a delicious New Year's resolution for Ottawa in 2011
by Jon Lomow
Let's kick off 2011 with a New Year’s resolution for Ottawa: Establish a vibrant street food culture.
Until recently Ontario only allowed items like hot dogs and french fries to be sold from mobile food vehicles. The logic is submerged in safety fears. Minimal food preparation and thorough cooking significantly decreases the chance of food-born illness — and consequently, of healthy and imaginative culinary options. Are there ways to ensure public safety, but still allow for a vibrant, diverse and healthy street food culture? Yes. Other cities have done it; so can we.
The Province thinks it might be possible as well. In 2007, Ontario changed its regulations by placing street food options under the jurisdiction of municipal Medical Officers of Health. This allows decisions about street food and the necessary safeguards to ensure public safety, to be made locally.
This change in law was fully ignored by our previous mayor and council. But pre-Ford Toronto picked up on it — although its pilot program may serve better to illustrate how not to do it. Ottawa, with its new mayor and a revamped council, has a chance to take full advantage of the regulatory change and create something truly exciting. With our hockey teams currently wallowing in suckiness we need a new intra-provincial battlefield to reign supreme on. (Allez cuisine!).
Portland, Oregon is the papa bear of North American street food, and probably the model from which we have the most to learn. Among its close to 500 food carts (500!) are vendors serving up beef cheek tacos, kimchi quesadillas, New Mexican style green chile chicken stew (served up by The Shins' former drummer), or even a chocolate potato chip cupcake dubbed “the sugar cube."
If Portland is Papa Bear, San Francisco is Little Rebellious Baby Bear with equally delicious porridge. San Francisco and the Bay Area, the city in which Ottawa loves to paint its Silicon Valley North image, has become a street food goldilocks in its own right. There, the movement is far more underground. Vendors drive, bike and cart around town setting up shop for short periods of time notifying flavour seekers over Twitter. The legalities are hazy, but the movement seems to be self-governed by a hearty respect for food and customer. Under this look-the-other-way model there is definitely something thrilling about the chase, and it’s even more satisfying once you're licking the bones.
If Ottawa City Council doesn't act soon to foster a safe but diverse food cart culture, it will foster itself. We will begin to see an underground movement operating at temporary locations selling tasty (one hopes) goodies. Instead of having to decide whether or not to turn a blind eye, council would be wise to lead the way.
Ottawa is bursting with creative talent. If that talent is channeled effectively this city will develop into a culturally diverse and locally supplied artisan food scene that will contribute to our local economy, tourism, culture, health and, most of all, deliciousness.
So, this week my food pick is not actually something you can eat or drink — at least not yet. Instead, it’s a call for political action. Contact your councillor and let him or her know you want 2011 to be the year street food is changed in Ottawa. If that's not something you think you'll follow through on (you know, like resolving to go to the gym three times a week), help spread the word by telling friends and making rumbles online. Let's at least become aware as a community of what we don't yet have — other than a winning hockey team — so one day you, I and Daniel Alfredsson might eat tacos in the streets of Ottawa.
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