Mmmmm … street food. Toronto, being so multicultural, offers an abundance of restaurants; so many, in fact, that if you dined at a different establishment every night, it would take a staggering 45 years to eat your way through the city!
But this is about those vendors – food trucks, stands, kiosks and carts – encountered whilst bustling along city streets, exploring ethnic delights at cultural festivals, and looking for a snack at exhibitions and fairs.
In simpler times, street food consisted of a few basic choices – hamburgers, hotdogs and French fries – available from “chip trucks”. You could get sandwiches, too, especially from the vehicles catering to the lunchtime crowd at a plant or factory. There was one that came regularly to my husband’s workplace. Due to the sometimes iffy offerings (bad coffee and who-knows-how-old egg salad), it earned a variety of nicknames – the Gut Wagon, Gastric Distress Express, Botulism Buggy and Ptomaine Truck amongst them.
Once when I was about ten, my parents took me to the Binder Twine Festival, a harvest celebration held in Kleinburg, Ontario every September since 1967. The festival, named for the twine used to secure wheat sheaves, still features old-time farming and crafting exhibits, contests, and traditional 1800s homestead food. I still remember the taste of the sarsaparilla my mother bought me from one of the booths. Originally marketed as a health tonic, this drink tastes (from what I recall) like a combination of spicy, bitter ginger ale crossed with root beer. It was odd and delicious, and I’ve only ever had a chance to try it that once. Perhaps I should go the 2018 festival!
I remember an old street peddlar who operated a chestnut cart back in the ’80s when I commuted downtown each day to university. He always parked the cart, which was painted red and gold, at my subway stop outside the Royal Ontario Museum. Although I never sampled his wares, the aroma of hot roasted chestnuts was so enticing, especially on a frosty winter day. He’s long gone, but my sister – who frequents downtown far more often than I do – reports that those carts, while rare, can still be found. Nice to know the tradition continues.
My sister and I went to an Afro-Caribbean festival down by the lake one summer. There were vendors offering tie-dyed cotton clothing, wood sculptures and beaded jewellery, and food such as kebobs, pitas and grilled corn-on-the-cob sprinkled with bright red chili powder. I chose to sample a fresh coconut which the vendor hacked open with a cleaver before sticking in a straw. I was surprised that the water and meat weren’t sweet at all; I’m all about the sweet stuff, so I was rather unimpressed with this street food experience.
Food Truck Frenzy
For years when I was growing up, we made an annual family pilgrimage to the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE, or The Ex) during its two-week run in late August. We’d plead with our parents to let us have cotton candy or – my favourite – candy (caramel) apples from the kiosks in the Midway, where all the games and rides were. The Food Building presented an array of meal choices, and you could get coupons for freebies at many of the booths. We’d hoard them and our spending money with care as we strategically planned our snack attack. Pizza, burgers and fries were our usual choices, but a Beaver Tail (deep-fried pastry dusted with cinnamon sugar) was a must. I couldn’t handle the outrageous novelty fare offered these days, such as Strawberry Shortsteak (steak sandwich topped with provolone cheese, strawberry sauce and icing sugar), deep fried chicken feet, Canadian bacon pickle balls, spaghetti doughnuts drizzled with chocolate ganache, butter coffee, or the infamous Cronut Burger, a beef patty between two croissant-doughnut pastries topped with maple-bacon jam – a confection which caused 150 cases of food poisoning at the 2013 fair.
Suburban Street Food
Because my home and work keep me in the suburbs, I hardly ever encounter the more unusual or exotic types of street food – or entire street food festivals – found downtown. Suburbanites like me do still have some choices, however. There are the ubiquitous ice cream trucks, those white vans splashed with enticing images of popsicles, cones and triple-decker banana splits. Whilst I have given them my custom on more than one occasion, I take umbrage at these trucks because of their signature songs broadcast loudly and incessantly to attract business. Does anyone else despise “Turkey in the Straw” as much as I do?
For this assignment, I chose to feature the everyday hotdog stand. There’s a nationwide chain of hardware stores that always seems to have one of these trucks operating in their parking lot. This week, I stopped by one and, after a token soft drink purchase, sweet-talked the operator into letting me take some photos. As I was doing so, along came a mother and grandmother to buy a treat for their young boy. The mom graciously allowed me to snap some photos and laughed when I remarked the boy needn’t worry about eating carefully – his dressed ’dog matched his shirt! Although he was more interested in his meal, his family seemed pleased with all the attention, and I was happy to get a few shots for this challenge.
Postscript: As I wrote this piece, an ice cream truck blaring Turkey in the Straw set up shop down the road…