Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Food Cart War '95

In the past couple of years, we've heard a lot about food truck wars, especially between the older, classic carts and the new, gourmet upstarts. Hot dog and gyro vendors have famously waged turf wars against the artisanal invaders. "These highly visible trucks," wrote the Times, "their outspoken owners and their followers on Twitter, Facebook and food blogs, have broken the code of the streets that has long kept a relative peace among food vendors."

But long before Twitter and blogs, before everyone had the Internet even, that code was broken in a little-seen 1995 movie called Party Girl.



In the movie's subplot, Parker Posey's kooky party girl falls for a Lebanese falafel vendor. His cart is parked outside the Puck Building, at the corner of Lafayette and tiny Jersey Street. When Posey first meets him, he is staring enraged at the new pita cart across the way. He curses, "They put toothpicks in falafel!"



We get a glimpse of old Houston Street (today's BP was Gaseteria, and the Accurate Envelope Co.'s ad is now a Calvin Klein billboard) and then we see the source of Mustafa's rage: a high-tech, upscale falafel cart of the future, all silver, white, and Modernist angles. The vendors are white people dressed in white. They have digital (sort of) signage, and special sauces in unmarked bottles (artisanal fixin's?).

One of the vendors is serving toothpicked falafel from a tray. The customers, eager for novelty, are lined up in excitement for this repackaged food experience.



It's an early example of carpetbaggers taking the food of poor people and repackaging it for the affluent and trend-seeking--at high prices. Today, we see top chefs serving up dishes of offal and matzo, hamburgers and hot dogs, all prepared like precious delicacies.

Why not just stick toothpicks in it? Everybody knows, toothpicks = class.



For Mustafa and the Party Girl, it's a happy ending. Pre-Twitter, she somehow manages to spread the word through the downtown party circuit, and club kids descend on the old falafel cart, leaving the newbies without customers. Today, of course, it works the other way around--hype goes to the new. This isn't the movies, and it certainly isn't 1995 New York.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

brilliant analysis - who knew Party Girl was so prescient? back when I was a food vendor, these fights were physical - including some semi-comical, semi-pathetic banging of one cart into the other. - BN

Shawn Chittle said...

Wow this is great Jeremiah! Metaphorical!

Parker is an old neighbor, I miss having her on E. 10th and seeing her out and about. Made me feel like I was in one of her movies! I kinda knew the EV and LES were getting "over" when she moved. :-(

Anonymous said...

I remember this corner back then, it is was on the way to satellite records where I used to listen/buy to the latest house/techno/trance tracks. They are gone now too.

marjorie said...

awesome post. (there's also a speech about sisyphus in the movie -- a character thinks his name is syphilis. you could say that rolling a boulder up a hill and watching it fall back down, over and over, is a perfect jeremiad metaphor too!)

i gotta watch this movie again. i used to go around saying "i would like a nice, powerful mind-altering substance. preferably one that will make my unborn children grow gills." now i volunteer in my actual children's school library. tempus fugit, man.

Penny Lane said...

Have you noticed all the fancy food trucks now ?

I am sure you have, because they are everywhere, not that's a war. Trucks vs. Carts.

Goggla said...

Time for a sequel, this time featuring underground artisanal grilled cheese!

Jeremiah Moss said...

Party Girl feels not all that long ago, but it was such a different world, a different vibe. definitely check it out.

Claribel said...

I was recently in Brooklyn (won’t name the neighborhood because it hardly matters) craving a pizza slice and was told that a pizza place nearby sells the best pizza, really amazing pizza… at $4 a slice!! I’m sorry, but when I crave a NY pizza, that is definitely not what comes to mind. Much to my relief we found the classic pizza place—fluorescent lighting, hardbacked booths, beef patties, Sicilian slice option, etc... After finishing my pizza and watching my toddler enjoy slurps of her first Italian rainbow ice, I was in heaven.

While I was waiting to order, the guy ahead of me, this big yet intimidating teddy bear of a guy, offered to pay! He wants to do it, he says, no offense intended, I look like a nice person, please don’t take it the wrong way, etc... So I thank him and let him pay, declaring chivalry is not dead, and we have a brief, nice chat. He didn’t want anyone knowing about his wonderful gesture, but I’ve gotta share this story because this is the kind of thing that no way happens at an artisanal food truck, you know? I kid you not, he didn’t share his name, he was just a guy picking up food to take home to his family. His only request was that we continue to patronize the place. Kindred spirit.

People get into what’s new and trendy, that’s obviously one side of NY, and I don’t want to knock on anyone trying to earn a living and find a creative way to do it, but I’m happy to stick to the classics and will keep patronizing them in the hopes that they can stay in business for as long as they like. I agree, who knew “Party Girl” would be so prescient? But then again, turf wars in NY? If I’ve been working my cart here for years, am I not going to tell you to take your fat truck ass off my curb and am I going to do it politely? This isn’t Portland.

Claribel said...

By the way, did anyone see the NYT article months ago reporting that Mr. Softee now has trucks in China?? Wow! Toto, we’re not in Queens anymore, I did not see that coming. If they sold the red bean blast here I’d try it, why not? I doubt the trucks in China describe them as artisanal, gourmet, upscale, organic, or sophisticated.

Anonymous said...

The best thing about Party Girl is that she finds her life's calling as a LIBRARIAN. Love that - that's an old school downtown girl.

esquared said...

next gourmet food cart trend to hit :
cupcakes in a toothpick; ramen in a chopstick; gourmet artisanal hot dogs from japan....oh, wait, that last one is actually happening

Jeremiah Moss said...

how about bacon and matzoh flavored ice cream on a pretzel stick?

Claribel said...

Toothpick, pretzel stick, sonofagun the variations are endless! I think this would make an amazing game show or board game.

I'm not absolutely sure about this, but I do believe it's bacon and matzoh INFUSED ice cream.

Jeremiah Moss said...

definitely INFUSED!

Grand St. said...

"...bacon and matzoh INFUSED ice cream."

Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.
I mean, forget it, Jere. It's Chanukah.

Jeremiah Moss said...

bacon and matzoh ice cream--definitely not kosher.

Claribel said...

http://www.shutupfoodies.com/?p=735904207

!!! How in the hell did you find that??? That is so utterly disgusting. I'm afraid but I'm buying it.

Claribel said...

They're sold out! Completely sold out of the stocking stuffers and no longer selling the Tofurkey-and-Gravy soda. It wasn't meant to be. Whew!

Claribel said...

Love that shutupfoodies site!! You've brought joy to my Friday. Somebody please batter and deep fry that Turcaken.

City Of Strangers said...

Jeremiah - Saw this movie in, like, 95 or 96. I thought it was the trendiest thing ever . . .but that was then. I'd be curious to see it now. Not just for the old scenery but because the hero goes for a guy named Mustafa . . I wonder if you could do that now.

T.

Jeremiah Moss said...

it was the trendiest thing ever back then, but now it looks quaint as hell.

Anonymous said...

May have been little seen, but it convinced me to go to library school. Ironically, I went to Pratt Manhattan, which at the time was located in the Puck Building.