That is the question.
It seems that the subject of eating on the curbside carries with it all sorts of strong beliefs about food, culture and the rest of society at large. A longer conversation between Johnson and I ensued. He was mystified by how people could feel so strongly against some of his slicker British Street Food Award finalists. “I just believe in good food” he offered. “Me too”, I replied, “and I don’t believe that a stall/van/cart needs to be cutesy and twee-ified in order to be great”. “But I like pretty”, he argued, “I think a bit of bunting goes a long way”.
But a long way to what? And for whom?
Similarly, a journalist expressed an interest in my take on what street food is last week. Upon telling him, he seemed surprised. ‘That’s not a take I’ve yet heard from the others I’ve been speaking to”. I asked to know what the others had said, whereupon he quoted the following statement:
Street food is about bringing restaurant quality food to the masses.
Oof! I floated this theory on Twitter and people were by turns, confused, horrified, incredulous.
Honestly, I don’t give a damn about bunting. Nothing wrong with the stuff and we even have some of our own eat.st branded, but it plays absolutely no part in my appreciation for the food or the stories behind that of those I consider to be truly flying the flag for its outside slinging. And to think that the twee needs to be implemented in order to soften the blow of the undeniable ‘challenge’ of street food to certain paletes is worrying. Johnson has coined this the ‘street food revolution’, full of pioneers pushing the boundaries of taste and adventure. My fear is that his may be a manicured revolution that, far from being about pushing the limits of what exists, must conform to all that is already accepted and safe.
But it’s important, during these high times of ‘street-food’ mania where the very term is threatened by parody and tokenism, that we advance in a useful way. Then we can talk about progression in Britain’s food culture and a possible revolt of that which has been before. Good food being made available to any and everyone – however it comes – by appearing more consistently on our streets and in our public spaces. Now that would be a move towards the radical for Britain’s rather blurry foodscape.
For me, this is about the battle against the bland, about a dismissal of the exclusive and how food served in public contributes to the mental well-being of a city. And it’s also about the amazing traders who slog their guts out to bring the public something worth queuing for. Take Mark here…
A Hammer-loving ex-butcher from Hornchurch who was the fastest de-boner on his team. Then an accident prevented him from continuing, and so he turned to cooking meat and slinging it just down the road on Brick Lane.
The guy is on the strip from 3am every Sunday, slow-cooking those ribs and serving them until he sells out. He smothers those suckers with a homemade scotch bonnet sauce and hands them over in a foil-lined bag.
When I ploughed through mine I became so wrapped up in them that they were gone before I’d clocked it. Lips singing with BBQ sauce heat and fingers sticky with pork shrapnel, after that I became a Rib Man fan and signed him up to the eat.st family. Off he went to the football…
…and off I went to explore Stratford (Brother in the Land-of a place), glad that London has Mark.
I resist the temptation to define, categorically, what street food is and welcome the opposing views on it. Are we growing this thing or what? If you have anything to say, I want to hear it – so that it might stop being called a ‘trend’ and start being thought of as an integral part of our urban fabric and important evolution in our food culture.
Find The Rib Man HERE
Look for him at The Thames Festival (10-11 Sept) by St Katherine’s Dock