FOOD CART POD
The words we look at in this section are usually new, in the genuine sense; neologisms, invented words for things or ideas that either didn’t exist at all until recently or were crying out for a name and finally got one. That, of course, isn’t the case with food cart pod, made up of three ancient, monosyllabic components with very concrete meanings that any five-year-old understands. And yet together they describe a phenomenon that is new and modern and strangely cozy and old-fashioned at the same time.
Food cart pods are peculiar to the city of Portland, Oregon, though they’re beginning to spread elsewhere or show their influence in related trends, like the specialty food trucks selling everything from Chinese dumplings to fish tacos that have appeared all over New York and other big cities in the last ten years or so. At its simplest, a food cart can be nothing more than a plain old hotdog stand; but in Portland, they’ve taken the concept and run wild with it. I visited family there this summer and found myself wishing we had days longer to spend than we did, mainly so I could have the chance to sample more than a tiny percentage of the crazy patchwork collections of food carts parked in various spots all around the city.
Whales or peas?
This is where the pod concept comes in—what Portland has done is group its food carts together, sometimes just ranged along sidewalks or in parking lots but occasionally actually becoming the focus of an entire city square, like Pioneer Courthouse Square downtown. When I was growing up pods were just what peas came in, or the brown bumps you could pop on seaweed when it had dried in the sun; I think the first time I encountered the word in any other context was after I’d moved to the U.S. and took my kids whale-watching off Cape Cod one summer holiday. It’s the whale-pod grouping idea that seems more relevant to the food-cart scene—there is nothing identical or regimented about Portland food carts, which are amazingly individual, colorful and un-slick-looking, frequently in a rather messy, hand-painted, magic-bus sort of way. There’s even a word for it: cartitecture. Walking around Pioneer Courthouse Square, we saw (and tasted) the gamut—bratwurst carts, fish and chips, kimchi, teeny doughnuts fried on the spot (and to die for), fierce Thai food, organic ice cream, Mexican, fried chicken… and more, and more. Most of these carts are what they call SMUs (“stationary mobile units”), usually rather cramped little caravan trailers or vans that theoretically have wheels and could move but are actually permanently parked, plumbed in, electrified, etc.
What the carts do is feed huge numbers of people, very well, for relatively little money. Anyone who works or studies or walks around downtown Portland (and other neighborhoods) could, if he or she wanted, basically eat something different and delicious every day for weeks on end. Of course, many people get wedded to particular carts and their products—in fact there’s a name for them, too: cartivores! The carts also get people out of buildings and cars, onto the city streets, moving around, connecting and communicating with one another as well as with the vendors. They don’t demand complicated, expensive architecture or town planning and they’re the reverse of chains and franchises, local in every sense of the word. In essence, they combine the best of modernity—our rediscovery of great fresh food, cooked locally from, often, local ingredients, yet available all (or at least many) hours of the day and produced just as quickly as so-called fast-food places can manage—with a kind of old-fashioned, funky humanity and togetherness that in the last few decades has so often vanished from urban centers in America. Power to the pod!—TAMARA GLENNY