Given his repertoire, one that includes books on fried chicken, donuts and apple pie, celebrated food journalist and Southern Foodways Alliance director John T. Edge needs no introduction to the culinary culture of the South. So when he's hanging out at a food truck and is handed a cardboard tray piled high with an unpronounceable menu item, "that's kind of a moment I long for," he says.
Edge will be at Durham's Regulator Bookshop Wednesday, June 20, at 7 p.m. to present his latest book, The Truck Food Cookbook: 150 Recipes and Ramblings from America's Best Restaurants on Wheels. OnlyBurger, one of Durham's first food trucks, will be parked outside and open for business, and Fullsteam brewery will serve their beer. OnlyBurger and DaisyCakes are featured in the book with recipes; Klausie's Pizza, Farmhand Foods and Locopops are mentioned with praise.
Edge will present a slideshow of his travels in researching the book.
"There's nothing I can tell y'all about Durham's scene," he says. "Y'all know it. You eat it."
Instead, we're promised "a portrait of truck food all across America." Edge traveled throughout the country for one year to food scenes that "felt most kinetic," from San Francisco and New York to smaller cities like Minneapolis, which had only four vendors at the time of his research. (Edge also writes a monthly New York Times column, United Tastes, exploring our country's increasingly global fare.)
The cookbook was inspired by a trip through Vietnam, where street food was "everyman's indulgence. A democratic buffet, almost," Edge says.
"A pleasure for me in researching this book was stepping up to a cart or a truck run by a recent immigrant from Vietnam or from India and not knowing how to read the menu well, but by the end learning something about that place and those people. That's one of the promises of truck food. You gain a situational passage, another longitude and latitude."
"One of the things I admire about Durham," he says, "is that it has embraced recent Mexican migration. For people of Durham, a paleta is as common a term as is popsicle. And that's important. When we talk about street food in America, we're talking also about a younger generation of folks who are really riffing on working-class taco trucks."
His book features taco trucks in Texas and Arizona. When he's in town, he gets his fix in Carrboro.
"I've eaten many times at the one that sits up at Fitch Lumber Company [Costa Sur]."
"I think one of the great things about this [food truck scene] is that these are not concepts, which usually means that someone would conceive something and exploit a business niche. [The owners of] these trucks are cooking from their hearts—like their crazy Uncle Lou's fried chicken or their favorite aunt's paratha."
For six months in Oxford, Miss., Edge and a friend had a hot dog cart and "failed miserably." Dunce Dogs ("Think Genius, Eat Dunce") sold natural-casing hot dogs slathered with pimento cheese. "We didn't realize 'Oh yeah, we have full-time jobs and children less than 4 years old.' It was completely bonkers and completely idealistic, but that's why I wrote the book."