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Meet Ariel D. Smith, ‘The Food Truck Scholar’

Her work examines why Black food trucks are important in their communities

On a warm April day last year, Ariel D. Smith was once again cruising her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, in her blue Kia Forte sedan, windows down.

That car — bought three years ago and christened with the bougie name “Jayden Asher” — now has about 40,000 miles on its odometer. Smith estimates about 28,000 of those miles came from chasing down Black-owned food trucks. On that spring trip, she checked out the new brick-and-mortar outpost of the Naughty But Nice Kettle Corn Co. food truck, known for French toast popcorn and a green apple pie flavor.

Smith, 30, also known as The Food Truck Scholar, has made a career of documenting Black entrepreneurs’ mobile eateries. For her doctoral dissertation at Purdue University and other projects, she interviewed about 100 food truck operators from her native Alabama to England. Many of those operators were featured on her The Food Truck Scholar podcast. From those conversations and careful observation, she’s published a guide advising would-be food truck owners on everything from navigating rules about where food trucks can park to designing a closet-sized kitchen on wheels.

Andscape recently spoke with Smith, who will join the Wake Forest University faculty later this year. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Ariel D. Smith (left) with Ofenel Lafrance (right), owner of Liq-N-Wings, at Black Pod Festival in Atlanta.

Ariel D. Smith

Your great-aunt raised you, and she’s a large part of why you developed this interest.

When I was very small, she directed a day care center on the east side of town, and it was very common to see street vendors. This guy named Sky would pull up to the day care center in this van with all different types of clothes. I don’t think anybody ever questioned where the clothes came from. Don’t nobody know!

A fruit guy would come up in a truck, and he had these big old giant cardboard crates of oranges and plums. She would buy a box to give to the kids and a whole different shipment that she would bring to the house. We’d go down Third Avenue in Birmingham, and she’d buy newspapers from some guys in suits. I didn’t know at the time that it was the Nation of Islam.

I didn’t realize how she was teaching me to value Black economics. When everybody was saying ‘Buy Black,’ she didn’t say it. She just did it. I love street vendors because she exposed me to them. She never treated them as second-class.

There’s a long history of Black street vendors, going back to after the Civil War when newly freed people tried to sell food in public markets — and faced pushback because they were competition. 

They’re even in the 1700s, when both enslaved and free people in New York City were selling wares on the street. They were called hucksters. I argue there has never been a time in this nation’s history when street vending was not happening and Black folks weren’t doing it. When people trace the lineage of food trucks, that history is usually very white or Mexican. People love to go back to the covered chuck wagons or taco trucks. But where are the Black people? ’Cause if there’s one thing Black people do, we going to eat AND be on the move.

People like Lillian Dean, called Pig Foot Mary, came up to New York during the Great Migration [in the early 1900s]. The story is that she only had two outfits and she had a baby carriage. She would sell pig feet out of that baby carriage, then it became a steam table. By the time she died, she owned real estate.

What is the most unusual thing you’ve seen in Black food trucks?

I saw a food truck that was a carriage, like the once-was-a-pumpkin Cinderella carriage. It was all about ice cream but also sexual innuendo. (‘Do you want nuts on that?’) I interviewed a guy with a wild game food truck: deer, moose, and alligator. Of course, he was in Florida.

This was not something you initially intended to study.

We had a moment at the University of Alabama when I was in undergrad when they closed our student center. Then, they had food trucks. It was a part of our meal plan. 

Also, I remember being at my church in Birmingham and my pastor talked about how folks were grilling him because he had never ‘had Travis. If you ain’t had Travis, you can’t really say you from Birmingham.’ And I’m standing there in my head, saying, ‘I don’t know who Travis is and I’ve been here this whole time.’ Travis sells ‘bear burgers,’ these huge burgers. He takes some beef, some sauce, some peppers, and onion and mixes it up. Chops it up and then adds it on top of said burger. It’s GOOD. And he came out in the ’90s, way before people were talking about food trucks.

Then, when I got to Purdue, I’m on Instagram and Facebook. A couple of friends would always post their food, especially their lunches in Birmingham. And I saw food that I knew they weren’t posting when I was living there in 2015. 

What caused the food truck boom?

In ’08, we have the Great Recession. In moments of economic crises where people have lost jobs, they turn to entrepreneurship in different ways. Food trucks were one of them. You’ve got chefs now out of a job. They’re figuring out what they can do, and, in one case, ‘It was like, ‘Well, Mom, you make a good grilled cheese.’ ’

In [the local] context, Birmingham was gentrifying and property rates were increasing, pricing Black people out of brick-and-mortar restaurants.

Ariel D. Smith photographs the Turkey Leg Hut food truck in Houston.

Ariel D. Smith

What makes a food truck Black, beyond the obvious? 

It’s the call-and-response for me. The call may have been that you have been incarcerated and you out here trying to apply for jobs and you gotta check the felon box. Or you can’t go back to school because you can’t get financial aid. There is a call for you to care for yourself and your family. The response: ‘Let me get this ambulance and turn it into a food truck real quick.’ There’s some type of emotional, financial, and spiritual call that Black people respond to with the food.

Really, the food is the smallest part of the truck. 

Some of these food trucks are literally moving epitaphs. You don’t recognize it until you really sit down and look at it, at the menu items. And you realize the business is named after his brother who was murdered. 

When I look at how many Black businesses start, it’s because in some way we got marginalized or our needs weren’t being met.

Tell me about the visual appeal of Black food trucks. Some are little more than a revamped delivery truck, but a lot have real razzle-dazzle. 

When I see a food truck, I see the cover of an album, especially vinyl records. Many of them are gonna have airbrushing. I have not seen any other demographic have food trucks airbrushed [to such an extent]. I don’t know what else gonna give you 2005 more than that. 

You taught yourself podcasting while in graduate school, working three jobs, and interviewing on weekends and whenever you could squeeze them in. How did you do all of that? 

People ask me a lot about what I built. They don’t talk to me a lot about what got deconstructed. Which was my mental health. Black people are very giving people to a fault sometimes, and I am one of ’em. I gave a lot of my time and money. Even if [food truck owners] didn’t know who I was, I wanted them to know that if no other platform recognizes you, I see you. 

The breakdown came in 2019. So many things happened that year that I shouldn’t be alive. I got to this place: ‘What do you do when you built something that is in legit direct service to others, but you paid for it with your body?’ I’m still figuring it out.

One thing that’s so affirming about your podcast is your voice — your accent, the words you use, and your use of African-American vernacular. You signal that this is a FUBU podcast: for us, by us. 

In high school, I code-switched a lot. We had a speech class that taught us how to neutralize our accent because [instructors] said that Southerners would never be taken seriously. 

Whether I talk like dis or whether I speak like this, it’s still the same brain. In the podcast, you hear about five different voices. One is a bit more ’hood than the others. Some have got a thicker accent than others. Some got a few more academic words than others. But it’s all me.

Dr. Cynthia Greenlee is a North Carolina-based historian, writer and editor. She writes about food, history, reproductive health, and whatever piques her fancy. She has won a James Beard Foundation Award, the nation's highest honor in American food writing, and was the lead editor in "The Echoing Ida Collection" anthology of Black women and people writing about reproductive and social justice. Check out her website at www.cynthiagreenlee.com for her greatest hits.