Updated: Nov 28, 2022
The streets of North Philadelphia are lined with iconic vendors dishing out everything from tacos to steaks and crepes. Temple University is proud to celebrate the diversity of cuisines available from independent vendors in our Temple community (my department even gives an image of the food trucks top billing on our website). Yet, there's almost no institutional history of street food on campus.
In the Department of History, a team of students have taken up the question: what exactly is a food truck?
No doubt an important project, the history of food trucks does pose a methodological challenge. Although oral histories can be a powerful tool in revealing the experiences of people not found in the official archives, there are limits to what pasts should be known by scholars, and on whose terms.
Plenty of scholars have written about the unequal power dynamics in writing history. Gregory Samantha Rosenthal is attentive to the precarious work of trans women in the 1970s as a usable past for mothering the next generation of LGTBQ+ folks in the American South. We similarly learn from Monica Muñoz Martinez in The Injustice Never Leaves You that not all memories need excavated -- they're willfully shown, images of lynchings hung upon the walls of a Texas Dairy Queen -- but these memories need challenged. Her oral histories then reveal the myth of Rangers protecting a dangerous frontier. Rather, most Mexican-American residents of West Texas lived in fear of the law's violence.
We must always remember there's an ethic to our work as professional historians. People's livelihoods are at stake.
Leon Fink, now editor of Labor: Studies in Working-Class History, came up against this dilemma when conducting oral histories of liberal activists who returned home to rural North Carolina and established a white-washed museum. When confronted with Fink's analysis of the interviews, the subjects withdrew consent. Fink then rewrote his article, "When Community Comes Home to Roost: The Southern Milltown as Lost Cause," using only traditional archival sources.
This cautionary tale reminds us that history has a rhythm. Even with a moral impulse to make a positive impact through scholarship, perhaps the collection and deposition of oral histories in the present is, itself, an important act towards justice. Listening is a big, radical step.
Back at Temple University -- where we're working on defining a chronology of food trucks on campus from sparse records -- we might remember that independent merchants make their living by serving students and staff at Philadelphia's largest university.
University marketing, no doubt, helps merchants. "Local food trucks are important members of the Temple community," university president Jason Wingard tweeted at the beginning of the Spring 2022 term. However, the owner-operators neither own the land on which they work nor do most have any official partnership with the university. We contract Temple Food Services through Aramark, a Fortune 500 company.
As historical professionals affiliated with Temple University, I believe it is our responsibility to partner with food truck operators on their terms. Oral histories of food service could be a powerful tool for mapping how dining has changed on campus over the last few decades. However, the partnerships to make this knowledge public must be earned.
We are not entitled to the history of food truck operators, no matter how interesting to the institution of Temple University.
This blog post was written for the 2022 seminar on Managing History at Temple University.