Food History: The History of Food Trucks

food trucks

Where do our favorite dishes come from? In our ongoing series ‘Food History’ we take a look at classic dishes and their roots, this time we step away from a specific dish and look at our all-time favorite food trend: the history of food trucks. 

Creme brulee carts and tacos sold in Airstreams. Nothing has become more synonymous with modern American food culture than mobile food trucks. There are entire festivals devoted to them, reality shows, and many a restaurant has launched a mobile version to supplement their brick and mortar locations. You might think food trucks are a catchy trend fueled by hashtags and the underground food movement (one that even the corporate world loves), but mobile food delivery is certainly nothing new.

Push carts date back to the infant days of the United States; New Amsterdam, now known as New York City, began regulating mobile food vendors in the late 1600s. But as many an American food-related custom does, the modern day food truck finds its roots in the heart of Texas. It was here in 1866 that ranger Charles Goodnight solved the problem of cooking well while out on cattle drives: he outfitted a United States Army wagon with kitchen accoutrements and began dishing out ample servings of fresh meat and coffee. A cowboy’s culinary dream. The chuckwagon – which you could call America’s original food truck – was born.

Beyond its push carts, today’s foodie metropolis New York City was an early comer to the food truck game as well with its Night Lunch wagons. In 1893, in an attempt to better feed the working class, the Church Temperance Society invested in a wagon that served meals from 7:30pm to 4am, giving workers a food option beyond the local saloon.

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Much like today, the wagons were a budget friendly restaurateur option: the cost of outfitting a lunch wagon and opening it up for business was around $600. Today Henry Ford’s infamous 1890 Night Owl Lunch wagon is still in service, and believed to be the last remaining horse-drawn lunch wagon of its kind.

The United States Army started feeding its troops with mobile canteens in the early 1900s, and in 1936 Oscar Meyer rolled out its first portable hot dog truck, The Weiner Mobile. About the same time, Good Humor hit the streets with its first truck selling “ice cream on a stick.”

hot waffles

In a culture that quickly grew to love drive-thrus and fast food, it’s no surprise that mobile food took off in the way that it did. Even waffle carts were a thing before Portlandia was ever born, as witnessed in New Orleans in the 1940s.

Lunch carts and ice cream trucks soon became a standard occurrence–you know exactly what that chime on infinite repeat means when you hear it out your window–and in 1974 Raul Martínez founded King Taco, repurposing an ice cream van to start selling mobile lunch food, purportedly the first taco truck in the nation. Nowadays you’ll find food truck offerings everywhere from Anchorage to Austin in everything from Airstreams to Smart Cars.

It’s a business that isn’t always easy, but combine a slow economy with the appeal of buying creative fast food and there’s no doubt that food trucks are here to stay.

Check out more of our Food History series.

Image: Robert Neff, The Henry Ford, Louisiana Division/City Archives, New Orleans Public Library

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