Eating street food now is something of an event in itself, the arrival of a new stall calls for a wave of excitement across Twitter and Instagram, articles are written, bloggers review, and it’s the talk of the day on the food scene. In the past however, it was something that was just part of the everyday, quite simply because kitchens were a luxury. The majority of Londoners didn’t have access to anything to cook on and so cheap, filling food sold on the way to work or returning home was the best answer.
Starting with oysters being sold to all classes of society in London during the Roman period, street food steadily grew as time went on. The Victorian social commentator Henry Mayhew recalls in ‘London Labour and London Poor’ the fare on sale. He talks of how the streets were filled with the sounds of sellers crying out what they had to offer; pea soup, hot eels, pickled whelks, fried fish, plum dough, and roast chestnuts were all amongst the orders of the day.
Indeed, everyone knows about the Muffin Man, yes the one who lived on Drury Lane, he too was a street food seller. The first record of him was in Georgian London and it is said that he walked from door to door selling his goods. As time went on, and with the influx of new cultures that came to London in the late 20th century, there came a wave of new street foods; jerk chicken, steamed buns, and Indian curry.
Things were set to change though, kitchens at home meant more cooking could be done, but, more importantly, the early 1990s saw the rise of fine-dining restaurants. Street food fell out of favour, diners went from paying little amounts for a lot of food, albeit most likely wrapped up in a piece of newspaper, to suddenly wanting to be seen eating at the latest restaurant and paying ludicrous prices for tiny mouthfuls arranged ‘artistically’ on square plates.
Fast forward to now and things have gone full circle again, back to hearty food which isn’t grease laden and is made right there and then. So much so that many of the street food vendors are catering for all, with the likes of Pizza Pilgrims, Pitt Cue Co, and Patty and Bun, ironically opening permanent restaurants alongside their trucks and stalls.
How come? Well the restaurants are still asking for a pretty penny in order to partake in a tasting menu and yes, they’re still full. But with Londoners’ love of cooking came the relish of wanting to get up close and personal with food, seeing it cooked, having it piled up with slaw and cheese, being able to really get stuck in. There was boredom in the formality of silver service and reservations. Perhaps it was something to do with the fast paced nature of society, Londoners no longer have time to spend three hours eating. It could have also been to do with farmer markets, as people became more conscious of where they were shopping, and there they saw the popularity of farmers selling hotdogs made with their produce.
Perhaps it goes hand in hand with social media, as more often than not, that is how these street vendors gain popularity. It’s not about whether it has a Michelin star, because trucks and stands can’t, it’s about how appetising it looks, how good it looks in the photo, it’s all about creating names that people remember, like Yum Buns, hardly one to forget, and about creating hedonistic, earthy, rag to riches back stories that inspire those eating it. A far cry from its origins as every-day fuel.
In the past few years, the scene has expanded quickly with the likes of the British Street Food Awards launching in 2010. There have been cook-offs and festivals and London has also seen the arrival of whole street food markets like, Street Feast. No longer just served on street corners, they take over empty car parks and warehouses and run for several months. Right now, Hawker House is back in Haggerston with three floors of street food, whisky, cocktails, bands, and DJs stretching over four months. It is events like these and the constant addition of new stalls to the scene that makes it appear that this time, street food won’t fall out of favour.