As I approached the lot, my heart despaired. People. Hundreds and hundreds of people, milling about, and in lines. Long, long lines. I had hoped that the early evening downpour would have weeded out all but the strong of heart, leaving only those culinary adventurers who truly desired to delve into the secrets of gourmet food truck cuisine, here, at the Gathering, Baltimore’s first food truck… gathering.
And this, this momentous (for Baltimore) event, a rally of all (most) of the food trucks at one spot, at one time, on a Friday evening, with wine and beer, this secret occasion, was overrun by… everyone. Despite the now-abated rain. So much for a secret.
Although the excitement had suddenly been replaced by sudden trepidation at the dense mass of food-loving citizens, there was nothing to do but dive right in. My wife and I had come this far, with our boxer Nory in tow. We wove through the crowd, chose a food truck, found the serpentine tail of the beast, and stood there, waiting for the slow movement of a line that rivaled one formed outside of a box office window selling tickets for some mid-level band in a college town. Cheese was our choice. Gourmet grilled cheese. This was the line for GrrChe.
While in other cities, like New York or Los Angeles, the food truck trend might already have soared to its apex and now be on a slowly downward trajectory, having, some might say, jumped the shark, or, as I’d like to think, simply lost the luster of the shiny reinvention of a popular American tradition and settled into the normalcy of daily life, Baltimore is just catching on to the trend. True to form for this strange, quirky, busted-up, blue-to-white-collar town, we are a few years behind. The bubble in other cities might be bursting, or at least flattening out, but in Baltimore, it’s still expanding outward in a city-wide takeover of awesome breakfast and lunchtime walk-up options, the majority of trucks having only appeared on the streets within the last year.
So it was with great excitement that my wife and I, with our boxer Nory, decided to drive to the Gathering, Baltimore’s first food truck rally, on a humid, post-downpour Friday night. Rally, in the sense that many food trucks would be in attendance, presumably racing each other metaphorically to bring in customers. They would not, by any means, be literally racing, although that would make an odd and spectacular sight, seeing old retrofitted vans trying to speed down the obstacle laden, pot-hole ridden Baltimore roads.
The Gathering, apparently spearheaded by The Silver Platter, upon which whose regular lot the event took place, saw an assemblage of the most popular, gourmet traveling kitchens around. In attendance: The Silver Platter, Gypsy Queen Café, Souper Freak, IcedGems, Dangerously Delicious Pies, Curbside Café, Miss Shirley’s Café, and Kooper’s Chowhound.
Now, I don’t know if the lot is owned by the Silver Platter, or if they just happen to have a deal with whoever does own the vacant space on Central and Eastern (is it the city?), at a crossroads between Little Italy, the Inner Harbor, and Fells Point, but, as organizers and hosts to the event, this being their home turf, the big shiny silver truck that looks like a traveling diner on wheels took front and center in the arrangement. Behind it, the beer and wine was being sold. And all around, the other trucks were vending their unique assortment of gourmet-meets-fast-food faire.
The line inched forward. Nory was restless and overwhelmed by the sheer mass of people, although he was getting generally good reviews from the passers-by and the others in line. The BCT sandwich had been erased from the whiteboard menu – there was already a bacon and tomato shortage! Why wasn’t the damn line moving? Why wasn’t any line moving? How could all these food trucks feed all these people? How come the people in the food trucks didn’t collapse from the heat? How come I hadn’t collapsed from the heat? I was feeling nervous, edgy, closed in. Too many damn people. Somebody had tweeted the secret. Posted it on facebook. Gotten it written up in the newspaper. Damn it!
Beer. I needed beer. Stat.
I handed Nory’s leash to my wife. I slipped out of the cheese line, and went in search of refreshments.
The only way we would run this gauntlet and survive was to split up, divide and conquer.
