Monday, June 3, 2013

The American Dream at its Best: Immigration and the Food Cart Phenomenon by Becca C.-S.

“Portland has always been a food culture,” quips Brett Burmeister, blogger for Food Carts Portland. If you walk through downtown Portland, you’ll see evidence of it: in the old brownstone restaurants advertising classics like Autumn Meringue pie, the new-agey pizza shops painted in neon colors, the Japanese-style sushi houses with conveyer belts of California rolls. What make the Portland food industry unique, however, aren’t the rows of restaurants lining every street, but the pockets of food carts on sidewalk corners, transforming the food culture from a collection of buildings into something more intangible, something that hangs thickly in the air no matter where you are, just as the smells of the cart’s food do; on any street downtown, you can smell juicy veggie bratwursts and Lebanese chicken kebabs, French fry-topped falafel sandwiches and tempeh with peanut sauce.
Like the food they sell, the owners and cooks come from all corners of the earth; Vietnamese, Caribbean, Cuban, French, German, Israeli, Indonesian, Himalayan, Polish, and Turkish immigrants all converge in food cart groups called “pods”, each pod a collision of cultures and ethnicities that make Portland’s food culture truly distinctive and original.
Walking down a block-long pod, you see people selling food from trailers decorated with tea lights, trucks powered by solar panels, little pushcarts in bright colors, and everything in between. When you finally pick a cart to eat at, you stand at the cart window and watch the cook make your food instead of sitting at a table, removed from the kitchen. Maybe the cook starts up a conversation with you while you’re waiting for your food, and tells you about how she arrived in America, or when she first became involved in the food business. When your food arrives, as you say goodbye to the owner, she asks you to like her cart’s Facebook page. Of course you say yes.
But it’s not just the consumer’s more personal connection with the cart owner that makes these carts special; it’s what the carts represent for the owner.
The bright blue cart Sok Sab Bai stands on a small lot in Southeast Portland on Clay Street and 11th, the only colorful building amongst rows and rows of bare white concrete warehouses and pale office buildings. The cart isn’t far from downtown, but is secluded in a tiny industrial island, removed from the quaint boutiques and busy malls just a few blocks away.
The owners, Nyno and Tina, are simply dressed. Both are short and lean, with coffee-stained skin and mile-wide smiles; they might look like siblings instead of fiancés, if not for their eyes—Tina’s are a glossy emerald, Nyno’s are a sweet chocolate, but they have the same glint of gentle kindness.
When I arrive at Sok Sab Bai, Tina, half-Korean and half-Hispanic, is asking a group of young men for their orders. They answer in a language I can’t understand. Nyno waves at the men from inside the cart, shouting a reply in the same language, those brown eyes crinkling into a grin. He bustles around, pulling exotic spices from the wall—star anise, cinnamon, more kinds of pepper than I knew existed—and adding them to a pot on the stove nestled in the back of the cart.
I order jasmine tea while I wait for Nyno and Tina to finish up with their customers. The tea comes out piping hot, burning my tongue when I try to swallow it down, but it feels good in the cold. I sit at a table in front of the cart as Nyno finishes his stew, the smell wafting over to me on the frozen autumn air. I study the murals on the cart while I wait, mentally tracing the bold lines of the painted images painted: Buddha, eyes closed and hands clasped in his lap, rays of fiery sun flashing on his back in bright paints of reds and yellow, green plants growing at his feet; the traditional Cambodian apera hand dancers prancing and pirouetting along the bottom edge of the cart, painted into airy white and green costumes; a golden Angkor Temple. I smile; even in this almost-empty corner of Portland, amongst a stretch of concrete and warehouses, here is a nugget of beauty. 
