When people picture Toronto they imagine a multi-cultural, open-minded city with an internationally recognized food scene. Being from there, I tend to agree, but there are and have always been some strange aspects regarding its culinary culture. This could not be more true when taking its street food scene into consideration. Now, let me say this before we tuck in. This is a story about hot dogs. But it is not a love story, let me tell you. Quite the opposite, in fact. This is a story about a great town that has been buried in red tape and hotdog vendors for a very long time. And while my love for franks is dear and deep, my disdain for the street food scene in my hometown has always perplexed and annoyed me.
Since its incorporation in 1834, Toronto was essentially a puritanical city. It was a “good” place–but in the conservative biblical sense of the word. Hard brick row houses on cobblestone streets dwarfed only by the churches that loomed over them. Ramshackle smokestacks in a newly burgeoning city surrounded by shanty towns, and all around lonely grey snow. A strict place, slow to change. People came to Toronto to work. And with the growing pains of any city, it’s the instability of work that often leads to new industries, not always the other way around. By the early 1900s, food stalls started appearing all over the busiest parts of the city.
It was a long time ago, so walking down the probably way colder than now streets, you could probably get some roasted nuts, maybe a pretzel if you were lucky. Either way, stalls such as these were beginning to crowd the streets. And maybe adding a little too much life and color to the pedantic brick dreariness of Olde York. By the 1980s, laws were put into place to curb–or better– to throw to the curb a lot of these new upstarts.
When I think of street food, outside of Taiwan–which has a thriving street food culture in the form of night markets, I picture cities like LA, where you can find a food truck for just about any kind of amazing thing to eat. I picture taco trucks that have an array of different condiments laid out for the customer. I picture people lining up, happily drunk after getting turfed at last call, eating cheap amazing food. I see a growing culture, rooted in diversity, competition, and tolerance. Sadly, I do not picture my hometown of Toronto; which ironically is known as a culinary destination.
That’s true, if you want restaurants. And sure, restaurants are amazing in Toronto. Any food imaginable exists, as it should in a major metropolis. But here’s the thing with restaurants: they close. And often, they close before the bars do. So, you’re screwed for the most part, unless you can find something that’s still open and serving food in Chinatown–which you can–if you’re willing to wait for a table. A lot of people don’t wanna sit down at 2am. They’d rather grab a roadside snack that’s delicious and stay outside, where they can be loud and maybe smoke darts. I don’t know. Enter the hot diggety dog.
While it’s pretty much unknown how the “street meat” dog became the only kind of food vendor to be found from say, the 1980s to 2010, I’ll have to jump in and make some kind of inference because there’s nothing online. I would guess this based on what I’ve read. Vending carts by law had to be smaller, allow a certain area of walkable space in front of them, undergo various health inspections and propane tank inspections, permits were expensive and limited; and Toronto gets winter. All that being said, I think hot dogs became the default. The operator definitely could get more money making red hots than say popcorn or chestnuts roasted on an open cart. A small footprint is pretty much all you need anyway to cook up a bunch of dogs, and hell, you could probably stay decently warm blanketed in the sweet heat of the cooking franks.
In 2012, Toronto tried to ease up on their street food bylaws, introducing the Ala Cart Law. This law allows vendors to open up their menus to things other than hot dogs, and it made food trucks legal. But it has essentially been a big failure. To date, there are only 200 or so fully licensed food trucks operating in Toronto. For one, permits and passing inspections can run you into the thousands, on top of the cost of owning or leasing the vehicle. Secondly, if you’ve ever been to Toronto, you’ll know that finding parking is a bitch even for the tiniest little car. And then there’s the law that says you can only sell food from a truck or stall if it’s 30 meters away from an open restaurant. Well, that pretty much rules out just about everywhere. To cap it off, food trucks are only allowed to serve food for 5 hours at a time.
So, the hot dog still remains. And people complain. The laws change, but not enough to support a culinary culture that is enlivening just about every major city in the states. Oh, Canada…
Perhaps Toronto should take a page from Taiwan’s food scene, and allow a vacant lot or two to be used as night markets, where trucks and stalls alike can park and set up. Night markets are hugely popular here, they run late, and they create somewhat of a city inside a city. Instead of crowding streets and competing with other restaurants, a flourishing scene could be created. A destination and a cultural experience, bringing together all of the ethnically diverse neighborhoods of Toronto to one great Meeting Place. Isn’t that what the word Toronto means, anyway?