The Gourmet Q + A: Irene Tinker

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IT: We once considered trying to secure funding to study street food in New York, but our original thinking was, these are mean streets, there’s probably a mafia presence here, a lot of nastiness. But as for gender, perhaps women are more involved than it might seem. First of all, do street vendors tend to prepare everything right there, or is some of the food prepped and brought in? If we were conducting a study of New York City, that’s the sort of question we would start with: Where are your ingredients from? You might find that there’s a hidden component of female labor there. And also: Where do the carts go at night—are they kept in garages? In some countries and cities, you have to put your cart away at night, meaning that your spot has been vacated, and if anyone takes it, you’re in for a fight. Isn’t that how it is in New York? But in Portland, most street vendors have permanent locations—they don’t move.

This is a bit of a tangent, but I remember reading a study on the role of sunshine and shadow as it affects the use of plazas in the street-food trade. This was down in the Wall Street area, where you have all those tall buildings, and the researchers found that light plays a crucial role in the success of a business. They also found that when there’s a place nearby for people to sit in the sunshine, even just a low wall to perch on, it’s much more likely that a vibrant street-food community will develop.

MRT: Speaking of the vibrancy and allure of street food, let’s talk about one of the greatest dilemmas for tourists from the first world when traveling: Do you indulge in that wonderful street food and risk illness, or do you play it safe and boring by avoiding it altogether? Do you have any tips for how to negotiate this?

IT: During all our studies, our researchers, who were by and large locals, only got sick twice. One had eaten ceviche—which, as you know, is raw fish that’s only been vinegar-cooked—in the Philippines. The other had eaten oysters in Senegal, and of course oysters love to cluster beneath a sewer outtake. Either of these things could have occurred anywhere. And I should mention a study done in Pune, in the state of Maharashtra, India, where local researchers found a higher incidence of food-related illness from small restaurants than from street food, because in restaurants the bugs stay in one place, while vendors move their carts around.

That said, the single most important problem here is water, for washing pots, pans, and hands. In places like Senegal and Nigeria, locals will bring their own bowls and spoons to the vendors—they’ll never risk using the vendors’ utensils. In Bogor, Indonesia, I’ve seen vendors take a pailful of water from the canal and float a banana leaf on top to disguise how dirty it is, then rinse their plates in that water. Eating from one of those plates would not be a good idea. But if you were to eat that same food off a skewer, a banana leaf, or a napkin, it would be perfectly safe.

Another concern involves preparation method. Most vendors sell traditional food made in traditional ways, so most of the people eating the food are accustomed to it and have no trouble. But people not used to eating lower-level-safety food—tourists—will get sick. Until consumers in country begin to demand cleaner street food, that won’t change. It takes consumers’ unions and people yelling and creating a fuss to make things safer.

MRT: So much for consumer health and safety. What about the vendors themselves—what sorts of occupational hazards do they face?

IT: The biggest hazard is the government, especially in capital cities, which tend to take the view that in order to look good and modernize, you have to get rid of street-food vendors. Most vendors have to have at least two permits, one to own and use the cart and the other from the health department. And it often costs a whole day’s wages to get a health inspection, so very few people have all the right kinds of permits. And then of course in many places there’s the question of baksheesh, or palm-greasing, which some vendors told us about, although we never asked policemen directly as to whether they were on the take.

But back to these city-wide “clean-up” efforts: At first, international institutions such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization supported them—they’d go around to newly set up departments of health in, say, Cairo and tell them to get rid of street food carts because they were dirty. But after I told the FAO about our research, they did a 180-degree turnaround and started working with vendors, training them, and in many cases helping to organize them—they recognized that this was a better away to pass along ideas about health and safety.

MRT: Having spent so many years studying street food and the people who sell it around the world, what sorts of cross-cultural conclusions can you can draw?

IT: First of all, in most countries, people selling street food are doing so as just one of several family survival mechanisms. You receive unpaid labor from your family members, and you’re able to feed them on leftovers, which wouldn’t keep anyway due to lack of refrigeration.

Second, sooner or later street vendors tend to funnel their profits into something more stable. You don’t want to be consuming your assets all the time, so once you’ve accumulated a little money you buy some form of transport and, say, become a supplier to other street-food vendors, or you open a little dry-goods shop.

Third, it’s not that easy to become a vendor. The very poor don’t tend to be able to do it—they don’t have the skills—and people coming from rural areas don’t necessarily have what it takes to be entrepreneurs, any more than women automatically know how to sew. It takes a fair amount of skill to learn how to prepare food, and it takes capital to open a business. That said, most street vendors absolutely do not want to owe money. They don’t want to borrow from outsiders. The lesson there for microfinance is that the most important way to support street vendors is to ensure that poor people have access to cheap credit. If a moneylender charges you—and this is a conservative estimate—36 percent per month, but you’re able to borrow elsewhere for your household needs at 16 percent per year, well, your family income has already gone up whether the business is successful or not.

And by the way, if you want to support street vendors through lending or microfinance, put your money in the hands of women. They’ll spend it on their children, ensuring that they have good nutrition and go to school.

MRT: Any final thoughts?

IT: Just one. Any time you speak to vendors anywhere in the world, you’ll find that they’re very concerned with good health care, because if you get sick, you can’t sell every day, and boom, your enterprise is gone. So anytime street food vendors organize, you’ll find that health care is at the top of their list—and that’s very interesting in light of the current debate here in the United States.

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