The wine-sipping crowd that gathered Sunday night outside Saint Mark’s Church drew a number of theories from passersby. “This is some sort of left-wing thing,” a tall man said, tugging on his girlfriend’s elbow. “C’mon.”
The event could have been a blogger convention or a meeting of Downtown Yuppie Moms, but actually, it was the Vendy Awards—organized by the Street Vendor Project, an Urban Justice Center program dedicated to improving the conditions for street vendors of all kinds. Perhaps there was something to the tall man’s speculation after all, though I’d like to think a love of street food is one American value that transcends party lines.
Though the press release promised an “Iron Chef-like cook-off,” the action was slightly less dramatic than what takes place in Kitchen Stadium. The press—both amateur and official, spent most of the evening standing in long lines, often separating from spouses or blogging partners for maximum food-gathering efficiency, to sample signature dishes from the four finalists.
Piedad Cano, a/k/a the Arepa Lady, smiled like a Colombian Mona Lisa and never broke a sweat while flipping her corn cakes, her calm face illuminated by local news cameras. The only non-immigrant finalists were the three Vendley brothers, whose Tex-Mex cart was set up right outside the church, separate from the rest of the party, which took place inside a gated area. The dudes even had their own music, which included the Clash and A Tribe Called Quest. I waited on line for a full half hour for a paper thin, vegan dosa from Thiru Kumar, The Dosa Man of Washington Square Park, and I don’t regret it, even the vegan part, even my position in line between boring double date and boring moms’ night out (it’s called a yuppie sandwich and I’m trying to cut down, thanks). Honestly, by the time I hobbled over to Sammy’s Halal Cart, the idea of lamb over rice really seemed insane. But, that Sammy won the award for good reason.
200 hours after the event began, the runner-up title was given to the Dosa Man for the second year in a row, and Sammy and his entourage were honored with a big award, regaled with quiet cell phone camera clicks and less quiet cheering, and the press rushed the stage to get the Jackson Heights businessman’s reaction. It’s all about the spices, he said, and the Basmati rice—“The most expensive kind.” The Street Vendor Project had achieved its goal, making the cart cook into a “Street Chef” and a celebrity, even for just one night.