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The (recurring) American dream: street food to cultural icon?

| Wednesday, September 13, 2017

To many, the now ubiquitous halal carts in New York are simply a source of cheap, quick and tasty Middle Eastern food. But to me, the rise of these carts in the past decade symbolize something greater than the food they sell. These carts, and the cuisine they serve, went from being an obscure staple of one the city’s numerous immigrant groups to becoming arguably the city’s most famous street food. These carts illustrate the power of the American “melting pot” and the cyclical nature of history.

Halal carts serve Americanized versions of traditional Middle Eastern specialties such as falafel, lamb and chicken gyros. The term halal refers to the way the meat is prepared in accordance with the Quran. Halal dietary laws are similar to Kosher dietary laws in the Jewish tradition. The different gyros and falafel are either served over rice or in pita bread topped off with copious amounts of the famous white sauce and red hot sauce. The food’s meteoric rise in popularity has baffled restaurant critics everywhere.

The world’s first Americanized halal cart is The Halal Guys on 53rd and 6th Avenue in midtown Manhattan. The Halal Guys has relatively obscure origins, initially serving the city’s predominantly Muslim cab drivers. The cab drivers wanted quick, filling, and inexpensive food compatible with their religion’s dietary laws. Soon enough, through word of mouth and the ever powerful taxi cab recommendation, Halal Guys became one of the city’s most popular food carts with infamously long lines. From its single street corner location in 1990, the Halal Guys have begun their global expansion with new locations in Montreal, Manila, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. Interestingly, Americanized halal food is even available in predominantly Muslim, Southeast Asian nations.

The rise of Americanized halal street food is not the first time a New York staple was propelled to the international stage. New York-style pizza is the world’s de facto pizza style. From Tokyo to Edinburgh, when people think of pizza, odds are they imagine a thin crust New York slice with marbleized cheese. Similar to halal street food, pizza had humble beginnings in New York. Pizza — like halal street food — started out as a cheap, filling meal for thousands of immigrant workers in the city. Lombardi’s Pizza in Little Italy holds the highly contested title of New York’s oldest pizzeria. Lombardi’s began as an Italian grocery store in 1905 which sold half cooked “tomato pies” to the local factory workers in the morning. Come lunch time, the factory workers would reheat the “tomato pies” in their factories using the stoves meant to heat the building. Over the years, pizza would gain larger acceptance, first in the greater New York area and eventually throughout the rest of the country. Pizza’s global takeover coincided with the post-World War II growth of America’s movie industry. American movies and TV shows are the most widely distributed forms of entertainment in the world. Through cameos in Hollywood movies and TV shows, New York Style pizza has been “exported” from the United States to the rest of the globe. A young Japanese fan of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would understandably crave for a slice of New York style pizza after watching Michelangelo chow down on pie after pizza pie. Pizza’s rise abroad can largely be attributed to how it became a mainstay of American culture which people wanted to emulate.

Another backbone of American cuisine is the hamburger. As the name suggests, hamburgers have German origins but are also distinctly American. Hamburg steak was a dish traditionally consumed by the poorer classes of the German seaport of Hamburg. Because the meat was ground and spices were added, chefs could get away with using cheaper cuts of meat. When Germans came to America, they brought Hamburg steak with them, but until that point, they lacked the all-important bun. Louis’ Lunch, a lunch wagon in New Haven, Connecticut, claims to be the first place in the world to have put the Hamburg steak in between two slices of bread to create the hamburger in the early 1900s. Louis’ Lunch catered primarily to the dock workers at the Port of New Haven who needed a quick portable meal, making the addition of the buns particularly brilliant. Over the following decades — and through another uniquely American phenomenon, fast food — hamburgers gained national and international acceptance. McDonald’s, one of the earliest hamburger fast-food restaurant chains is one of America’s greatest cultural exports with 36,000 locations — 20,000 of which are abroad. Germany, the birthplace of the Hamburg steak, even has 1500 Golden Arches of its own.

Foods like Halal, pizza and hamburgers have risen from obscure “ethnic foods” in the United States to become exported parts of American culture and part of the larger American story of immigration, assimilation and acceptance. America, by international standards, is not only a new country, but also a new civilization. Because of America’s relative youth, the country has been quick to adopt many aspects of its immigrant communities’ cultures. Time will tell if these halal carts will become as “American” as pizza and hamburgers.

Paul Kozhipatt is a senior studying political science and IT management, originally from Long Island, New York. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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