“To decorate the cart, we put together some things that remind Nyno of his culture,” Tina says once she’s finished with her customers, slender spider-like hands pointing out the different pictures and the little Buddha figurine resting on the cart’s windowsill.  Nyno was born in Cambodia, but was forced to flee with his family when he was a toddler. “He left because of the Killing Fields,” Tina says. I’m ashamed to admit to her that I don’t know what the Killing Fields are, but Tina doesn’t seem offended, and explains it to me with a somber look on her face: “it was one of the biggest genocides ever” (Sanchez). In a population of 8 million, 2 million died at the hands of an oppressive regime called the Khmer Rouge (CNN). “Everyone was pretty much murdering all the people that were either educated or wealthy,” Tina says matter-of-factly, a quiver just barely detectable in her voice. Nyno’s educated family had no choice but to leave the country. “I am a huge supporter of Cambodian culture, but now, it’s just not thriving because of what happened” (Sanchez). “They tried to wipe out our race,” Nyno says, the laugh lines around his mouth disappearing as his face becomes serious (Thol). He speaks easily, with not even a hint of an accent, catching me off guard; I’d expected him to be less, well, American, and more of a foreigner. Yet he still carries remnants of his time in Cambodia, mostly memories and family stories; traveling through the jungle to escape, “[Nyno’s] mom had to give him alcohol sometimes so he wouldn’t cry. And his mom swallowed jewelry and everything because if they found anything of value on you they’d kill you and take everything that you had”. Nyno and his family made it safely to a Philippine refugee camp, where they spent two years waiting to be sponsored to come to the United States. Twenty-eight years ago, an ex-police man living in Portland sponsored them (Sanchez). “My family came to Portland because that’s where our sponsor lived,” Nyno says. “We didn’t really have a choice where we went” (Thol).
Even though Nyno came to Portland by accident, the city proved the perfect place for Nyno to get into the food business; names Portland a “food cart haven”, home to more than 500 food carts serving everything from Argentinian choripan to Vietnamese salmon spring rolls (Sonntag). There are two secrets to the success of food carts in Portland: first, Portland boasts the smallest blocks of any U.S. city. Though no one is quite sure why Portland founders Asa Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove planned their city with such tiny blocks, these small blocks are “uniquely perfect for the micro-retail phenomenon of food carts” (Rodgers & Roy 7). Believing carts to provide “community benefits to neighborhood livability by fostering social interactions, walkability, and by providing interim uses for vacant parcels” (Urban Vitality Group), Portland officials have worked hard to encourage food carts and utilize these small blocks. Consequently, Portland has very permissive food cart regulations: there are no limits on what can be sold from public carts and, out of the 50 largest cities in the United States, Portland is one of only a few that hasn’t restricted where food carts are allowed to park (Frommer et al. 16). Portland’s very definition of “food cart” is extremely flexible: as long as it has wheels, it’s a food cart. This flexibility allows carts to stay stationary and gain a loyal following of regular customers, and for pods to build up (Rogers & Roy 22). Portland is the perfect storm of good urban planning and a city government that understands the value of food carts, a utopia for aspiring food cart owners wanting to set up business.
Although food carts in Portland have only been popularized over the past few years, food carts have been an integral part of the city for decades (Burmeister). In 1912, the Italian-born U.S. immigrant Joseph Gatto opened the first food cart in Portland. Determined to make a name for himself, Gatto sold produce door-to-door in Sellwood and Northwest Portland. Gatto incorporated his cart business into a produce warehouse, and in 1935 the SE Portland Gatto & Sons wholesale produce company was born.     Gatto proved an important precedent: he showed that immigrants could make a name for themselves in the food business, using food carts as a means to establish a reputation, gain customers, and earn money to move to a larger storefront (Brooks).
A century later, the average cart owner today is still a first-generation immigrant to the U.S., and is still using his or her cart as a stepping stone to a larger storefront. Sure, cart owners today sell their food from trucks and trailers instead of horse-drawn wagons like Gatto did, but the carts themselves represent the same thing today as they did a century ago: an accessible way for immigrants to experience the American dream.
