A lamb curry taco from Grumman '78 in Montreal. Not a bad start, but it can't be the end if Montreal's street food project is going to get real. Photo via 514 Eats.
As those who are attentive to gastronomic rumblings in Canada are doubtless already aware, a few weeks ago it was announced that Montreal is finally lifting its 60-odd year ban on street food, although it is so doing in as perversely over-regulated and ass-backward a fashion as la Belle Province can muster (Quebec, I mean, not the fast food chain). The city will be granting a small number of permits, exclusively to pre-existing restaurants and caterers, and apparently only to those that will provide food of a quality “highly respected and renowned” that showcases the gastronomic excellence of Quebec. Vendors will be restricted to food trucks per se (no carts, wagons, etc.), and the majority of the food preparation will have to occur off-location, ie: not in the truck itself.
What all this amounts to is that Montreal's recently self-identified foodies will finally get to enjoy the opportunity to stand in line for twenty minutes to pay $9 for a pork belly sandwich, thus catching up with the rest of Western civilization in realizing the ineffable and irreplaceable gastronomic qualities of “something that was in truck at some point.” Don't get me wrong, I myself have doubtless at some point or other uttered the meaningless statement “I LOVE STREET FOOD,” unconsciously attempting to meet the social expectations to be agreeable without bothering to take a minute and a half to figure out what I was actually saying. For there is an important distinction between “liking Street Food,” as code for the current obsession with tacos and banh mi, and actually being interested in supporting the culinary space that is opened up by the permission of public, mobile, food-vending.
And this is the point that is completely missed by Montreal's approach to food trucks. Arguably, what is important about street food is the opportunity it provides for people who don't have the resources to open up a full-scale restaurant to make some kind of a living through food (important in the “big picture” sense; it is also important because of how vastly it improves the quality of life of wasted people, obvs.). What is interesting about street food is that, partly due to the lower overhead, a greater flexibility is allowed – street carts can afford to cater to the specific and sometimes obscure culinary inclinations of particular neighbourhoods, communities, or cultures, and the material and logistical constraints of how to prepare and serve food on the fly can produce mutations and innovations in local culinary practices, even if it's as simple as “Fuck it, let's put it on a stick.” In this way street food comes to constitute a lively and often idiosyncratic part of the foodscape of a city.
Montreal's food truck plan explicitly precludes the former, which if one is even remotely sensitive to questions about cultural appropriation, constitutes a pretty undeniable symbolic “fuck you” to the poor people and immigrants upon whom street food has depended, basically forever. And even if you're completely indifferent to that side of things, the idea that the vendors are going to be selected on the basis of some city wonks' idea of what the culinary identity of Montreal is supposed to be should give anyone pause. The city is supposedly proceeding with due caution in light of the colossal failure of Toronto's similar A La Cart pilot program, but what is truly creepy is the consonance of this with the project of asserting a particular Québecois identity that must be carefully tailored and maintained, protected from threats both internal and external by an elaborate scaffolding of regulation and legislation.
Toronto's shitting of the bed notwithstanding, they at least still have street meat, and similar projects started in Calgary and Vancouver have met with some success in recent years, in spite of the attendant profusion of puns and extreme spelling (Perogy Boyz, Feastro Urban Bistro, Fasttrac Fusion, etc.). While both cities have a pretty restrictive licensing and regulatory apparatus, the number of vendors and the locations in which they are permitted to operate continues to expand, with Vancouver's food carts growing to nearly one hundred since the pilot was initiated in 2010. Of course, it is still to Portland and Williamsburg that these look for inspiration/administration, rather than Bangkok, Mexico City, or Kerala, the grand dames of eating on the street.
So it's hard to predict exactly where this Montreal thing is going to go, but it already has the earmarks of a bad tourism venture, with a bunch of administrative yahoos trying to manufacture a cultural identity and say “this is Montreal” instead of opening things up and actually finding out what the place is all about. I mean, big ups to the Grumman '78 folks for fighting the fight to at least get the bylaws changed, but it's got to go farther than this, which as it stands threatens to be but a precious and privileged promotional exercise, and a nullification of what makes street food a vital and relevant force in the culinary life of a city.
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