June 22nd, 2017
Taco Trucks at Every Mosque
Just when I was about to completely despair of the world in which I live, along comes Taco Trucks at Every Mosque, delivering tidings of Feliz Ramadan. This delightful notion is a riposte to the comments of Marco Gutierrez, the presumably self-hating co-founder of Latinos for Trump. In September of 2016, Gutierrez catapulted himself to internet infamy (and a Wikipedia page) by commenting “My culture is a very dominant culture, and it’s imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.”
But there’s a silver lining to Gutierrez’s buffoonery in that it inspired two Californians, Muslim activist Rida Hamida and hispanic high school teacher Ben Vazquez, to unleash conceptual judo by bringing taco trucks to help break the Ramadan fast at local mosques. If you’re anything like me, that image alone — the taco truck framed by the sheltering bulk of the mosque — is enough to make one stop and consider how it is that this seems so utterly novel. Mexican cuisine and Islam seem to inhabit two completely separate spheres of experience. This, with any historical perspective, is clearly not the case. Islamic rulers controlled Spain and Portugal to varying degrees for seven hundred years, finally losing power only shortly before Columbus set foot in the New World, beginning the chain of events that would lead to Mexico.
But from the other end of the telescope, there seems to be very little connection beyond the one that inspired Hamida and Vazquez. I’m referring, of course, to the tarring of both citizens of Mexico and followers of Islam by the babbling xenophobe currently inhabiting the White House. You can read about the details of Taco Trucks at Every Mosque in the LA Times, but here we are going to detour to consider the role of the food truck itself.
Let’s stipulate that the food truck is a profoundly unlovely beast. And yet the very sight of one brings a moment of — what, exactly? Surprise? Possibility? Serendipity? Maybe it’s just me, but the act of stumbling across a food truck, (or ice cream carts or pretzel stands or espresso bikes, and so on) actually changes your day. Even if you don’t stop for a bite, it’s as though the discovery of unexpected sustenance triggers some innate response. That wouldn’t be a surprise, what with our ancient lineage of hunting and gathering. But it seems to me that there’s something else at work here.
Offering sustenance is the root of hospitality and food sharing is intrinsic to humanity. But there’s a leap between sharing food with the other members of “tribe,” whatever that may be, and sharing food with the passing traveler, strange by definition and carrying with him the taint of otherness. Anthropologists working in the New Guinea highlands in the 1960s — a place where the rugged landscape created a maximum density of tightly packed but disparate cultures — noted that when members of strange tribes encountered each other, the very first thing that would happen was a kind of mutual interrogation. Both sides would try mightily to discover if there was some sort of relation between them, some distant and little known bond that would allow them to avoid the otherwise unavoidable battle that tradition demanded.
Most of us are far from that sort of freighted interaction, but perhaps not as far as we might think. I once had a grandparent born so far back in time that he recalled not only living in a dugout cabin in the Old West, but also the day he looked up from playing in the dirt to see three Native Americans on horseback, war paint and all, looking down at him. Confronted with this inauspicious beginning, his mother’s response was to invite the braves in for lunch. They agreed and the potentially combustible otherness was quenched around the dining table.
I think the food truck, in all its guises, carries this history and promise with it. When we encounter a meal where we did not expect one, it feels as though the universe, in some small way, is smiling. When we happen upon a taco truck in LA, or a halal truck in NYC, many of us are also encountering a culture that, however familiar it may be, is not our own. William Whyte, the wise and puckish soul who learned to decode what he called the social life of small urban spaces, discovered that when there is a food vendor on the corner, or at the bottom of the steps, or where the paths in the park intersect, that vendor becomes the de facto “mayor” of that site. His or her very presence changes the material nature of the place, from nowhere in particular to somewhere specific, and what’s more, the mayor sets the tone.
Without even trying, a kind of law radiates out of the waffle stand or pretzel bike. No one decides this, it just happens, because it is rooted in something deep in who we are and where we come from. No one needs to learn this and no one, as William Whyte discovered, even needs to be aware of these social codes to be party to them.
All of which makes Taco Trucks at Every Mosque particularly interesting because when the truck opens for business, they are not just doing business. They are also sending a message to everyone within sight or scent that the law of conviviality is here, and we will feel a tiny tug in the back of our minds, suggesting that we ought to behave like human beings, regardless of our otherness.
A young but thoughtful waiter once said, when reflecting subtleties of his job, “People are vulnerable when they’re eating.” He’s right about that, as mysterious as the reasons may be, and perhaps that’s why the conversations we have over food can be so socially powerful. To eat together is to expose our vulnerabilities to one another, and that, of course, is the first step to recognizing that whatever otherness we may see in others or carry in ourselves, is little more than a shell. In this case, a taco shell.