Food From A Car: A History of Food Trucks

Written by Carly Hallman

In the modern day, metropolitan cities enjoy the convenience of mobile restaurants, eateries, and food vendors that are known as food trucks. A food truck can range from an ice cream truck to a full mobile kitchen capable of cooking gourmet to casual food on demand. The rise in the popularity of food trucks may seem relatively sudden, but that is not entirely accurate. This seemingly modern concept of preparing and serving the masses from a vehicle has its roots in more humble innovations in the distant and not-so-distant past. While ordering from a food truck is the best way to enjoy the experience, to appreciate it fully, one should learn about the history behind the phenomenon.

Chuck Wagons

Prior to the invention of the car, and subsequently the food truck, there was the chuck wagon. In the United States, chuck wagons are a grandfather of the whole mobile food experience. This is particularly true when it comes to food trucks, as chuck wagons didn’t just transport cooking equipment and food: They were a place to cook and serve it as well. Chuck wagons were first put to use in the mid-1800s when the first was created by Charles Goodnight. Goodnight, who was a prominent rancher, came up with the idea so that during lengthy cattle drives, there would be a way to feed the cattlemen. His original chuck wagon was a redesigning of a surplus U.S. Army wagon by attaching what was called a chuck box to the back. This area was fitted with a cooking space that folded down for use as a surface to cook or otherwise prepare food on. This portion of the wagon was also designed with shelving and drawers to use as areas for storage of supplies necessary for cooking. The outside of the wagon was also designed to support its purpose of being a mobile kitchen, as a water barrel was attached to the wagon bed. Beneath the wagon, wood and cow chips were held securely in place by a piece of canvas. Although the chuck wagon’s origins lie in the cattle industry, it became crucial as the country expanded west. Foods prepared by the “cookie” were typically foods that were easy to preserve and would store well while traveling. In addition, the cook would often prepare edible items found along the trail. Food items that were common served by the early chuck wagons were salted meats, beans, coffee, potatoes, and biscuits.

Early Pushcarts

Another predecessor of the food truck that predated the car and even the chuck wagon is the pushcart. Pushcarts were found in more urban areas such as New York City and Chicago. In this country, the history of this particular food vending vehicle can be traced back to the 1600s and Dutch immigrants who had come to New York City, which at the time was referred to New Amsterdam. They had little in terms of money, and this was a way for some to make money. During this time, around 1691, laws that regulated the selling of food by these vendors also started to come into existence. Initially, some of the foods that were sold by these early pushcart vendors were clams, oysters, fruits, and their own ethnic fare. Food items sold by pushcart vendors were items that did not require cooking, as carts lacked the means to do so. Pushcarts were also a source of lunches for working people in need of inexpensive meals.

Modern Food Trucks

Since the invention of pushcarts and chuck wagons, food trucks have continued to evolve with time. While chuck wagons are no longer used for cooking purposes, pushcarts and variations of them can still be found in certain cities. Hot dog vendors, for example, are a popular type of mobile food vendor that got its start in the late 1800s in areas such as Coney Island and near East Coast universities. Mobile food vendors began to increase in popularity around the 1950s when refrigerated ice cream trucks began selling ice cream and other frozen products aimed primarily at children. Trucks that carried lunches to construction workers in states across the country are most closely related to food trucks of today. These early food trucks were known by the unflattering title “roach coaches,” and they first became popular in the 1960s. The name was borne from the unsanitary conditions associated with some of these trucks. On the West Coast, taco trucks became a popular source of mobile food in the 1970s. This trend began in 1974 when a man named Raul Martinez turned an ice cream truck into the first of what would be many taco trucks in the U.S. The stigma of uncleanliness clung to early food trucks and prevented them from becoming a force in the food industry. However, during the 2000s, a decline in the economy changed how food trucks were handled and how society ultimately viewed them. During this time, layoffs resulted in the loss of jobs for many, including construction workers and chefs. This caused some lunch truck companies to shift toward a wider customer base and foods with a broader appeal. The layoff of chefs left many in search of a way to make money while still using their skills. Because food trucks were less expensive than opening a restaurant, they became a valid option for some who created gourmet menus to further broaden the appeal of food trucks. The success of these new food trucks owes much to social media sites where word spread quickly. In addition, some food truck vendors even have used social media to announce the location of their trucks on any given day if they were constantly on the move.

Inspections and regulations have played a large role in ensuring the safety of modern food trucks. Laws differ depending on the specific state, but all food trucks must be properly licensed and have all of the necessary permits as dictated by the state. Trucks must meet certain health and safety standards even before the business serves its first meal. These inspections are performed by health inspectors. Health inspectors continually inspect food trucks, often on an annual basis. These inspections may even be done at random. During an inspection, the handling and storage of the food are checked to ensure that they are not a health risk to the public. The cleanliness and overall state of equipment is also checked. Food trucks must also be safe in terms of meeting fire codes. Employees and chefs working in food trucks must also adhere to requirements such as the use of gloves. These safety measures have gone a long way of dispelling the early stigma of the “roach coach,” as food trucks are held to high standards and are generally as safe as eating in a restaurant.