Street food is different from other ways of ‘eating outdoors’ such as a picnic or ‘festival food’, because it is an urban phenomenon.
During Antiquity, the poorer strata were the main customers of travelling caterers, as few of them had a kitchen at home. Archaeological excavations have revealed that oysters were popular with residents of Roman London, judging by the number of shells littering one of the city’s main trading thoroughfares.
Throughout the Middles Ages until the industrial era, street food was restricted to snacks, to be consumed as needed. The lack of pavements and sewers and the crowded streets made it hard to eat food outdoors. Paris was renowned for its street hawkers who advertised their products at the top of their lungs, whether oublies (round-shaped pastries), waffles, little pies, milky coffee, herbal teas or eau-de-vie. In London, during the English Restoration, travelling vendors were exempt of tax. They carried their wares on their heads, thus enabling them to move quickly when they spotted potential customers.
It was only during the Industrial Revolution that street food really emerged. Large cities developed and became cleaner and healthier, and the working-class population increased. The population of Victorian London tripled in seventy years and sources indicate that there were over 6000 street vendors serving genuine hot meals such as pea soup, eels and grilled fish, whelks in vinegar and pies.
While street food struggled to take hold in France, on the other side of the Atlantic, New York was building a cosmopolitan street food culture that came with the immigration of the 19th century. On Coney Island in 1870, the German Charles Feltman sold the first hot dogs, which later became symbols of New York’s street food sold on pushcarts. From 1950 onwards, Italian and later Greek immigrants introduced culinary specialities from their native lands to the streets of the Big Apple. This same decade saw the appearance of travelling ice-cream vendors in their ice-cream vans, the forerunner to today’s food trucks. In Anglo-Saxon countries in the 1990s the choice on offer increased and became more varied, reflecting ethnic diversity as well as the tastes of a population tired of the Haute Cuisine in vogue in the 1980s and wishing to explore other culinary horizons as cheaply as possible. Culinary exoticism now took the form of fresh, local products, combined in recipes that reinvented ethnic and regional-style cuisine.
Although street food tends to be associated with junk food (fried food and poorly balanced meals), it is now also honoured with awards and distinctions. The Street Food Awards created in the United Kingdom in 2010 recompense a selection of refined dishes designed to be eaten on the go.