The Missing Street Food of Minneapolis
Let’s imagine a pleasant summer weekend afternoon spent on foot in downtown Minneapolis. You’ve had a great brunch at Hell’s Kitchen, and you’re spending a few hours window-shopping on Nicollet Mall, with your final destination being the Orpheum Theater or Orchestra Hall. Or perhaps you will take the beautiful, newly-restored Loring Greenway to walk from Nicollet to Loring Park and the Walker Art Center. At around five o’clock, though, your memory of brunch is fading, and you’re getting hungry again. Not wanting to spoil your dinner — you have late reservations at the 112 Eatery for after the show — you just need something cheap and fast to tide you over for a few hours. What you need is a hot dog.
Unfortunately, you’re not going to find one where you’re spending your afternoon — not without making a special stop for it, at least. Minneapolis has many charming urban amenities, all within walking distance of each other. One amenity typically associated with walking between these points in an American city that we do not have, however, is street food.
Why is this? The great Dara Moskowitz, herself a New York native, puzzled over this in a 1999 article in City Pages: “Yes, at the State Fair there is an ocean of street food. But there’s no Pronto Pup stand on Nicollet Mall, no walleye-on-a-stick booth on St. Peter.” This is true: there isn’t.
This is not to say there’s a complete lack of street food to be found in the Cities. You can occasionally find stands along East Lake St. selling flavored ice and Mexican delicacies. Hot dog stands appear in the summer months outside bars or restaurants once in awhile, most notably outside Grumpy’s Northeast. A 2006 article in the StarTribune on this topic claims there are at least 25 active, licensed mobile food stands in downtown St. Paul, selling everything from mini-doughnuts to grilled sandwiches to gyros. However, every time one runs into this sort of stand, it seems more like the exception than the rule. There simply doesn’t seem to be a pervasive culture of street food here the way there is in other American cities.
The best way to begin looking at this is to note that this hasn’t always been the case. Reading newspaper accounts from the end of the 19th century, one is presented with a scarcely recognizable vision of Minneapolis as bustling, foot traffic-heavy city positively choked with street vendors. Particularly around the intersections of busy downtown thoroughfares, such as Hennepin and Washington, a multi-ethnic panoply of fast, cheap dining options were available to your average Minneapolitan on the street. Roasted chestnuts were very popular, along with delicious fare such as peanuts, bananas, peaches, hot dogs, bratwurst, pretzels, fried ham-and-egg sandwiches, and – perhaps surprisingly – hot tamales. In fact, there seems to have been somewhat of a mania for corn husk-wrapped tamales among Minneapolis street food connoisseurs of the late 19th century, as the tamale cart is nearly ubiquitous in accounts of the street food scene of that era, as well as gentle, corny chastisements from newspapers to the “red hot man” for “producing dyspepsia and consequent family quarrels.”
The dark side to the good governance Minnesota has historically been known for, though, is a certain civic paternalism, which comes into full view right around the end of the century. Beginning in the 1890s, one can clearly trace a paper trail through newspaper accounts of the city’s escalating battles with the street vending community, as local government began clamping down hard on outdoor food sales. The reasons are numerous – much of the food one could buy was not of the best quality, with many of the fruit vendors apparently purchasing day-old produce from grocers, and passing it off as fresh. A few local journalists sniffed that street vendors were déclassé, tacky, taking business from “legitimate” foodsellers. At worst, they were considered a public nuisance. There is an uncomfortable whiff of pervasive institutional racism to much of the coverage of street food vendors; an 1888 profile in the Minneapolis Tribune describes these “odd people” as “dirty looking individuals” that are “not infrequently of the colored persuasion.” In that same piece, street food vendors are pictured as a noisy, unpleasant nuisance, “howl[ing] loudly” in a Chico Marx pidgin: “frash rostet ches-nutta, 5 cent a sacka.”
Additionally, there were public health concerns not related to the quality and freshness of the food; it’s not uncommon to come across newspaper accounts from the early 20th century of automobiles smashing into street carts, or even worse, of gas-powered carts and cooking apparatuses exploding, damaging buildings, creating fires, and injuring the vendors. “A few overcooked wieners,” chuckled one contemporary account of such a fire.
