Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Street Food

Yesterday on Manhattan's Upper West Side, I saw my first Mister Softee truck of the season and stopped to buy a small vanilla cone dipped in chocolate. The return of Mister Softee is like the return of the robin — a sign of spring. Through the summer and into the warm days of fall, the jingle of the ice cream trucks is the evensong of many New York neighborhoods.

With cone in hand, I walked up Broadway, remembering other street food that I have loved. When I was growing up in Philadelphia, there were chestnut vendors. I would come out of the subway near City Hall on a cold, winter's day, greeted by the smell of chestnuts roasting over hot coals. Two bags, one in each pocket, would keep my hands warm and sustain the long walk to the art museum, which was my usual destination.

On a recent trip to Portugal, I encountered chestnut vendors in Alentejo province, and couldn't pass them by. They sold their chestnuts in little paper cones — not piping hot like the ones of my youth, but still plump and meaty. In Evora, I photographed a chestnut vendor's cart on the main square.

Street food can be like Proust's petite madeleine — embodying a time and place and bringing back a flood of memories. As a travel writer, I always notice it, and when I dare, partake.