Co-authored with Noah Allison, Ph.D. Candidate in Urban Policy at The New School.

In the past few decades, street food has increasingly attracted scholarly attention and media coverage from around the world. Social scientists mainly focus on the phenomenon in contemporary developing or newly industrialized countries and discuss it from an informal economic, urban planning or public health lens, while the media often focus on regulations, food truck festivals or Michelin star street food stands. Together, they have produced a rich repertoire of concepts and themes through which street food can be studied and have unveiled the phenomenon as a nodal point where a multitude of disciplines meet.

As such, NYU’s CityFood Symposium (New York, April 3rd-6th) expanded on the rich repertoire that scholars and journalists developed by initiating cross-comparisons of case studies and themes to better understand the micro and macro contexts shaping the political, economic, social and spatial dimensions of street food vending. The result was an enriching interdisciplinary forum that examined urban street food across place and time, with additional discussions concerning methodologies and data sources, paving the way for further conceptualizations.

Krishnendu Ray kicked off the CityFood Symposium in memory of the late Sharit Bhowmik who studied the urban informal labor sector. Ray then segued into a discussion concerning the importance of examining the micro-entrepreneurship of sidewalk hawkers, not only within Food Studies, but also within other disciplines, and demonstrated that CityFood would highlight insights that call for further examinations regarding the phenomenon of street food vendors.

Anneke Geyzen subsequently presented a state of the field. She gave an overview of the main paradigms and understandings that characterize street food research and raised a number of questions for future studies. She challenged the implicit agreement scholars and media have concerning the meaning of street food and argued it should be revisited as an umbrella concept that covers the complex and layered realities the growing literature is dealing with.

Chaired by Martina Kaller, Jayeeta Sharma, Jeffrey Pilcher, Manpreet Kaur Janeja and Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria investigated the meaning of street food in the first panel. They discussed sources scholars have at their disposal to research food vendors and primarily grappled with the inside/outside blur that seems to characterize our understanding of street food. What do societies think of as street food – what is included and what isn’t – and what languages do they use? Does the concept of street food make sense across place and time?

The second panel, chaired by Mark Swislocki, looked at street food from the viewpoint of heritagization. Daniel Bender, Lynne Milgram and Fabio Parasecoli discussed how street food can be used as a vehicle to construct local identity and memory. As satay and the common sauce pot became signature foods in Singapore, everyday street foods in Baguio transformed into terroir foods as a reaction against increasingly repressive state regulations. In Italy, we additionally learned that food trucks reinterpret local ingredients and traditional dishes as a way to celebrate Italy’s culinary past.

In the third panel, Sharon Zukin discussed gender aspects that were addressed by Robert Ji-Song Ku, James Farrer and Danielle van den Heuvel. Through the lens of the pojangmacha in Seoul, drinking streets in Tokyo and female urban spaces in Amsterdam and Edo, this panel addressed the role of street food/drinks in the ecosystems of city streets and defined it in terms of conviviality, commensalism and social networking. Furthermore, the papers collectively questioned the dichotomy between public/private space and gender by pointing out the changing meaning of women’s presence in public life, as bar owners and street food patrons.

cityfood 3

The second day started with a panel focusing on community and identity. Donna Gabaccia discussed papers presented by Hasia Diner who examined the foods sold and purchased along the Jewish street in New York’s Lower East Side; by Scarlett Lindeman who illustrated how street food is the cornerstone of urban life in Mexico City; and by Anneke Geyzen who revealed food vendors’ identities with a comparative study of Brussels and New York in the 19th and 20th centuries. The panel showed that community and identity very much depend on who “the other” is. Vendors are usually represented as one social group that is marginal or marginalized vis-à-vis policy makers, but in relation to each other, they are typified by a multitude of nuances that challenge the notion of marginality.

Urban space and the city thematically structured the fifth panel, chaired by Ken MacDonald, bringing together the work of Anna Greenspan, Amita Baviskar, Jaclyn Rohel and Noah Allison. Through the lens of street food in Shanghai, Delhi, London and New York, these symposiasts touched upon the tension between urban order and street food. Together they unveiled how vendors appropriate space by their presence in the city, either materially as they set up their cart or left behind crates marking their territory on the sidewalk, or socially and culturally by offering local family foods or reproducing ethnic social activities.

The second day of the CityFood Symposium ended with a panel on gentrification, chaired by Nancy Foner. Kathleen Dunn wrote about the tension between low-income vendors and gourmet food truck owners in New York City, Amy Hanser talked about the diversification of the street food scene in Vancouver and Edward Whittall discussed the relationship between food trucks and entrepreneurial performance with Toronto as a case study. Why gourmet food trucks are lauded for the food they offer, and why policies valorize their contribution to cultural diversity in cities were the chief queries this group sought to understand.

The final panel on the third day, chaired by Joseph Heathcott, explored street food regulations and vendors’ agency. Ryan Devlin, Tiana Hayden, Mark Vallianatos and Annette Miae Kim presented papers on the legitimacy of food stands in New York, Mexico City, Los Angeles, Ho Chi Minh City and Beijing. They showed that the meaning of regulations is not a constant given, but that it is related to the micro context of a city and even specific locations therein. Additionally, they showcased methods to identify marginalized communities, which emphasized vendors’ agency and illustrated the relative power of rules and regulations.

The conference ended with a public event that featured Alfonso Morales as the keynote speaker, followed by a screening of several films by Sarah K Khan, and concluded with two panels. In the first panel, moderated by Sam Sundius, Sarah K Khan, Dave Cook and Jack Tchen discussed representations of street food vendors. Moderated by Noah Allison, the second panel brought together the expertise of Heather Lee, Sean Basinksi and Barbara Turk who deliberated on the current political reality of New York City’s street food vendors, and how their livelihoods significantly influence the liveliness of the city.

By bringing together scholars and street food advocates, CityFood raised awareness for street food vendors around the world, and the political and economic situations they operate in. One of the results is the publication of a New York Times piece by Tejal Rao called A Day in the Life of a Food Vendor, illustrating why street food vendors are vital components to our everyday lives, and reifying how food is central to issues of people, place, labor and politics.

Click here for CityFood’s full program.

Funding made possible by:

  • Institute for Public Knowledge, NYU
  • Global Seed Grants for Collaborative Research, NYU Provost
  • Grants-in-Aid for Conferences, NYU Center for the Humanities
  • Global Research Incubator Award, NYU Steinhardt
  • Challenge Grant, NYU Steinhardt
  • Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, NYU Steinhardt

CityFood Organizing Committee:

  • Krishnendu Ray
  • Anneke Geyzen
  • Jaclyn Rohel
  • Noah Allison
  • Sam Sundius


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s