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With recent news that even Paris has one, food trucks are officially in vogue. Here in the U.S., they're spreading from the hot scenes in Los Angeles and New York to smaller cities. Food writer and critic John T. Edge set off on a road trip to discover what mobile chefs were cooking up and he came back with "The Truck Food Cookbook."
NPR's Debbie Elliott caught up with him, where else? At a taco truck in Birmingham, Alabama.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: We park at a Texaco gas station just across the street from the Steel City Bolt and Screw Factory. John T. Edge quickly spots the special, handwritten on a paper plate.
JOHN T. EDGE: They've got ceviche, which is great to find in a parking lot in Birmingham, Alabama.
ELLIOTT: This is Taqueria Guzman, one of the first food trucks to show up in Birmingham.
EDGE: I think I want a Tostado de Ceviche. How about you?
ELLIOTT: Let's get one of those and let's get - you tell me.
EDGE: They've got brain tacos.
ELLIOTT: I'll pass on that. We settle on Tacos el Pastor, the tostada and two ice cold bottles of Mexican coke. Owner Jaime Guzman is taking orders inside the truck.
How long have you been doing this?
JAIME GUZMAN: Like, the business? Since I was a little kid. It's been in my family for a long time already from California to Atlanta, from Atlanta to Birmingham.
ELLIOTT: Truck food has had a similar evolution, Edge says, starting in L.A. and New York, then booming in places like Portland and Austin. Now, it's a hit in a third tier of cities, like Milwaukee and Birmingham. When the food comes, Edge is impressed.
EDGE: Look how beautifully this is composed. I mean, the bracketing of the avocado slices, the chop of the cilantro on top. It's not low rent food. It's artisanal food in this place on a foam plate, you know.
CORNISH: But, at $2 a taco, this artisanal food is within reach for just about anyone in Birmingham. Secretaries, hospital workers and Hispanic construction workers line up at Guzman's truck. Bail bondsman Terry Sylvester is waiting for her regular lunch.
TERRY SYLVESTER: (Unintelligible) burrito. That's only thing I ever order. He knows exactly what I want. That's how much I come.
ELLIOTT: TV technician Thomas Lauer comes every Friday. He says it's more fun than a sit-down restaurant.
THOMAS LAUER: You meet interesting people while you're standing in line. The whole experience of standing there with everyone else waiting on your food to come up and you kind of get to know the people around the truck and that sort of thing, so the community is a big part of it.
EDGE: It's a really democratic portrait of America.
ELLIOTT: John T. Edge tends to view food through a cultural prism. He's the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi and a frequent contributor to newspapers, magazines and the Food Network. His "Truck Food Cookbook" is part recipe collection, part travelogue and part cultural analysis of the food truck frenzy. There are recipes for fried Brussels sprouts from Austin, Ethiopian lentils from Madison and a quirky Hawaiian treat, Spam Musubi.
EDGE: A little lozenge of vinegar and rice with a slab of pan-fried soy sauce doused Spam on top wrapped with a piece of nori. This is from Marination Mobile in Seattle.
ELLIOTT: It's one thing for aspiring chefs to peddle their plates on the street, but what's the appeal for those of us just trying to get dinner on the table between homework and the soccer field? Edge says it's a natural fit.
EDGE: These truck food cooks are working in really small spaces. They're working with a limited number of ingredients in a limited amount of time, which sounds like a home cook, like, you know, I don't want to go back out to the grocery store. What's in my pantry?
ELLIOTT: A recipe he's tried at home is the mac and cheese sandwich inspired by the Grilled Cheese Truck in Venice, California. It's macaroni layered between two slices of cheese and white bread buttered and griddled.
EDGE: When you bite in, you get this textural symphony. You bite in and you get the crisp toast on the outside, the gooey cheese, then the chewy pasta. I mean, it's goofball food, but my son, age 11 - he's a happy goofball while eating it.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: John T., you're up.
ELLIOTT: Now, we're at the Shindigs truck in Birmingham. Co-owner and chef Chad Scofield says the truck moves around to different parts of the city and updates its menu daily.
CHAD SCHOFIELD: Today, we have a Willis burger, which is the grass-fed beef with a creamy gorgonzola, bacon, blueberry (unintelligible).
ELLIOTT: All served on a locally made sweet potato bun. Bob Carlton orders one.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Would you like a side salad or the fries - the truffle fries with your burger?
BOB CARLTON: Yeah. The truffle fries would be...
ELLIOTT: Carlton is the food writer for the Birmingham News and has been watching the food truck scene here gain in popularity.
CARLTON: I just think the idea of getting something fast and, you know, getting it relatively inexpensively and, you know, being able to walk outside your office and there's the truck there. And also I think there's a huge cool factor. It's like, you know, we're a real city now. We have food trucks, you know.
ELLIOTT: Cookbook author John T. Edge says foodies can now test that cool factor at home, no wheels required. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
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CORNISH: To sample recipes from "The Truck Food Cookbook," visit NPR.org.
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