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Cooking Like a New York City Food Cart Vendor

Posted on February 13th, 2019

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Jim DuFresne, the main blogger for MichiganTrailMaps.com, was sitting in Times Square when he realized that New York City food cart vendors could teach a thing or two to backpackers. What could they possibly have in common? Read his latest Trail Talk blog to find out (and pick up a few cooking tips).

It took us a lot longer than we thought but good trail maps take time we discovered. Earlier this year however we uploaded our 300th trail map on the MichiganTrailMaps.com website.  You can find a new adventure and a trail map to with it at our Advanced Search Page where trails can be located by region, county, city, activity or by typing the name of the trail in the search box. Now onto the next 300 trails!

By Jim DuFresne

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time the past year in New York City – my daughter lives there among other things – and I’ve become enamored with the hardest working person in this metropolis of more than 8 million.

The food cart vendor.

Jim DuFresne

On a recent Sunday, it hit 60 degrees in Manhattan and I was doing what everybody else was doing, enjoying the sunshine and the sudden warmth with a long stroll. When I arrived at Times Square, ground zero for Gotham City street food, I sat on a bench and for 15 minutes watched a vendor taking orders, cooking, serving, selling and cajoling his customers all at the same time. This guy was amazing.

Standing behind a cart that was no more than six-feet long and two-feet wide, his menu would put half the diners in Detroit to shame. He offered almost 30 different dishes along with an assortment of beverages. There were the staples; Italian sausages with grilled onions and peppers, chili dogs and hot pretzels. There were also some surprises; lamb gyros, shish kebabs, Philly cheese steaks. Then there was the how-does-he-do-that offerings; fish over rice, lamb salad, falafel, hot knish.

I don’t even know what chicken biryani is but he served it. And if this had been the holidays I’m sure I could have ordered roasted chestnuts.

What to have? New York City Food Cart Vendors

There were also food trucks in the area and carts so large that the chef/owner stood inside with hot dishes and money being passed through a sliding window. There was even a stool in there for when business was slow and a heater to get him through the winter.

But it was the vendors with the small carts, who are on their feet all day, whose only protection from the elements is a blue-and-yellow Sabrett hot dog umbrella (The Frankfurter New Yorkers Relish!), that I have come to truly admire.

And the longer I watched them the more I realized that there were a few lessons that backpackers could learn from a New York City food cart vendor:

Pre-expedition planning is the key

My vendor doesn’t arrive at Times Square wondering what he is going to cook that day. He knows what he’s going to cook, he knows what ingredients he needs, how much chicken and lamb he’ll sell and where it’s stored in his cart. Even if you’re eating freeze-dried backpacker’s meals every night, you need to carefully plan every aspect of your menu in advance, choosing what works and what doesn’t out in the woods. The last thing you want to be doing after a long day on the trail is spend 30 minutes rummaging through your pack, trying figure what to make for dinner.

Prep your meals before you leave home

How do you cook 30 different dishes from a six-by-two-foot cart with six customers waiting to order? Well, you certainly don’t arrive with a chicken that needs deboning. My vendor preps everything in advance and then just slaps strips of pre-cooked chicken on his small charcoal grill to heat them up and add a few grill marks.

Backpackers should do the same. Repackage everything in Zip-locks bags with only the exact amount you need. Prep and mix what you can in advance. Tomato paste is a wonderful item to haul along as it thickens up everything from quick pasta dishes to dried soup but you don’t want to be packing a can or two of it. Instead spread the paste out on a cookie sheet and dry it at the lowest setting in your oven to a rubbery consistency. Then roll it up and bag it.

Food is often the heaviest part of your pack at the beginning of any multi-day adventure so it is pertinent that you take only what you need and carry as little cardboard and cans as possible. It’s a cardinal sin for backpackers to finish a trail with anything more than a granola bar and half a bag of gorp. There is no reason to carry six packets of uneaten instant oatmeal the entire trek.

Classic street food: A Sabrett chili dog.

Location, location, location

My vendor set up his cart at the same spot every day I saw him. He was on the west side of the square, near a set of bleachers so his customers could take their Philly cheese steak sandwiches and feast while enjoying great people watching.

Just don’t set up your kitchen anywhere. Keep it away from your tent but a short walk from your water source and out of the wind if possible. If you’re in bear country like the Porcupine Mountains or even better Alaska’s Denali National Park keep it away from berry patches or streams filled with spawning salmon. Search for a spot that has a pair of trees that will allow you to hang your food between them and 10 feet off the ground to keep bears or raccoons from snatching it. Or if you’re on North Manitou Island chipmunks.

Know your fuel source

My vendor had a 20-pound propane tank tucked on side of his cart for easy storage and a small bag of chunky charcoal. He had the fuel he needed to cook his diverse menu and he knew he had enough to get him through a day of turning out gyros and Kati rolls.

Those are golden rules for backpackers as well. There’s a delicate balance between running out fuel before you reach the trailhead and reaching the trailhead with two extra canisters for your Jetboil.

Be a gourmet in the wilderness

In this wilderness of concrete and skyscrapers, my vendor is not afraid to whip up a halal beef shish kebab served on a bed of yellow rice. You shouldn’t be either. Don’t deprive yourself, don’t settle for Ramen noodles or cup-a-soup every night. It’s okay to pack along a box of wine, just leave the cardboard box at home. Be adventurous. Do so knowing that whatever you cook – and however it turns out – is going to taste great after a 10-mile day on the trail and a metal cup of that cheap chardonnay.

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