparing martabak (sweet or savory stuffed pancakes) at a stand he sets up on the street every afternoon after 4 p.m.

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Cakwe (fried dough) prepared at a three-wheeled food cart or kaki lima.

But in a massive, glossy mall that opened in Solo the month before I arrived in Indonesia, my family and I found a perfect case study for the hypothetical course titled American Food Trucks in the World. In June of this year, we met perhaps the only vendor of Mexican fusion in this city of half a million. His kiosk in the mall offers burritos, tacos, Caesar wraps, and mojito tea. The kiosk’s name is Conejo (Spanish for “Rabbit,” and pronounced “Cho-nay-joe” in Indonesian). Although it isn’t a mobile stall, it sports a pair of plastic wheels, converting the kiosk into a mock food truck. After satisfying my yen for a burrito, I spoke with the kiosk’s owner, who told me that in addition to this stall in the mall he has an actual food truck that also operates in Solo under the Conejo name. He explained that he got the food truck concept from National Geographic’s coverage of the US food truck movement, and he learned to make burritos watching Youtube. He said patrons were sometimes disappointed when they bought burritos because they thought they would be full of rice. As an American Studies scholar, I was intrigued by this manifestation of American Food Trucks in the World.

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Mexican fusion on wheels at a new mall in Solo.

A few days later, I saw a much larger manifestation of the same thing. In a patio area next to the mall, the Hello Food Fest was taking place, drawing customers with promises of “STREET FOOD – MUSIC – EAT & LAUGH.” In a city with very few expatriates, the advertisement was in English rather than in Indonesian. And in a city that has mobile and stationary food stalls thickly lining its streets, the glossy mall was offering “street food” from slick stalls on the patio? (To get a sense of this event’s relation to streetgeist, it really is worth watching this short video advertisement for the event.) A case study for the hypothetical course American Food Trucks in the World, this boutique street food festival was set up just thirty meters away from a street, Jalan Yosodipuro, where the food prepared and sold on the street is simply called food. One of my friends in American Studies at Universitas Sebelas Maret, Pak Taufiq al Makmun, had told me he was researching the way the new mall—as a recently introduced and American-ish public space—was disrupting public use of a nearby traditional gathering place in Solo, Taman Sriwedari, which hosts near-nightly performances by Wayang Orang Sriwedari, a 105-year-old Javanese dance-theater troupe. If American-ish malls may play a role in disrupting Solo’s traditional public spaces, what influence might recurring American-ish “street food” festivals (the Hello Food Fest holds its second iteration this month) have on the food of Solo’s streets?

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A chest of drawers, straddling a bicycle and converted into a steamer to make kue putu (cylindrical cakes cooked inside bamboo tubes).

To bring this back to the question of the public humanities, I want to say that I am inspired by Brown’s vision for a humanities that connects “individuals and communities to art, history, and culture,” and by the BYU Humanities Center’s vision for “dynamic interactions between faculty, students, and communities outside the university,” recognizing, with Dimock, the importance that our public humanities be simultaneously global and local. And in thinking through how humanities scholars might take part in such engagements, I want to ask a set of questions growing out of the American street food movement’s manifestations at the glossy, American-ish mall in Solo. When we as scholars take our humanities “public,” what disruptions and displacements might we inadvertently offer to humanities projects (theater, music, dance, writing, etc.) that have already been ongoing in public spaces? Are there things that a decade-old US food truck movement (or public humanities movement) might be able to teach the much longer tradition of food (or humanities) that originates in the public streets? Is “teaching” (which is one of the university professor’s structuring metaphors) even an appropriate lens for the public humanities’ relation to humanities projects that have long been public? What are the symptoms exhibited by our public humanities projects when they become boutique, precious even, set up on a glossy mall’s patio thirty meters away from the humanities on the street? Giving consideration to the exigencies and desires that would prompt the sale of American-ish “street food” in a city where food on the street has simply been called “food,” what are the demands and hopes that we invest in the term “public humanities” when we engage in public activities that might otherwise simply be described as “the humanities”?


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