When we left you last time in Part 1, Cabot Nelson (a former hot dog stand owner and current taco enthousiast) and Kelly were sitting down to some delicious Mexican food at Taqueria Lolita. This is the dramatic conclusion of that particular conversation…
Kelly : Can you tell us more about the hot dog cart you ran with your father?
Cabot : We started in March of 2002. We were hopeful that business would pick up, and we did well during events near Washington Square like the Gay Pride Parade. All in all, the price per unit for hot dogs was higher than tacos. It was difficult to be profitable with little traffic. And let’s face it – tacos are much tastier than hot dogs.
K : Cabot, you also have education in Urban Planning is that correct?
C : Yes. Lately we were discussing the “Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs. That is part of the canon of city planning.
K : I love reading how important it is to her to know how a city functions. She says that the function of a city emerges from a city’s streets.
C : When she wrote that, she was simply saying that cities had a life of their own and that the “streets” were not all that bad.
K : What I find interesting is that our interactions on the streets make up the city on a whole. While I’m not sure that Jane Jacobs ever wrote anything about street food specifically, I heard an NPR program recently which explored what she might say about street food vendors. What do you think she would say?
C : She would definitely identify with the street vendors. As the barrier is so low for entry, a population which would normally be dispossessed is empowered to enter into commerce. Then combine that with the response to the homogeneity that they face all the time and we find a happy meeting that occurs at the taco stands. That is remarkable.
K : Earlier we talked a bit about enforcement and regulation. I know that in West Valley City and I believe Salt Lake City as well there are a limited number of permits for street food vendors. Do you agree with controlling the number of permits?
C : I do not agree with capping like this, but rather it is that the city does not have manpower to enforce regulations. Nor do they have the tax dollars for it. I wish that they could do more, but these things take money.
K : Now I wanted to ask you something as someone who has owned a food stand in SLC. People often say to me “I hear those taco carts have no regulations” or “I hear those places aren’t safe to eat at”. Could you comment on that?
C : We were inspected twice and things had to be kept clean. There are rules. The public servants who work at the State Health department down in Murray are great people. I have a lot of respect for them and they work hard to protect the health of the public.
K : I would like to talk about another myth I have heard. Do you believe that the taco stands are inspected any more or less frequently than other establishments like restaurants?
C : No. They’re not visited any more or less frequently than other establishments.
K : So as a taco enthusiast yourself, what is your favorite Mexican dish?
C : I love chili verde. It’s interesting that they have some [recipes] which use tomatillo as its base and others which use corn starch as its base. I love the tomatillo. This has been a very telling instruction to me over the past ten years about the demographic differences between different supermarkets. Ten years ago when I lived there the Smith’s in Sugarhouse had a little bin of maybe a few choices of tomatillo. But then I would visit another Smith’s in the west side of the city around 900 West…
K : A different story..
C : BAM!!! They got tomatillos! A big bin of them. Why? Because people take them and puree them and make incredible savory dishes! Oh, it makes me hungry just thinking about it… Mmmmmm…
K : Well one of the other things we wanted to do with slctacos.com and we have had some success with on the Myspace group is to start taco flash mobs. On some random morning, the idea is to blast out emails or text messages giving instructions to show up to a certain time at a certain taco stand. We eat for 30 minutes, there’s a sense of instantaneous community and then we disperse.
C : That’s another thing that I wanted to talk about was community. I would love it if the website could also help to form a community for taco stand owners. They could communicate about regulations and issues and organize themselves. They could also introduce a special interest group to represent them as a whole in each one of the cities.
K : Yes. This kind of thing has happened in LA.
C : Yes! It just needs to be kicked up in Salt Lake! And I assure you great things could come from that. You’re a step ahead by having the website. But with all due respect to ourselves, we’re just commentators in what’s happening.
[Our nice senora stops by and asks us if anyone needs a box…]
K : Cabot, before we leave I wanted to ask you something. There’s a book that I read for French literature class. It’s called “Salut, Galarneau” and it’s about a fictional man in Montreal who operates a hot dog stand. It’s a fascinating read and it’s about the people he meets on the street. In the end of the book the conclusion is that being a hot dog stand owner is a NOBLE DUTY. He says that a food stand owner provides two things. The first is food and the second is a place on the street with real, honest human interaction. Do you agree with this that being a stand owner is a noble duty?
C : Absolutely. Absolutely. A noble duty. I like the way you put that. I was saying earlier that meeting other people occurs through commerce. To me this is a beautiful way of saying it.