Hungry History

From Chuck Wagons to Pushcarts: The History of the Food Truck

By Stephanie Butler
Story of Food Carts

Andrew Cribb/iStockphotos.com

For the past couple of years, it seems the most fashionable way to get your lunch is from a truck. From Los Angeles to New York, slinging lobster rolls or Korean tacos or gourmet ice pops, food trucks run wild across our country’s blossoming food scene. But while the craze is new, the trucks themselves are as old as dining out in America. This week we’ll take a look at the surprisingly long history of mobile dining.

Our modern food trucks stem from two separate dining traditions that predate even the invention of the automobile itself. Chuck wagons and pushcarts served cowboys and urban workers, respectively, all the way back to the years right after the Civil War. Chuck wagons followed trail-driving cowpokes in the Wild West, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner to hungry men across the plains. Chuck wagon cooks, called “cookie” by their appreciative diners, would wake as early as 3 a.m. to stoke fires, bake biscuits and do all the other work involved in feeding scores of hardworking men. The wagons themselves were designed specifically for cooking, with separate areas for pot storage, washing up and food preparation. This specialization and the ability to actually prepare and cook food make the chuck wagon the most direct ancestor of our modern food truck.

The importance of the pushcart, however, can’t be understated. While these carts lacked the ability to heat or cook food, they served simple lunches of meat pies, fruits and sandwiches to urban dwellers in larger cities like New York and Chicago. Garment workers, construction men and delivery boys relied upon the carts for cheap and filling nourishment in the middle of busy days. While the design of the chuck wagons was closer to our modern day trucks, the purpose of the pushcarts – to provide a reasonable lunch to working urban folk – was much nearer to the purpose of the trucks today.

After the advent of the automobile, then, how long did it take for actual food trucks to appear? In the 1950s, ice cream trucks were the first businesses to take to the streets in modified vehicles that looked almost exactly like their trucks today. Complete with recorded jingles and painted on signs, some of these trucks might even still be on the road today. The 1960s brought larger trucks, the “roach coaches” we know and love as the huge behemoths selling tacos and burgers on the streets today. The trucks gained this derogatory nickname partly as a result of their often-substandard health practices, and their practice of setting up shop in construction lots or dirty alleys. But by the early 2000s, any association of food trucks with grime and grit had disappeared. Shiny, new parks were built especially for them in major cities, and entire festivals sprung up to celebrate them. Quite a leap from the days of feeding cornpone to cowfolk on the lone prairie!

Categories: American West, Automobiles