The street food freeze is over. After an interregnum of nearly two decades, the food truck permit freeze in Ottawa was lifted last fall; the fruition of which manifested in the exciting new rollout of new food trucks this past week. James Cunningham, funnyman and erstwhile performer at Yuk Yuk's in its former location at Albert St., was on hand to both mark Ottawa's street food inauguration and to promote his new book Eat St .
Regaling the audience with the restless delivery of a globetrotter finally come home, Cunningham spoke of the creation of his popular TV show and of his love for the magic of food in its most primal transaction: through food trucks and carts. It was serendipitous circumstances that allowed a comedian to end up hosting a food show. Cunningham's experience of how his pilot episode of an inchoate script actually became the first episode of the first season of a show in its fourth season, is a testament to the importance of timing.
What lent credence to his presence was Ottawa's own exciting influx of food trucks. As Cunningham noted, the recession of 2008 saw a great number of talented chefs and cooks lose their positions in established restaurants. These kitchen artists, in turn, saw a great opportunity in the mobility and independence of operating a food truck or cart. Pop, ice cream, burgers and hot dogs have been mainstays from time immemorial (or so it seems), and yet despite the affection that these familiar outlets engendered in us, there remained a distinct feeling of "is this all there is?" Ottawa, with a population of over a million when including our sister city of Gatineau, is only home to about 45 trucks. The 14 new food trucks and carts were vetted and selected from over 60 applicants with mind to "the proposed menu, business plan, level of vendor experience and the overall contribution to Ottawa’s street food scene."
While the spearheading of this effort took applause-worthy political will from the likes of Mayor Jim Watson and Councillor Mark Taylor (who was on hand at the event to give opening remarks) it is precisely the combination of sceptical nannyishness that has kept Canada so far behind when it comes to abundant and creative street food. As Adam Davidson bemoans in the current New York Times Magazine, this ill grips even the Big Apple. Marie-Claude Lotrie of La Presse has a charming expression to describe street food, as "urban acupuncture, injecting vitality into city life." In a country bequeathed with harsh winter climes, getting into the street food business is a labour of love in a country like Canada, where said business, like motorcycle riding, is seasonal. (Also a reason why Vancouver's street food scene is currently the vanguard of the nation). But weather alone cannot account for the astonishing range of street food in places like Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas. Overregulation of these ventures can act as disincentives rendering it prohibitive to start. Montreal, a city rightly known for its cuisine, seems to tread softly on the dreams of street food: the pre-determined outcome having already been fore-judged; somewhat harshly in VICE and more affably in the Financial Post.
Yet, who am I to despise small beginnings? If Ottawa avoids the worse-off aspects of the forays of other Canadian cities, and moves forward, albeit slowly, in the direction of greater street food, we have a great potential to showing the country how its done. We have a wonderful chronicler, Shawna Wagman, in her City Bites column in Ottawa Magazine and we even have a fledgling Ottawa street food Twitter feed to keep us in the know. There is a definite sense of excitement that was felt at the event for an Ottawa summer filled with innovative and health street food, and I for one cannot wait to sample them all.