My friend Jennifer always said it’s not a good meal unless you feel extremely uncomfortable for about 10 minutes afterwards. But there are plenty of reasons for one to feel uncomfortable, and not all of them are indicative of a good meal. For example, if the bill’s really high. Or if you’re sitting next to someone’s friend they met while studying abroad in Florence who won’t shut up about how much better the wine was back in, you know, Firenze.
Neither of those were issues at this past weekend’s 8th Annual Vendy Awards, a celebration of all things street carts and food vendors. For one, we didn’t drink wine. We had Brooklyn Lager, in cans. Also, the bill wasn’t high because the food was made on trucks and served in paper cartons. We had Phil’s Steaks (provolone, mushrooms, hot peppers) first, because it was right near the entrance. One guy I met said he’d gone to the event every year for the past five years (though he was remarkably skinny), and The Cinnamon Snail, a vegan organic truck, was his favorite to win this year’s Vendy (they wound up winning “Rookie of the Year”). They serve neither snails nor anything cinnamon, but they did give us lavender chamomile donuts and white chocolate macadamia Twinkies. Both were excellent. There were two ice cream sandwich carts in attendance — Melt Bakery, which sounds kind of anticlimactic, and Coolhaus, which sounds kind of like a discotec. Both were tasty, especially the green tea and ginger ice cream sandwich from Melt. After that, we drank another beer, and felt extremely uncomfortable.
I’ve spent the past summer writing about restaurants for another online magazine, and if you can’t tell from the copy above, I’m not very good at it. My last assignment was an interview with a pastry chef who specializes in croissants, and in listening back to the full recording, there’s a brilliant part where I say, “This isn’t like any other croissant I’ve ever had. It’s like a dense loaf of bread.” She whispers, “Do you like it?” And I reply with an emphatic, “Yes!” One way to ensure that a respectable pastry chef feels extremely uncomfortable (not the good kind of uncomfortable) after breakfast is to describe anything other than a dense loaf of bread as a dense loaf of bread.
But my problem isn’t limited to vocabulary. I can describe the hell out of an oaky afterbirth if I need to. My problem is that I don’t understand restaurant culture, or, rather, why restaurants are included within the purview of Culture with a capital C. Culture, I think, is a democratic thing. When the Franzen’s of the world bemoan the decline of literary fiction’s place in society, it’s not as though books have become any less accessible. Everyone can vote — most don’t. Music and art are the same way (the “Art World” can hardly claim ownership of art). But restaurants, or at least the Eleven Madison Parks and their brethren, which take up their pages in the Culture rags, are not. They’re for rich people. If the per capita income in New York City, according to the 2010 census, is less than $31,000 a year, and unemployment is at 10.2%, there’s no way to reconcile fancy restaurants with democratic life. It’s so drastically exclusive that to conflate fine dining with anything larger is disparaging towards the actual Culture available in this city. Being rich isn’t a problem, it’s just not interesting, and neither are the things rich people do.
There’s a halal cart on the corner of 86th Street and 5th Avenue in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where I lived up until a month ago. Any night I got home after midnight, I’d walk down to the cart and get chicken and rice. Five dollars got you a carton of the stuff, plus a falafel ball and some French fries (which should always come with white sauce and hot sauce). The guy who runs it is named Sammy Kassem — he’s 21-years-old — and it turns out he’s gone through a hell-storm of threats from local business owners trying to get him off the corner. One of them even nailed a bench onto his spot while he was gone. Last weekend, he was given the Most Heroic Vendor award at the Vendys in honor of his resolve, entrepreneurial spirit, and chicken and rice with falafel and French fries. On stage, he seemed incredibly calm. “I just have one thing to say,” he began. “Don’t give up your spot. Everyone has a right to work.” A little teary after that one.
I won’t try and spin a grand theory of civilization based on my fondness for food trucks and halal carts. But there’s got to be some metaphor to extrapolate from a bunch of entrepreneurs, many of whom are young, going out into the streets and serving tasty, eclectic foods at prices agreeable with the aforementioned census stats. There’s got to be some profound contribution to Culture that a subversive foodie movement has over the stalwarts at Jean George and Tavern On The Green (is that still a thing?). The problem is, I can’t quite put my finger on it because I just ate a bunch of chamomile donuts that I smuggled out in tin foil, and now I’m feeling too uncomfortable to think. But, of course, uncomfortable in the right way.