I keep ruminating on my experience on Roosevelt Ave. in Jackson Heights, Queens, during the IACP Conference week (see my previous posting on this, dated April 7th). As I described then and re-read about the various street food taste bursts that we discovered there, I also continue to recall that at nearly every truck or cart one particular phrase kept coming to me: "They're pursuing the American dream." I even projected myself 10, 20, and 30 years into the future, imagining the children and grandchildren of some of these street venders with brick and mortar restaurants of their own, or other businesses, making films, or running medical practices -- these street venders were like my great parents, working their butts off to lay a foundation for those to follow. Some might keep the food carts going, or expand upon them, but I'm sure many will say, "I'll never work that hard again; instead I'll work smart."
I recalled a vignette I told in "American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza," when I revisited after 30 years the favorite pizzeria of my childhood and discovered the son of the owner still working there; he never liked pizza as a kid, but he loved cheese steaks and so he dedicated himself to making the best cheese steaks in the world much as his dad had done in making the best pizza. And he succeeded, opening the store only four days a week so that he could have a life while still making a decent living and earning the accolades of foodies everywhere. Meanwhile, his brother and sister, both of whom I also remember working there as kids when I was a kid, had decided they wanted no part of the place and moved on in different diections with their lives. The American dream....
I think about this now because I just read an interesting article in the current issue of Newsweek by Daniel Gross called, "Listen, The U.S. Is Better, Stronger, and Faster Than Anywhere Else in the World." He spells out a rather optimistic analysis of the economic recovery that, while not yet complete, nevertheless has outpaced most predictions by the so-called experts, and has certainly outpaced the recoveries in every other developed country during the same time period. Without trying to recap the article the bottom line, according to Gross's implication, is that the USA is still the best place in the world to live because here, unlike in no other place, it is still possible to achieve your dream, and everyone else in the world knows it.
So, this was my takeaway after a day of joyful, gluttonous eating and drinking of Tibetan Momo's, pan Latino tamales, street tacos, quesadillas, pandebobo's, ceviches, and rum-filled caraljillo's: that there is motivation at work within the souls of each of the venders, not just to make a living but to build something for the future. It may be a humble beginning (and humbling experience to encounter) but, as we've all learned from our Native American as well as other cross cultural social studies, most traditional cultures think seven generations ahead. What I find exciting, beyond the American Dream scenario I saw on Roosevelt Ave., is how this ethic is filtering into the first generation counter-culture street food businesses, not just the immigrants but also long term, perhaps even privileged young multi-generational Americans. It reminds me of the idealism of the 1960's, the back to the earth movements and the like; that the American Dream is not something that is handed to us but is something that must be grabbed, reached for, and worked for. It means so much more when it happens that way.