“That’s what’s so great about food carts,” says Brett Burmeister. “They are so egalitarian”. Food carts are the perfect opportunity for immigrants coming to America without much money but still wanting a better quality of life: the carts are easy and cheap to start (a used cart can cost a mere $2,000), unlike brick-and-mortar restaurants (Brooks), and still promise the same opportunity for self-sufficiency and upward mobility a restaurant would, earning an owner profits of $30,000-$50,000 a year (Rodgers & Roy 74). As an added bonus, food carts often involve work similar to what the immigrants did in their home country (Frommer et al. 3) and, unlike most jobs, lack a language requirement: “[to] immigrants—particularly those with limited English—[who] may find it more challenging to navigate the traditional job market…[food carts offer] an honest and profitable way to make a living” (Rodgers & Roy 71). Food carts really “fill a niche…[and] offer equitable economic opportunities” for immigrants (Urban Vitality Group), so much so that “it is [now] practically impossible to separate selling food on the street from the immigrant experience in the United States” (Brooks). Especially in Portland, opening a food cart is the real, true American dream, an option available to anyone and everyone with $2,000 willing to work hard and wake up early to prepare the food. Through the carts, immigrants like Nyno have the opportunity to make a name for themselves in a country that isn’t always too welcoming to foreign workers (according to Pew Research, 48-52% of Americans believe immigration hurts our country [Pew Hispanic Center]). Cart owners will readily admit that the food cart business is “not the easy ticket to life” (Rodgers & Roy 74) but, as Tina says with satisfaction, “it’s great being your own boss” (Sanchez).
As one of the targets of the Killing Fields, Nyno “didn’t come from a poor family”, but opening Sok Sab Bai allowed him to “experience the American dream” (Thol). “In Cambodia, people don’t move from class to class; it’s like you’re either really, really poor or really, really rich. There’s not much in-between,” says Tina. “And, sure, there is an education system, but the thing that really sucks is that you have to buy all your books, and if you can’t buy your books you can’t really go to school”, so all the education and wealth is concentrated within one class (Sanchez). Even as a member of a wealthier family, Nyno says he “never really had much” in Cambodia (Thol). Portland, with its “DIY perspective” and love of food (Burmeister), offered him the opportunity to start his own business, a business recently named one of Portland’s best new food carts by Oregon Live (Sanchez). “I think for us, since we have a niche, it was a little bit easier [to become successful], because you can’t really get Cambodian food anywhere else,” says Tina.
Unlike Gatto, Tina and Nyno aren’t using their food cart to save money for a restaurant; Nyno already has a restaurant, and wanted to open a food cart because he could be more independent. “He just thought that another restaurant can be a lot of headache sometimes,” Tina says. “You have other employees that might not really want to do the work that you want to do.” It also helps that Tina and Nyno are out on their own, and not part of a pod. “There are certain pods where you have to have certain menu items and it kind of restricts you,” Tina says. “Not being part of a pod makes it easy for us because we get to do what we want, and kind of just make whatever we feel like eating,” she smiles (Sanchez).
Most food cart owners in Portland aren’t as fortunate as Nyno and Tina, and are using their food carts as ways to open their own restaurants, not as ways to get away from their own restaurants. As all food cart owners know, “street food is the ultimate small business that can lead to so much else” (Burmeister).
Take PJ and Auginne Alphonso, two sisters hoping to someday open a restaurant. Both from the Philippines, they own the cart Kain Tayo (“let’s eat” in Tagalong). Their cart—really just a square metal box embellished with the red, white, blue, and yellow Philippine flag—is small, but makes good business, catering mostly to Filipinos. “We set up in Portland so we could be near all the Filipinos: the ones from Vancouver, Beaverton,” PJ says, her voice high and smooth and Americanized from her twelve years in the U.S. “There’s a lot of Filipinos in Portland. They’re just hiding.”
Driving by, I almost miss the squat little cart; tucked inside a gravel parking lot, cast into the shadows of the Vietnamese restaurant next door, Kain Tayo looks like little more than a colorfully decorated tiny trailer. ------3----- PJ, a big woman dressed in dark jeans and a dirty black T-shirt spattered with peanut sauce, welcomes me in through an opening in the back and sits me on a big cooler inside.
“Is it okay if you just ask me questions while I help a customer?” PJ asks, already beginning to chop up a plantain. Her customer—a young Philippine woman in the window—waves at me. “Sure,” I say, not sure it would have made a difference if I had said no. “You can sit there,” PJ says, pausing her chopping to point at a little cooler beside a refrigerator on the far wall. I stay standing, clutching my bag and staring dumbly at the cooler.
