Black Joy

An Alabama foodie explores why Black-owned food trucks are important to communities

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Food has always been a centerpiece of joy in Ariel Smith’s life.

Growing up in Birmingham, Ala., Her fondest memories took place in the kitchen with members of her village, including great aunt Alleciaa Smith and great grandmother Ruth Smith. A true 90s kid, Smith tested her cooking skills on the Easy-Bake Oven, the Chuck E Cheese’s Pizza Factory oven and the Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream maker before she moved up to big girl appliances.

These moments built the foundation of Smith’s academic career as “The Food Truck Scholar.” After earning her bachelor’s in business management from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a master’s in education from Vanderbilt University, Smith is now working on her doctorate at Indiana’s Purdue University. Her dissertation examines the experiences of Black-owned food trucks and why they are essential to their communities. The Food Truck Scholar brand blossomed alongside her research in June 2018. Less than a year later, she started a podcast about food truck culture, which was rated the No.1 food truck podcast by Feedspot in 2019 and 2020. Guests have included Black food truck owners who skillfully navigated the pandemic, Food Network stars and bank executives sharing their expertise about hunting down funding.

If you are considering starting your own food truck, you want sis in your corner. Ariel has been asked to visit food trucks nationwide and globally. She’s shared her expertise during panels and seminars. Those who want to tap into Ariel’s knowledge should pick up her book, “Before You Launch A Food Truck,” which talks about eight key concepts to make your food truck stand out.

Smith talked to Reckon journalist Starr Dunigan about the history and legacy of Black-owned food trucks and how they enhance the people power in their communities:

Starr: As a journalist, I love a good story arc. So I listened to your very first episode which is about your journey to becoming The Food Truck Scholar. So, can you talk about how food became a passion for you?

Smith: Very disciplined is the best way to describe my great grandmother. All my life, she would always eat the same breakfast at the same time with the same ingredients. She had her favorite cake -- yellow cake, white cake -- and always would bake it on the same day of the week at around the same time and I would watch her bake it. One of my fondest memories with my auntie and my great grandma was that my great grandma would make the cake. Then my job was to bring the beaters and the bowl back to my auntie because she wanted to lick the batter.

As I got older, my great-grandma would let me crack the eggs, taught me how to hold the mixing bowl and how to pour the batter into the cake pan. I had the Easy-Bake Oven and my auntie bought every other cooking oven kits for kids you could possibly imagine for me. I quickly realized that some of the kits she was buying were not kits that I wanted. It was because (my auntie) wanted it and that was a part of her childhood she wanted to relive with me.

I grew up going to farmers markets. I feel like sometimes this whole farm-to-table thing is kind of like a trend now, but it was never introduced that way. It was just what we did. I’m in school now and people talking about, “Buy Black this. Buy Black that.” I’m like, I always did this. My great grandma bought watermelons from this one dude. If he wasn’t there, she didn’t go to the market.

So food has always been a space for me to get excited, to be creative, to meet friends and hash out issues we may have had. I should have known I would do something with food because I would always keep up with new food trends. I knew when Burger King had the chicken fries. I knew when Sprite came out with new sodas and I remember the order that those remix sodas came out. I was just always that person.

Starr: Can you give us a synopsis on how and why you became the Food Truck Scholar?

Smith: We didn’t have a food truck up here in Indiana and I was jealous seeing all my friends (in Birmingham) post about food trucks. I wanted to know why Birmingham was getting all these Black-owned food trucks. So I looked into if food trucks were connected to gentrification or not because Birmingham was – and is – going through the midst of gentrification. I wrote about and got an A. I said, “Let me find out I can eat my way to a Ph.D.” So I continued talking about that topic, but then my advisor pushed me to answer why do black food trucks matter in the first place? And so I started researching that topic.

For the podcast, I was thinking that if I do really well at this, I could be a public scholar like Melissa Harris-Perry, and maybe Food Network will see me. Then I realized, “Why are you waiting for a platform to see you when you can build what you want to build for Black food trucks now?”

Starr: So what was your answer to the question, “Why do Black food trucks matter in the first place?”