In 1893, the city council passed the first licensing ordinances, making it illegal to operate a food cart without a $75-a-year license — an exorbitant amount when one considers that $75 in 1893 is over $1,700 in contemporary dollars. This seems to have effectively priced out quite a few would-be vendors, many of whom were hardscrabble immigrants. Two years later, an ordinance was passed definitively banning “sandwich wagons and push carts from the business center of the city,” an area defined as extending from the river to 7th St. S., and 2nd Ave. N. in the Warehouse District to 3rd Ave. S. Exactly how strictly this was enforced is uncertain, though the vendors were said to be “considerably agitated.”
St. Paul passed a similar ordinance in 1902, leading Minneapolis Tribune columnist Ralph Wheelock to wryly note that “the Pharisees of the St. Paul Council have driven the sandwich and hot tomale [sic] Publican from the street corners. Just how the odor of fried ham could contaminate the highly moral atmosphere of the capital city does not appear in the ordinance.” Whatever burgeoning street food culture was incubating on the streets of the core cities seems to have been pushed out of sight by the early 20th century.
This is not to suggest that there was some sort of conscious conspiracy to systematically destroy street food culture in the downtown areas. However, a cursory look at the development of downtown Minneapolis through the 20th century reveals nothing particularly amenable to fostering such a culture. Consider this timeline: the advent of automotive culture and the subsequent rise of the drive-in as a one-stop destination for cheap dining (introduced from car-crazed California); the flight of white-collar jobs to the suburbs and the decline of downtown as a residential area; the destruction of the Gateway District in the 1960s and the creation of parking lots and sprawling downtown corporate campus-styled developments in its place; the implementation of the skyway system during that same period, which, for all of their cold weather convenience, have largely sucked the life off of downtown streets and created a two-tiered system of interacting with the urban fabric. Minneapolis, more than its metropolitan counterparts on the East Coast, has never consistently valued pedestrian-friendliness and density. But couple any one of these factors in with limited licensing opportunities and the half-year winters, and it’s easy to understand why an entrepreneur who is considering owning and operating an outdoor hot dog stand would conclude it’s not worth the hassle.
The current laws on the subject are interesting; they’re not as stringent as they were at the dawn of the 20th century, but do bear traces of the same impulses. Food vendors are forbidden to operate outside of virtually the same area they were once pushed out of, downtown south of Washington, north of 10th St., west of 2nd Ave N. and east of Portland. They are of course still regulated heavily, requiring a license and frequent inspections by the Department of Health.
If there is a definition of any sort of street food in urban Minnesota, it is the wildly imaginative offerings at the State Fair, which are varied enough to constitute a de facto street food cuisine — the Pronto Pup and the such-and-such-on-a-stick are probably almost as easily identified with Minnesota as the poor boy is with New Orleans, or the Coney Island dog is with Detroit. Weekly urban farmers’ markets, too, such as the Minneapolis Farmers’ Market on Lyndale Ave. and Nicollet Mall, create an opportunity for ambulatory dining — the website even implores you to “escape the skyways.” These are not ongoing affairs, however, but regularly scheduled events, limited in time and space. They don’t exist, in the case of the former, outside of the confines of the Fairgrounds, and in the latter, outside Thursdays on Nicollet Mall. They’re not a regular, fully integrated part of day-to-day experience.
The obvious answer to the question of why there isn’t a stronger street food culture here is, as with so much here, “the weather.” And while that certainly has something to do with it, it perhaps has as much to do with local government intervention and questionable urban planning decisions as anything. It’s difficult to not delight at an 1896 description of the corner of Hennepin and Washington, a scene where “street vendors of all kinds do a flourishing business, the banana man and the man with his free stone peaches,” and “the chestnut man plying his profession,” and then wonder how it might have worked out differently.
Special thanks to Rae Eighmey and Aleah Vinick at the Minnesota Historical Society for their assistance with this story.
UPDATE: The Heavy Table seeks out the not-missing street food in Minneapolis-St. Paul