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Street Food Joy (and Angst) at the CIA

The World of Flavors conference at the Culinary Institute of America was last weekend. The topic? Street food—but of course!

In the CIA’s high-tech conference rooms and demo kitchens, famous chefs and food writers pondered the singular craftsmanship of street food, the different types of street food, the je ne sais quoi of street food. Rick Bayless who just opened Xoco in Chicago—a torta-driven, street food concept—waxed poetic about the importance of the initial approach to the street food stall: the smells, the sights, even the car exhaust.

It was a who’s who: On my way into Greystone's castle-like building, there was Ruth Reichl driving up in a rental car. For the rest of the conference the former editor of Gourmet was parked in the back row of conference room with her laptop, pondering the soul of street food for her website, breathlessly tweeting her every other bite.

There was Roy Choi of the infamous Kogi BBQ truck, cookbook author and world traveler Naomi Duguid, Susan Feniger (one hot tamale), Jonathan Gold, Jessica Harris, Masaharu Morimoto. Locals included Charles Phan, Emily Luchetti, Mourad Lahlou, Paula Wolfert, Joyce Goldstein and more.

But the moment of SF pride come when John T. Edge—journalist, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss, cookbook author (now working on a book on the American food truck)—stepped up to the podium, to speak about American street food, which seems to come with more authority when you have a very thick Southern drawl (an accent that gives you fried food cred). Edge was wearing one of La Cocina’s I “CART” Street Food T-shirts from the 2009 SF Street Food Festival. He announced, a few days before, he had been doing the SF street food crawl, including the Kung Fu truck, Bike Basket Pies with Natalie the baker who gleans food in the Mission, the Boccalone bike. Edge clearly had hit the “modern” street food route—one that speaks to vendors compelled by the “guerilla punk rock act” of it all, as he put it, which Edge admitted is “a pretty compelling one.”

But doing some checks and balances, Edge admitted that there’s always the fear that these folks will take business away from the “real” food vendors who, if they don’t sell 50 tacos in a day, can’t pay the rent. He expressed concern that “honest street food might get lost in the vernacular of twitter”—despite the fact that he admitted he’s guilty of being a Twitter addict himself. The angst of street food: a topic to ponder next.