Food on the Move

Colorado. The round up, “grub pile”. Photochrom by Detroit Publishing Company, between 1898 and 1905.

Colorado. The round up, “grub pile”. Photochrom by Detroit Publishing Company, between 1898 and 1905.

While the prospect of preparing and selling gourmet food from a truck may feel like a recent craze, the idea of preparing food on the go is not a novel one in America.

The first mobile kitchen in the United States harkens back to the American West, an era of massive expansion driven by Manifest Destiny, or the belief that the United States was destined to expand past its current boundaries. [1] As cowhands and ranchers began moving cattle across vast amounts of land (in a time before railroads and automobiles were invented), they relied on mobile kitchens known as chuck wagons to fuel them over the months they spent out in the open West. Charles Goodnight, an industrious cattleman, invented the first chuck wagon in 1866 by fastening a wooden box to a former U.S. army wagon for a cattle drive from Texas up north. [2] An unexpected connection to South Bend: the wagon that Goodnight used for the first chuck wagon was reportedly a Studebaker (for those who may not know, Studebaker was a wagon - and later automobile - manufacturer headquartered in South Bend, Indiana). Unlike the fare found in food trucks today, there was a lack of variety in the meals made from chuck wagons. Cooks needed to stock up on food supplies at the beginning of a trip and resorted to ingredients that did not require refrigeration, could be easily prepared, and were cheap, yet filling. Cowboys and cattlemen became accustomed to a diet of mostly beans, beef, and sourdough bread with the occasional canned vegetables or dried fruit. [3]

Across the country, a culture of street food emerged and underwent a dramatic transformation. New York City experienced an influx of immigrants in the late 1800s who predominantly landed on the Lower East Side. Trying to assimilate into the American economy and often knowing very little English, many immigrants began peddling goods, including food, on the streets of New York. Due to the need to be on the street for multiple hours at a time and the limited storage in the pushcart, vendors predominantly sold fresh fruit and vegetables as well as pre-prepared foods. Many of New York’s iconic foods were introduced by immigrants, such as Germans opening New York to delicatessens,or delis; European Jews serving the first dill pickles, kosher meats, and Knishes; and Italians selling pizza and ice cream, inspired by their homeland traditions. [4] While initially illegal to stand in one spot for more than a half hour, peddlers began defying the law to sell from stationary pushcarts and stands across New York City in the late 1800s. [5] Pushcarts were envisioned to be a stepping stone towards one day opening one’s own brick and mortar establishment. Some peddlers were able to achieve this dream: New Yorkers still frequent Nation’s Famous Hot Dogs, Russ & Daughters cafe, and Schimmel’s Knish Bakery, all deep-rooted fixtures in the New York culinary landscape, all of whom got their beginnings as stationary pushcarts and stands. [6] 

Along the east coast, pushcarts became mobile as a way to cater meals to the needs of the Second Industrial Revolution and a growing working class. While it had been common to go home during the workday for lunch, the fast pace of industrialization had made it impossible to keep up. [8] Walter Scott built the first lunch wagon in 1872 in Providence, RI, from which he would sell meals to the newspaper workers who worked through the night to get the early editions of the local papers out. [9] “Night lunch” wagons, as they became known as, quickly gained popularity with night workers, whose shifts often ended well after the eight p.m. close of local restaurants. In the late 1890s, Thomas H. Buckley put cooking stoves in his lunch wagons, which not only expanded the menu options to include warm meals, but also transformed the lunch wagon business into something akin to the food truck industry we see today. [10]

The rise of the automobile in the United States fundamentally shifted the trajectory of food on the go and, in the next post in this series, we’ll look at how food trucks evolved in the United States to take their current form.

[1] John O'Sullivan, "Annexation," United States Magazine and Democratic Review 17, no.1 (July-August 1845): 5-10.

[2] American Chuck Wagon Association, “Invention of the Chuck Wagon,”

[3] Library of Congress, “Beef and Beans,” excerpts from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940,

[4] Andrew F. Smith, “The Food and Drink of New York from 1624 to 1898,” in Jonathan Deutsch and Annie Hauck-Lawson, Gastropolis : Food and New York City, 58.

[5] Pushcarts and peddlers were often considered to be nuisances who generated traffic on sidewalks and prevented patronage to traditional storefronts. Local government issued push cart regulations to deter the business. For more information, see Daniel M. Bluestone, “‘The Pushcart Evil’: Peddlers, Merchants, and New York City’s Streets, 1890-1940.” Journal of Urban History, Vol. 18 No. 1, November 1991, 68-92.

[6] Nathan’s Famous was started in 1916 by Nathan Handwerker as a hot dog stand on Coney Island (see more information on Nathans, “About Us,” Russ & Daughters was originally Joel Russ selling herring out of a barrel and shortly thereafter a pushcart in 1907 (see Russ & Daughters Cafe, “History,” Rabbi Yonah Schimmel began selling knishes with a pushcart on Coney Island in 1890 (see Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery, “About,”

[7] New York Public Library, “Lunch Hour NYC: Quick-Lunch,”

[8] Richard Gutman, American Diner Then and Now (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2000): 14.

[9] Gutman, American Diner: Then and Now, 24.


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