“Go ahead, take a seat,” PJ says, pointing again.
I sit, awkwardly perched with my bag on my lap, crossing my legs to try to look professional atop my cooler, my limbs feeling too long for the small space. The refrigerator to my right leaks water into a puddle at my feet, which I try to ignore as I look around the cart.
PJ and I barely fit inside the tiny kitchen together; a huge iron stove takes up most of the room, steamy pots of meats and vegetables and noodles covering every burner and ingredients haphazardly strewn across every available surface—cans of coconut milk on the counter, discarded plantain peels in a little pile by the stove, full bags of rice leaning up against the wall. I’d interviewed Tina and Nyno in a little office space beside Sok Sabi Bai, removed from the food-making process and customer-cook interactions. Here, I am right in the thick of it, trying to talk with PJ over the sound of boiling pots and PJ’s knife hitting the cutting board. As I ask her questions, PJ stoops to avoid hitting her head on the ceiling, and sprinkles brown sugar on the plantains and puts them in a fryer, the sweet smell mingling with the rugged aroma of juicy beef.
PJ and her sister have always been entrepreneurs, and their food cart has proved a “natural transition from the work they did in their home country” (Rogers & Roy). “When we were in the Philippines, we didn’t have money,” PJ says, filling a take-out box with the plantains. “My sister started making some money making these desserts called halo-halo. And she said she wanted to sell that here. We opened a food cart because we wanted to start with something small, and then save up, and then open up a restaurant. We thought, ‘if we open a restaurant and we’re not known, we might lose a lot of money.’” After six months in business, PJ and Auginne are still saving for their restaurant. “The hardest part of owning a food cart is making some money,” says PJ. “But I get to do what I like doing. A hobby” (Alphonso).
Food carts not only provide immigrants with a path to economic success and financial stability, but they also represent a way for immigrants to re-access the culture of their homeland, celebrating and sharing the food native to their country with a greater community—which may include other immigrants—in an easy and delicious way. “The carts’ originality stems from the way they express something personal about the owners and where they come from,” says author Dana Bowen.
For Czechoslovakian Karel Vitek, opening his bright green-and-red food cart Tabor was less about making money and more about having the opportunity to eat and be around food from his homeland. ----4----- Karel’s story of how he came to America is just as incredible as Nyno’s: Karel arrived in the U.S. in 1985 after escaping communist Czechoslovakia by swimming across the Mur River. “I couldn’t take anything with me…but it’s amazing what people will do for freedom, whatever that means for them”. Karel gained his “freedom” when he escaped Czechoslovakia, but still, “leaving home created a void”. He tried to fill this void with cooking, because “[cooking] defines home, and [I was] very passionate about the food because [I] could not get it anywhere else’” (qtd. in Brooks). After all, “for newcomers to this country, what more fitting occupation could there be than selling food in the neighborhoods they live in to others like themselves hungering for a taste of home?” (Brooks).
Just as Tabor allows Karel to stay in touch with his Czechoslovakian roots, Sok Sab Bai offers a way for Nyno to reconnect with his culture. For Nyno, Cambodian food is comfort food. It’s what he grew up eating, and it “makes [him] think of childhood memories” (Thol). As a member of a very small population of Portland Cambodians, Nyno sees it as his duty to share his culture via Cambodian food. “Eating things from other cultures, you just experience a lot more that way,” says Tina, using her hands to animate her point. “When you taste different things, you just learn more about the people and how they grew up and what they lived on.” Tina also aims to share Cambodian history with people, after realizing how few people know about the Killing Fields—myself included. “Food is a good way to be able to talk to people about things, like the Killing Fields. Food is really a gateway to talking and to culture” (Sanchez).
Coming into my first interview with Nyno, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d researched food carts, even read some interviews of owners, but this was different, more personal. I’d never had an in-depth conversation with a restaurant owner or someone involved in the food business.
