London shouldn’t be allowed nice things. We just end up breaking or misusing them.
We’re like a child who gets given a shiny new ball to play with, and then proceeds to find out what happens when we throw that ball as hard as possible at the nearest window, or passing vehicle, or at daddy’s face. We simply cannot be trusted.
Like many of life’s treats, street food was born and raised by necessity. Just realised that you can bake a good pie with leftover meat? Bake a few more and take to the streets at lunch time; hungry workers will be happy to scoff them down, and you’ve made a quick guinea. Need a food that can be eaten on the go, without cutlery or crockery? Here we have the pizza, it is essentially an edible plate covered in food – perfect. Has your city just seen an influx of affordable fresh fish due to the improved transportation of produce? Boom, fried fish. Chuck some potato into the mix to bulk things up and we’re onto a winner. Simple, functional, and (over time) tasty food on the go and on the cheap.
You know what isn’t street food? This: gochujang chicken thigh, sesame-peanut winter greens and smacked cucumber from Kimchinari, or crab meat fries with Thousand Island dressing from Prawnography.
“We have bastardised it; we have commoditised it, monetised it, marketed it, and then middle classed all over it.”
(As an aside, the lamentable culture of puns that has developed around the Street Food scene deserves a whole magazine in itself dedicated to picking apart how fucking annoying it is. In brief, let us say this: no matter how ironic you think you’re being, puns are neither clever nor funny. They serve only to make you and your business look like cunts.)
As I was saying – crab meat fries with Thousand Island dressing is not street food. It is a restaurant dish marketed as street food so as to entice idiots into buying it, Instagramming it, tweeting it, and, possibly, when social media’s needs have been satiated, eating some of it. We have taken what was once a simple, lovely little pleasure in life, and we have done with it what we always end up doing with nice things: we have bastardised it; we have commoditised it, monetised it, marketed it, and then middle classed all over it.
Does anybody remember coffee? It was that tasty drink that helped get you through the day; a little cup of relief from life’s incessant bullshit. Then London got a hold of it. Now it is a thing around which many millennials build their whole personality. We just could not fucking stop ourselves from making it niche, and throwing adjectives like “artisanal” and “bespoke” at it. It’s coffee. It was lovely and simple and we ruined it. Just like we’ve ruined the idea of street food.
KERB is a fantastic example of what I’m angry about. They essentially organise supposed street food vendors into nicely marketable areas of middle-class wankery. I’m sorry to keep having a go at the middle-classes here, I know they’re an easy target, but they do have a tendency to balls things up. KERB has many a site across London; sites that grew organically due to populace or location, you ask? Of course not. Cynically cherry-picked money-spinning sites, you ask? Absolutely. The Gherkin, Canary Wharf, Kings Cross – the obvious contenders are all there. The KERB website has a little video montage playing on loop on its homepage, and it pretty much tells you all you need to know: awful people with shit tats and facial hair cooking up florid boxes of whatever vogue, photo-ready dishes are cool at the moment, all whilst looking quirky and trendy and having good clean fun in the sun.
We can’t help ourselves from making things organised and sanitary and marketable, and in doing so we lose the essence and joy of those things. A whole subsection of the hospitality industry has even grown up around Street Food Restaurants. Street. Food. Restaurants.
STREET! FOOD! RESTAURANTS!
It is obvious and easy to throw sass at the accountants and marketing executives who drive forward this philosophy of appropriating and watering down many cultural touchstones, however, it is evidently us, the fad-obsessed customer, who is responsible. Much of this grows from our love of being a consumer of (or, more accurately, being seen to be a consumer of) authentic stuff. We absolutely fucking love authenticity. No, this is real pizza, this is proper pizza, proper Italian pizza, proper Neapolitan pizza, you don’t really get pizza like this outside of Italy – this is the real deal. And we cannot wait to denigrate others for eating what we deem to be inauthentic food.
“Nobody suddenly decides they’re good at cooking Mac ‘n’ Cheese with sautéed wild mushrooms, cep cream, truffle oil, and garlic.”
Oh, that’s not real chicken, you haven’t had real chicken until you’ve been to America until you’ve been to Alabama until you’ve been to Joe’s fucking chicken shed on Fudgehole Street in fucking Montgomery. And then somewhere along the way, the idea of street food got tied up with authenticity and realness and the whole thing became deeply important to us millennials who are desperate to be seen to be doing things that are real and authentic – regardless of the truth of the situation. If your Instagram account shows you eating real, authentic street food then that must make you a real, authentic person. Which you most certainly are not.
And with all of this, we also lose one crucial component: quality. The very best street food is a labour of love. It is one thing done over and over again until it is perfected. The Rib Man of Brick Lane is a good example of somebody whose history and ethos still reflects what could realistically be called street food. He cooks ribs. He’s a butcher, he had ribs to cook, so he got good at cooking them. Then he decided to cook more and sell them on a Sunday morning in Brick Lane. People loved them and his reputation grew. That’s what street food is about. Nobody suddenly decides they’re good at cooking Mac ‘n’ Cheese with sautéed wild mushrooms, cep cream, truffle oil, and garlic (The Mac Factory). What you’ve decided there is that you want to open a concept restaurant, preying upon people’s love of a nostalgic ingredient, and have decided to use street food as a stepping stone to securing a permanent premises. Which, you know what, is fine. But let’s not fucking lie to each other about it.
So, what? What’s the answer, what’s my point? Well, there isn’t one. If there’s money to be made from an idea (and the street food industry is now a multi-million-pound idea) then capitalism dictates that things will get bigger, quality will be diluted, and eventually, very little semblance of the original concept will remain. Just a shadow, a memory. But that’s the way things are. It’s almost pointless to complain about the whole thing. I guess it just pisses me off, is all.