The history of mobile food in the US is an intriguing one, going back to the first chuckwagon, a scrappy invention by a Texas cattleman in the 1860s to feed frontier cowboys. But the background of the street food movement in San Francisco is perhaps more fascinating. It seems hard to imagine that the plethora of food trucks, stands, and bikes that have emerged in recent years was seen at any prior date, but in fact, this recent abundance has roots in our city at the turn of the 20th century.
After the 1906 earthquake and the fires that raged due to a series of gas line ruptures, cooking in any building that remained intact was prohibited for the weeks and months following the April events. Our San Franciscan ancestors approached their dilemma with a similar spirit to that seen in the street food community in San Francisco today: innovative, entrepreneurial, and a little bit cheeky. Residents took to the streets, building brick ovens or moving their home stoves outside to sit directly over the gas mains, to cook for their families and anyone else in need.
Rough structures were built around the outdoor kitchens (often called “gutter kitchens”) using whatever was available: cloth, shutters, roofing, or corrugated metal. Photos of the city from April and May of 1906 show innumerable pop ups, rivaling the numbers we see at today’s Off the Grid or the San Francisco Street Food Festival. Even in dire straights, low on food and shelter, these street food groundbreakers kept their tongue-in-cheek humor intact. Popular spots emblazoned their ramshackle eateries with ironic names like “The Palace Hotel” and “The Appetite Killery.” Communities emerged around these kitchens and mottos such as “Make the best of it. Forget the rest of it.” reflected the resiliency of the city.
While these kitchens slowly disappeared as chimneys were rebuilt and the gas turned back on, the approach to dishing out food with limited resources has stuck with us!