Smith: It’s more than just food. It’s economics. It’s social capital. It’s cultural preservation. It’s community uplift. It’s resistance.

I mean cultural preservation in terms of reminding us that we ain’t new to this. We’re true to this. Street vending is not new to Black folks. That’s something we can trace to the 17th/18th century in the United States to the urban centers of Charleston to New Orleans to New York City. We can trace that back to western Africa, specifically places in Ghana, where women dominated street vending and commerce.

When you start looking at the 1950s with the beginning of supermarkets and technology advancements, a lot of the ways Black people did street vending, especially Black women, were almost eradicated. When that happened, we lost a lot of documentation of what our ancestors were doing. So scholars like Jessica B. Harris, Dr. Psyche Williams-Forson, Ashanté Reese and others have documented those stories.

Starr: What makes Black-owned food trucks a form of community uplift and resistance?

Smith: So when I mention resistance, I don’t necessarily mean protest, although it can be leveraged that way sometimes. An example I would give is when it comes down to mass incarceration, we know the United States leads the world in incarceration and it incarcerates Black people more than anybody. Now, we say so much about second chances. We say so much about reform. But when a person is re-entered into society, what jobs do they have? We know the food service industry has historically been that place for many people to just start over. But it’s one thing to start over. It’s another thing to start over and you have something that’s yours. Many food truck owners have been incarcerated. They have been able to make a job out of their passion for food, and now recidivism is lower because they have a living.

As far as community uplift, a direct quote I got from Alex Davis, pastor of Eastside Assembly of Believers said that part of the mission of their food truck, Jed’s Pizza Truck, is to invest in the maintenance of people. The family of this church has a ranch. The vision was to help women who are trying to escape abusive situations so they can live there on the ranch safely and have a job. They can work the stores selling the different sauces and different produce that comes from that ranch. He’s also hiring formerly incarcerated individuals to work on his food truck. So that’s what he meant about investing in people.

Starr: What trends have you spotted in the Black-owned food truck industry?

Smith: There’s definitely an increase of Black women of all ages. I think a lot of times when people think about Black women in food they may think of Pinky Cole with Slutty Vegan. But we’re seeing Black women who have retired and are now in the food truck industry. Whether they’re doing it on their own, with their children, with a spouse or significant other, we’re seeing an increase of Black women in the food truck space of all ages.

There was also the push now to create space so owners can do food truck parks. We see that happen a lot in Birmingham as a prime example. You’re actually starting to see people who have brick-and-mortar restaurants choosing to get a food truck. A lot of times we talk about the reverse.

Starr: I don’t want to completely spoil the wisdom in your book. So can you share with us one concept out of the eight that makes a food truck stand out?

Smith: One of the concepts is your menu. When a food truck first comes out, a lot of times they want to showcase everything they can cook. They want their customers to have a wide variety of options because in their mind they’re thinking, “Well, if I give my customers a lot of options, that means they’ll come to me, right?” When actually it has the reverse effect.

There’s always that person who never knows what they want to eat. You just made their job a million times harder and now they are holding up the line. Also, how much can you really hold on that truck because you’re gonna have food waste. I go through different suggestions of how you can present your menu so you don’t feel like your creativity is stifled, but you’re being more efficient with your time and money and also the customers’ time.

Starr: What has this journey of becoming the Food Truck Scholar taught you about Black joy?

Smith: I’ve seen people with nothing be joyful. I did a story with Natalie Young, of RHL Steaks, in Ohio. She was homeless, went through a hurricane, moved to Ohio and was literally cooking food and giving it away. For her, joy was, “Hey. All I got is the little I have left and I’m gonna give it to somebody else.”

Black joy is the little things. I remember when I went to Durham, N.C., and I saw (the owners) of Boricua Soul Food Truck for the first time in person. I interviewed them earlier in the year in 2019. We were excited to meet each other in person and we did a remix to “The Little Mermaid’' called “I want to be where the food trucks are.” For them to have that moment with me for a minute, that’s joy. I think that’s why older people say, “This joy that I have, the world didn’t give it and the world can’t take it away.” Because you can choose to create it. It doesn’t matter what’s going on at that moment.

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