The Joy of Food Out of Context

I think it’s about time David Lanschner gives me my turn with the orange juicer. In my very first entrepreneurial effort, my high school friend and I decided to enter the world of street food vending, and that juicer was a core feature of our business.

We lived in New York City before the island of Manhattan was made over into a Disney version of itself; becoming a food vendor didn’t require anything more than running down to Chambers street and buying a license.

So I took my meager savings earned as a messenger after school, David ponied up a similar sum, and we headed down to the Bowery, then populated exclusively by homeless people and restaurant supply stores, to purchase what we needed to start a business selling fresh-squeezed orange juice and croissants.

We came back to my apartment with a low metal cart onto which we could mount a wire-frame basket to hold oranges, a cutting board that could also be mounted on the cart that would double as our juicer platform, and a hand-operated orange juicer.

The juicer was an old-school model, one you might expect to see on Lucy and Desi’s counter top or operated by Charles Atlas. It was upright, made of metal and featured a simple crank handle. Half an orange would be put into the juicer at a time, the handle would be cranked, and the orange would be robbed of juice that we’d serve in cheap plastic cups bought at the dollar store.

The whole process was a little bit of theater for our customers while they waited. Croissants were picked up from a local bakery every morning and stored on a shelf under the orange basket: boxes of light, buttery pastries, still warm and waiting to be served on thin paper plates accompanied by napkins adorned with red or blue or green vegetable patterns.

Juicer

As I recall, ours was a cross between these two

Every morning we’d push our cart from my parents’ apartment on 32nd street to the corner we considered ours, on Park Avenue in the 50s. A perfect spot we’d found, surrounded by offices and in front of a plaza with low stone walls on which our customers could sit and enjoy a mid-morning snack, take a smoke break, and linger with friends as long as they dared before heading back inside their climate-controlled cubicles where poorly brewed coffee and plastic wrapped hard-rolls slathered with butter were the common culinary offerings.

Oddly, it never occurred to either of us that serving street-temperature orange juice might be a bad idea. And as it turns out, it wasn’t. We had no shortage of customers at our little stand, and when we disappeared from our corner I’d like to believe we were missed, at least until the Sabrett guy showed up and took over.

I’d expect that’s due more to the inherent appeal of street food than to the quality of our offerings (though I remember those croissants as some of the finest I’ve ever eaten). Going out to a restaurant is predictable: the building is always in the same place, the food rarely changes, the wait staff is, for the most part, interchangeable with the staff from down the block.

The real crux of the matter, though, is that dining at a restaurant is eating in context; it’s what you expect when you walk in the door, it’s why you’re there. Most restaurant experiences comes with standard elements: a table with (hopefully) comfortable seating, someone to attend to your needs, a controlled environment of sound and light, other diners seated within a napkin-throw of your table, and luxuries like silverware, plates and glasses. The experience allows diners to concentrate fully on their meal, perhaps their dining companions as well, with no distractions and no worries about where the next glass of water is coming from.

Street food is food out of context, which makes it far more interesting. It’s a falafel stand near the beach, real barbecue on a city sidewalk, a taco truck on a deserted stretch of road. It’s smoke pouring off a grill where no grill is expected and it’s a pot of seafood stew ladled out to waiting locals a short block from trendy tourist-filled restaurants.

It’s a mystery, a surprise, and sometimes a gamble, but it always triggers my curiosity and a deep desire to stop, see what’s cooking and then eat it. Some of my almost Pavlovian response may be down to nurture, not nature: it was imprinted on me at an early age that transposing an experience’s venue from indoors to out could often make the unbearable bearable, make the pleasurable border on magical.

Every spring in the Northeast there’s at least one day where the sky is so blue and the breeze so perfect that even a walk to school becomes 20 minutes of perfection despite the destination. On those days, the giddiness would so affect everyone that requests to hold class in Central Park or on the school’s roof might actually be granted. Even teachers, it seemed, knew that you can improve anything by taking it outside.

It wasn’t just the obvious improvement to teaching environments (though probably not to their efficacy) that helped form my appetite for relocating traditional indoor activities to open air.  Street food was a standard part of New York life, and I learned early that even simple meals like hot dogs and hot sausages from street vendors, despite bearing the unfortunate nickname “dirty water dogs,” were as pleasurable as steaks if eaten while taking a walk through the city.

Slices of pizza, crisp on the bottom and nuclear hot on top, ordered from a pizza parlor’s sidewalk window were also regular city meals. Eaten while sitting on a stoop or a bench with friends would make a slice as perfect a meal as any I’ve had at a fine dining restaurant. Because the food isn’t necessarily the star, or even the primary focus – the environment is. As long as it isn’t lousy, the food is complimentary to an already pleasurable moment, and the eating experience is improved immeasurably.

Chicken waffles in Austin at 2AM

Sometimes though, if the food is good enough or timely enough, it’s not the environment that elevates the food, it’s the reverse. A lousy morning can be turned completely around with the discovery of a great outdoor lunch, and finding a food truck delivering delicious meals well after midnight can calm nightlife-jangled nerves and revive someone exhausted from a late shift at work.

One of my favorite meals in recent memory was in Austin Texas at 2 AM, sitting around a makeshift fire in a deserted lot after a day of music, eating chicken and waffles with new friends. The food was great, and the empty city lot may as well have been a luxury restaurant overlooking the ocean.

Of course the best experience is when environment and quality street food combine in a perfect storm of culinary enjoyment. An example: Taco Loquisimo, located at the Oceanside Farmer’s Market in Lake Worth. Chef Anthony Sanders, along with three partners, runs the waterside taco stand every Saturday from 8 AM to 1 PM, offering a changing menu every week.

Both photos taken with a cell phone – neither do the food justice

Mr. Sanders, whose day job is chef and consultant at Café Cellini, uses Taco Loquisimo to get creative, cooking up $3 tacos every weekend using ingredients dictated by whatever fresh meats and veggies he happens to get his hands on that week. Pork belly, steak, chicken, fried fish, vegetable, even egg and sausage tacos have made the menu, and I haven’t found a bad bite in any of them.

These things are more than tacos, they’re delicious and creative small plates, eaten amid the smell of the grilling meats and a fresh sea breezes, the sound of laughter and conversation in the air on a sunny south Florida morning: a perfect street food experience.

My partnership with my high school friend didn’t last long. Pushing a metal cart from a mile in each direction quickly lost its charm. New York City streets are famously lousy, and our business venture pre-dated the city’s economic recovery; between the potholes in the streets, cracks in the sidewalk, irritated pedestrians and psychotic taxi cabs the daily round trip was a fairly horrific experience. I also preferred to spend my summers anywhere but in the city, so I was a short-timer on the island once school ended.

When we dissolved our venture, I ended up with the juicer but had to agree to give it to David after I’d used it for a while. Something I’d quite forgotten when he actually tracked me down and appeared at my door five years later to explain it was his turn to use it. That was over 20 years ago and I haven’t seen it since. My love of street food though, is as strong as ever.

 

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