The serpentine beer line moved dreadfully slow. I couldn’t understand how many so hungry and thirsty people could remain so calm and civil. And what were we all doing, spending our Friday evenings standing in lines waiting for food fried or grilled in the smoky guts of vans retrofitted to become kitchens, instead of sitting in our favorite air-conditioned indoor restaurants sipping our pre-dinner cocktails and waiting for that fried calamari appetizer?
That, that, was the deeper question, and I tried to contemplate it as we inched ever closer to the taps.
Halfway through the small dining area that somebody had erected with a few tables and a smattering of chairs (someone who, like me, had apparently grossly underestimated the draw of the affair), I was finally getting into the swing of things. There was nothing to do here but dive in and accept the madness.
A quarter of the dining area left to go, and the line halted as a camera crew rounded the corner along with the well-made-up current mayor of Baltimore. It was, after all, an election year, and she was wasting no opportunity to bolster the support for her election bid (having inherited the throne by the ousting of the previous mayor, she had never faced the people’s vote for this position, although there was no doubt in my mind that she had enough connections, enough money, and enough general strings to pull that she certainly would win the primary, and the general election that followed, for better or, most likely, for worse). In fact, the Silver Platter’s silver food truck was sporting a huge sign in her support, and she was wasting no opportunity for a photo-op.
I am not sure if she happened to eat any actual food from the event, but I am certain that, despite her disruption of the beer line and a picture taken with the bartenders, she most certainly did not imbibe. However, after her departure, the line did move along (more quickly it seemed now, although I suspect that to be an illusion), and finally I was able to acquire two locally brewed pints of pale ale.
By this time the Curbside Café had already eighty-sixed its entire burrito menu and IcedGems had sold out of cupcakes, both trucks closed down and their crews drinking and chatting with customers and other vendors. The line to the GrrChe ordering counter, when I rejoined my wife and dog, had progressed in proportion to the number of items that had been erased from its menu. We were approaching cheese disaster, neigh, cheese Armageddon.
The other lines around us were getting longer. At least the beer was taking the edge off, and even if we were unfortunate enough to still be in line this late in the game, there were plenty of people behind us even more unfortunate.
We were only a few people away from the counter now, and one of the workers came out and erased the Wisconsin cheese and chicken sandwich, exactly what we’d been planning to order! The two women in front of us, also having been hoping to taste the combo, decided to bail out and head over to the hamburger truck.
Having come through so long, we decided to stick it out, even though the only two options left to us were a standard grilled cheese and a more decadent, although hardly gourmet, hot dog and chili cheese on Texas toast. When our turn finally came, we ordered up two of the Texas toast creations.
So what exactly was it with this gathering that brought so many people? It’s not like Baltimoreans had never seen a group of food vendors all gathered in one place at one time, a standard sight at every two to twenty-bit festival and event. It’s not like Baltimoreans were experiencing the highest dining of their lives. True, a gourmet grilled cheese, or a cup of lobster macaroni and cheese, or a pair of chorizo and pineapple tacos, or a cool bowl of gazpacho, is not exactly what one usually thinks of as coming from a food truck. But, still, we had been eating this, us blue and white-collar working stiffs, us students and stay-at-home moms and dads, us night shift workers and junkies and police officers and firemen, us citizens, at lunches throughout the week all over the city, whenever and wherever these marvelous trucks would turn.
Us citizens. That, that, was the key. That is what brought the mayor to the event. That is what brought hundreds and hundreds of fans of food truck cuisine. That is why we all braved the threat of rain and persevered through the dreadful heat.
This here, this gathering, it felt like community. It gave us all a small part of something in common, shared, this love of a food and cultural experiment. It’s why we stood in orderly lines, and no fights broke out, and nobody yelled at the vendors when they had to close their windows because they couldn’t possibly feed all the masses. We were all part of something, possibly historic, certainly not world-changing, definitely community-oriented, certainly Baltimore.
But, damn if I still haven’t had that grilled Wisconsin cheese and chicken sandwich.