 American culture is not one that puts an emphasis on getting to know the people behind our food; we are a society of fast food, processed TV dinners, and quick hurried meals. If I do happen to meet the person who prepared my food, I find it hard to bridge the distance between customer and cook enough to do anything more than throw a “thanks” over my shoulder as I walk away with my order.
But hearing Nyno talk about his life, how he’d come over to America, how he’d watched movies in the jungle in the Philippine refugee camps (“There was a big projection screen that we’d watch, and I remember being up in the trees, watching the screen, while they played Rambo, out of all movies”), I could no longer see the food cart business as just another aspect of Portland’s quirky personality. It is hard to view someone’s dream and someone’s story at arm’s length. For hundreds of immigrants in Portland, these food carts are the best and, for some, only chance they have at economic mobility and independence (Thol).
“In the past 18 months, street food and food carts have crossed generational and demographic boundaries,” says Brett Burmeister. Burmeister is dubious as to whether the food cart industry will continue to expand, but I think it will. Even if Portland has no room left, food carts will keep cropping up, somehow, because they are successful, powered by “passionate, driven” people (Burmeister) with incredibly powerful and intimate stories. During my visit to Kain Tayo, while frying her plantains, PJ turned to me and said, “I take like ten minutes to make my food. People come here because they’re willing to wait” (Alphonso). Customers are not just willing to wait for their food, but happy to, if only to hear the owner’s story. Exactly what would make the owners outsiders in other professions—being immigrants, coming from outside the country, growing up in other cultures with different ways of life—make the carts successful. “The best part of my job is meeting all the new and interesting people and finding new ways to tell their stories,” says Burmeister. “I think one of the most powerful stories I encountered was an Iraqi man’s. He was injured in a roadside bombing during the Iraqi war and evacuated to Portland. It was so moving to be able to talk with one of the victims of the Iraq War and see him succeed” (Burmeister).
Sitting on the cooler in PJ’s cart, I listened as PJ and her customer talked about growing up in the Philippines. They both were from the city of Manila. After each question I asked PJ, her customer would eagerly jump in and add something to PJ’s answer, like what kind of meat makes the best Filipino sisig, a spicy fatty dish. They both agreed: it’s ox tail.

Works Cited
Bowen, Dana. "Food of the People: Portland's Food Cart Revolution." Saveur 5
Aug. 2012: n. pag. Print. 
Brooks, Zach. "Keep on Truckin'!" Vilcek Foundation Fall 2011: n. pag. Print. 
Burmeister, Brett. Personal interview. 7 Nov. 2012.
Burmeister, Brett. 2007. Food Carts Portland, Portland. Web. 1 Dec 2012.
CNN. Heart of Darkness: Cambodia's Killing Fields. CNN World. Cable News
Network, 6 June 2003. Web. 23 Nov. 2012. 
Edge, John T. The Truck Food Cookbook: 150 Recipes and Ramblings from America's 
Best Restaurants on Wheels. New York: Workman, 2012. Print. 
Frommer, Robert, et al. Street of Dreams: How Cities Can Create Economic
Opportunity by Knocking down Protectionist Barriers to Street Vending.
    Virginia: Institute for Justice, 2011. Digital file. 
Rodgers, Kelly, and Kelley Roy. Cartopia: Portland's Food Cart Revolution. Ed.
    Christina Henry De Tessan. Portland: Roy Rodgers, 2010. Print. 
N.d. Oregon Historical Society, Portland. Web. 1 Dec 2012.
Pew Hispanic Center, . "The State of American Public Opinion on Immigration in Spring
2006." Pew Hispanic Center. Pew Hispanic Center, 17 2006. Web. 1 Dec 2012.
Rebecca Cleveland-Stout. Sok Sab Bai. 1 Nov. 2012. Photograph.
Rebecca Cleveland-Stout. Kain Tayo. 1 Nov. 2012. Photograph.
Sanchez, Tina. Personal interview. 1 Nov. 2012. 
Sonntag, Viki. "Portland OR: Food Cart Heaven." Good Food World., 7 Jan. 2011. Web. 21 Oct. 2012. 
Thol, Nyno. Personal interview. 1 Nov. 2012.

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