In 2002, always ahead of the trending culinary curve, Southern food writer John T. Edge and a friend blew $3,000 on a hot dog-shaped cart in an attempt to provide Oxford, Mississippi cubicle toilers with “an honest $3 lunch.” Their Dunce Dogs venture, showcasing all-beef wieners stuffed inside natural casings, served up with buttermilk slaw and pimento cheese was an immediate failure.
“I learned how hard it is to operate a fiberglass weinie much less run a restaurant,” Edge recalls with a laugh. “You can have a great idea and great food and still not be successful. We used blowtorches to melt the pimento cheese on our hot dogs. How could the whole world not beat a path to your weinie?”
But like his street food filled travels to Saigon, Edge’s food cart misadventures served as research for the former Atlantan’s latest irresistible tome, “The Truck Food Cookbook: 150 Recipes and Ramblings From America’s Best Restaurants on Wheels” (Workman Publishing, $18.95). John T (as foodies and friends affectionately refer to the writer) returns to town Wednesday for a noon signing and lunch in Inman Park as part of the Stove Works Food Truck Wednesdays at 112 Krog Street. Edge will also be at A Cappella Books at 208 Haralson Ave. Wednesday night at 7 for a Q&A and signing.
Cranking some Wet Willie on the ride to the airport Monday night, Edge offered some tasty insights into the challenges of writing about the moveable feast that is food trucking. With Atlanta still dreamily awaiting its chance to get to third base in its blossoming romance with food trucks, Edge focused much of his “Truck Food Cookbook” research in more food truck-forward cities such as Seattle and Portland where the vendors forgo whipping their wares into standard Styrofoam containers in favor of bowls and plates their customers bring from home.
“It just speaks to Seattle being a crunchy, black-sock-with-sandals kind of town,” Edge explains. “They’re very eco-conscious in both Seattle and Portland. Their food truck communities are just an extension of that. At the time I was writing and researching this book, y’all were just getting started with food trucks. This was before the Atlanta Street Food Coalition came along and before folks started gathering at places like the Stove Works. With things like the Atlanta Food Truck Park on Howell Mill Road, I think Atlanta is building a food truck business model like Austin’s and Portland’s that really will be sustainable. It’s about having a dedicated area where these young entrepreneurs can do their thing and the locals won’t have hissy fits about the set up.”
While the Atlanta Food Truck Park has been shut down multiple times in the past month over permitting and licensing issues with the city, Edge says many cities with burgeoning food truck scenes are still grappling with street food regulation.
“So many cities are still working this through,” Edge concedes. “On this book tour, I was just in Milwaukee giving a talk and reading from my book and I looked up and saw blue lights. Milwaukee cops were busting the truck that was feeding the people for the book signing for being parked the wrong way on the street. The operator had parked it so the truck’s serving window would be facing the sidewalk where the people were gathered. It appeared to me at least there was some selective enforcement going on there.”
But Edge believes that cities will eventually figure out how to regulate food truck vendors because of their potential for revenue. “These are small businesses and they’re run by entrepreneurs operating restaurants that just happen to have wheels on them,” Edge explains. “I don’t think these carts, trucks and trailers pose a threat to brick and mortar businesses either. About 20 percent of the people I write about in this book now have a brick and mortar version of their business. It’ll take some give and take and some ridiculous moments, but this is too good an idea for it to be forever tangled in red tape.”
Edge dedicates “The Truck Food Cookbook” to his wife Blair “who always welcomed me home with salads.” Says the author: “I lead a pretty indulgent life on the road and when I come home I crave vegetables and fish. I’m ready for some spa cuisine!”