Black Joy

Pull up. Pig out at these food trucks | Black Joy – September 16, 2022

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I am an endangered species

But I sing no victim’s song

I am a woman. I am an artist.

And I know where my voice belongs

Kicking off your weekend with one of my favorite moments of the week, when Sheryl Lee Ralph belted out Dianna Reeves’ “Endangered Species” after becoming the second Black woman to win Outstanding Supporting Actress at the Emmys for her role in “Abbot Elementary.” Her speech even left Reeves herself breathless and inspired Black dreamers to continue using their talents – even when they are told they don’t belong.

This long overdue praise was timed perfectly since Disney just dropped its trailer of “The Little Mermaid.” Even just a snippet of Halle Bailey’s rendition of “Part of Your World” gave me chills. I’m sure we have all gotten teary-eyed watching little Black girls smile as they watched a mermaid who looked like them in a Disney classic.

One thing I love about us, we gonna show up and show out in spaces where we know we belong. We’re here to chronicle those moments for y’all. So, forward this newsletter to your friends and fam so y’all can get a taste of the Black excellence taking over the food truck industry.

– Starr

‘We ain’t new to this’

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, Ariel 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 Ariel’s academic career as “The Food Truck Scholar.” She’s finishing 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.

Here’s snippets of me and Ariel’s conversation. You can read the full Q&A on our website and learn about food truck trends, how Black-owned food trucks are centered on community power and what makes a food truck stand out.

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

Ariel: 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?”

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

Ariel: 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.

Starr: After you graduate with your doctorate and how do you foresee the future of The Food Scholar brand?

Ariel: I am not ashamed to say putting out over 100 episodes while working three jobs, teaching and being a full-time student has been exhausting. So it’s time for me to regroup and decide how I want to pivot the Food Truck Scholar moving forward. The podcast episodes will still stay available. They’re not going anywhere. But will there be a season five? I’m not sure. I’m looking forward to see what 2023 gives me in terms of how I choose to do it. I do know that my main thing, to be honest with you, is rest. I’ve gone hard this entire time, and once I defend (my dissertation) next month, I just want to take time to unplug for a minute.

Starr: Well let’s add a golden nugget about self care for our entrepreneurial readers. What has this journey taught you about rest and what does rest look like to you?

Ariel: I learned that I don’t do it enough. I think it would look like being fully present in the moment instead of thinking about the million things I have to do and trying to prep for something while I’m in the midst of something else. It would look like not feeling as if the whole world is burning down if I don’t do something. We are in a space now where it’s always about content, content, content, content. Doesn’t matter if the content is trash or not ‘cause you got to post everyday multiple times a day. Rest for me looks like putting out quality content when you can and not being worried about what other people are doing or anybody else’s metrics. Like if it works, it works, but I’m no longer trying to burn myself out to fit everybody’s algorithm.

She know a spot (or two)!

Ariel has visited over 500 Black-owned food trucks and restaurants since 2017. Here are few that have stolen her heart and that you should check out:

Local Green bringing Black magic to Disney World

Imagine making history at the most magical place on the globe.

Local Green, a health-food focused restaurant owned by Atlanta couple Zak and Robyn Wallace, is Disney World’s first Black-owned food truck. The location exposes hundreds of thousands of visitors a year to Local Green’s menu of vegan, vegetarian and pescatarian delights. The restaurant’s Instagram will have your mouth drooling for favorite dishes such as the “Bubba Sparxx,” a pulled barbecue jackfruit sandwich dripping with vegan slaw and crispy onions.

Disney World is Local Green’s second location. Its homebase and heartbeat is in Atlanta, where Zak and Robyn whip up dishes for the urban palate, as they say on their website. This entrepreneurial journey combines Zak’s passion of introducing his family and neighborhood to plant-based foods with Robyn’s desire to tackle health disparities in the Black community. Zak grew up in a food desert. So he teamed up with his wife, previously a data scientist for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to become part of the solution.

“Having a healthier diet produces healthier outcomes. That’s why we really need to change our thinking around food, what we like and how we prepare it,” Robyn told Reckon sis Alexis Wray.

Read more about how Local Green is combatting the racist legacy of redlining by alleviating the health of Black communities. Just a hint – the plan includes bettering the lives of students who attend historically Black Colleges and universities. Not a surprise since Robyn is an alumnus of the largest HBCU in the nation, North Carolina A&T State University.

Spread the Black Joy by hitting up our very own Alexis Wray, who finished her last day of graduate school on Friday! Also send some good vibes to Ariel on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook as she defends her dissertation in October for her doctorate. Being a Black woman in the halls of academia isn’t easy, but y’all are making moves!

See y’all Friday!

Jonece Starr Dunigan

Jonece Starr Dunigan |

Jonece Starr Dunigan (She/her/hers) is a journalist who gives the microphone to communities that are often ignored by mainstream media. Guided by empathy, her reporting centers the stories, movement work and voices of Black, brown and queer people. Her writing strives to amplify and empower readers instead of exploiting them of their traumas.

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