Editors Note: Long before it was culinary chic to retrofit a truck to sling awesome food, the Red Hook Ballfield Vendors started doing it out of necessity. When the city threatened to shut down the freewheeling weekly Latin-American food fest, Cesar Fuentes took it upon himself to stand up for his community of vendors, and helped save what’s become one of the most iconic food stops in all of Brooklyn: the Red Hook Ballfields. In part 1 of a series of conversations with the vendors themselves, we talk with Cesar –stay tuned for part 2 next week.
By Leanne Tory-Murphy
The industrial streets of Red Hook offer a seemingly incongruous setting for one of NYC’s widely acclaimed gastronomic gems. As I made my way down from the Smith and 9th Street station, past the scrap metal dealer, past the cement mixer, underneath an expressway and through a bevy of warehouses I wondered what I would find when I arrived to the corner of Clinton and Bay Streets, and to the opening day of the 2011 season of the Red Hook Food Vendors.
The Red Hook Food Vendors, now a collection of 10 food trucks, each turning out cuisines from various regions of Latin America, have been in operation since the mid 70s. It all started when the soccer leagues began to use the Red Hook Ballfields for their soccer matches. Many of the players and spectators were immigrants from Latin America, and because the area is so isolated and lacking in food or drink establishments, food purveyors began to come to the matches, setting up small stands to serve those attending the games.
Selling food in the street is common practice in many parts of the world, and the foods the vendors sell are what one would find in their home regions — huaraches, aguas frescas, pupusas, ceviche, tacos, arepas and more. The vendors come from many countries, including Mexico, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala and Ecuador.
“They are the artisans of their craft. They are not professional chefs, but they have with them centuries and generations of valuable family recipes and treasures that they have brought with them as they’ve migrated to this country,” says Cesar Fuentes, Executive Director of the Food Vendors Committee of Red Hook. He continues, “The reputation begins and ends with the food.”
Fuentes became involved with the vendors while working at his mother’s stand during his summer breaks from college. “I was just like at McDonalds, the the French fry guy. I was the plantain frying guy.” he laughs. The Committee came together 11 years ago to organize and strengthen the vendors who had been threatened with eviction due to permitting issues.
Fuentes continues, ”I saw my mother losing something she had just started. I saw them suffering and I saw them borrowing what they didn’t have just to start a business and working very hard and having dreams of becoming very successful. I wasn’t about to let it go.” Fuentes mediated with the Parks Department and nearly single-handedly cleaned up all of the trash in the ballfieds. In a bittersweet victory, the vendors also traded in their tables for mobile food trucks that complied with the requirements of the City.
In the 90s, Fuentes reminds me, “Red Hook was not the Red Hook of now — it was comparatively famed as one of the worst neighborhoods in Brooklyn, or even in the city…it was, in fact, even coined as the crack capital of America.” He cites the Latino food vendors, none of whom live in the area, as having “the notoriety of being the first wedge that brought gentrification to the area.”
In the mid 2000s the patrons of the food vendors expanded beyond the Latino communities who came to watch the soccer matches. As the audience grew, so too did the scrutiny of the City, which again attempted to deny permits to the vendors. This time there was a public outcry. In what Fuentes terms the “Bloggers Revolution” the Red Hook Food Vendors were written up across the foodie blogosphere with the cry of “Save the Soccer Taco!” and with this support were able to eventually secure a 6-year permit which they are in the middle of now.
The Red Hook Food Vendors have now been widely recognized for their culinary contributions. Last summer they received the prestigious Placemaking Award from Mayor Bloomberg and the Small Business Services Agency. Two of the vendors have been Vendy Award finalists, including Country Boys, winner of the award in 2009. They have been featured on the Food Network, on Martha Stewart and in The New York Times. Several vendors have established satellite businesses at the Brooklyn Flea, Central Park Summerstage and the Red Hook Mercado. At a small park in an isolated corner of Red Hook, they have truly created something unique and of course delicious, that draws people from throughout NYC and beyond.
A relaxed atmosphere pervades the ballfields today, one of the first Saturdays of Spring. There are families with young kids sprawled out in the grass, groups of friends at the picnic tables, and young men leaning against the fence, watching the soccer game with interest. Almost everyone is eating. Fuentes reflects, “I am happy to see that there is such a melting pot, such a mixture…whether you work on Wall Street or you could be someone who just recently migrated. You can stand side by side and just enjoy and be a person.”
Walking down the row of vendors, each new sign seems more tantalizing than the last. Should I eat Esperanza Ochoa’s ceviche? The Bandeja Platter at the Ceron stand? The tacos de barbacoa at Eleazar Perez‘, with their rainbow of salsas on a table out front? Fuentes dares everyone to “explore the vendors” but recommends, or rather, insists, that the first-timers try the pupusas or the huaraches. He knows we will be back.
As I dug into my pupusas from El Olomega, crispy on the outside and oozing with cheese and beans from within, topped with red sauce, purple slaw and sour cream, washed down with a sweet and tangy agua de tamarindo from Vaqueros, I began to look forward to the long summer ahead, punctuated by visits to the corner of Clinton and Bay.