But despite the resurgence of interest in street food, local regulations still thwart would-be vendors. Glaeser cites “complex licensing and zoning regulations” in the case of Boston, but such restrictions apply to most of America. Police in San Francisco’s Mission District, home to one of the nation’s most vibrant street food scenes, have been cracking down on vendors who haven’t shelled out $1,000+ for the proper permits and licenses and untold thousands for approved equipment. In Los Angeles, Reason.tv has noted an underground industry of bacon-wrapped hot dot [sic] vendors who serve a product that the city has jailed others for selling. Even legal vendors are at risk, as evidenced by last week’s call by restauranteurs in the trendy DC neighborhood of Adams Morgan to shutter the two-year-old Latino market that takes place in a local park on weekends. The food may have changed since the 19th century, but the arguments against street food – it’s unfair competition, it’s not clean, it’s run by illegal immigrants – have not.
Whenever conventional liberals talk about deregulation, it’s usually to denounce it as a ploy by businesses to weasel out of having to concern themselves with things like workers’ safety or consumer or environmental protections. Which it often is. But what’s rarely discussed is the many ways regulations serve, in effect, to prevent poor people from making a living for themselves, often at the behest of those same aforementioned business interests.
In the case of food the rationale is always safety, but as the article quoted above points out (or as common sense, or having worked in a restaurant or two, would tell you), just because a place has the proper license hanging on the wall doesn’t mean they’re actually following any of the rules they’re supposed to follow. As Anthony Bourdain says in Kitchen Confidential, if you want to know whether a restaurant is clean, check out the bathrooms. If they can’t be bothered to clean the bathrooms, which they know the customers are going to see, there’s a good chance they’re not too concerned about their food-handling practices either. Food regulations and licensing are as much about creating the illusion of safety as they are about actual safety.
Politics and safety issues aside, though, a vibrant food culture is, to me, a sign of a vibrant society (and, conversely, an over-regulated society is a sterile society). I’d like nothing more than to see entire city blocks filled with street food vendors and open-air markets, “legal” or “illegal,” whatever. I’d rather see a Mexican selling tacos from a cart than another one of those dreadful corporate franchise shitholes, with their faux-cheerful atmospheres and dull, focus-grouped menus.
One of my most persistent memories from a trip to Italy seven years ago is of a meal from a street cart my wife and brothers and I ate on a sidewalk in Atri, the town where my great-grandfather came from. Atri is in Abruzzi, not far from the Adriatic coast. It’s one of those medieval towns built on the top of a steep hill, surrounded by a wall, with a church in the center square and cobble stone streets winding in all directions. The cart sold roast pork sandwiches, an entire pig turning on a spit, its skin a glistening amber. The setting is part of what made it so memorable, no doubt, but I can still recall eating the sandwich, the crunch of that pork skin, while standing around a wooden bench and being circled by three or four stray dogs.
(Via Rad Geek.)