It wasn’t easy to get Shelly-Ann to talk with us. Even after we had agreed that nothing that would easily reveal her identity would see the light of day in our story she had dug her heels in. Her attitude was entirely understandable. We had decided that some part of our series of articles on street-vended foods would address the seamier side of the trade, the conditions under which service is provided and the risks to consumers associated with some of those conditions. Shelly-Ann (real name withheld) is 34, has been vending food on the streets for more than ten years and admits that she is familiar with some of the transgressions linked to the risks associated with street-vended foods. It is these risks, these transgressions that we wanted to raise with someone in the trade and once we told Shelly-Ann what we were up to she asked us outright whether we were “crazy.” The gap of persuasion between her outright rejection of the idea and her eventual agreement to work with us is much too lengthy to relate. Suffice it to say that we only secured her co-operation after we had put on the table a range of assurances.
Historically, roadside food vending has been a working class pursuit, and business option that arises only after most other employment options are ruled in then out. Shelly-Ann insists that roadside food, as much as cordon bleu dining has its “standards.” Roadside consumers, she says, “have their standards too,” though she concedes that those standards are more about taste than about safety considerations. It is not that they are not concerned about their health, she says, but roadside food is about “a tasty bellyful.”
Roseanne says that it is the mindset of the customer that provides the space in which the vendor operates. “After a while people come to trust you. Your food tastes good; they never get sick and so everything is OK.”
But there is another side to the equation. Vendors understand the space within which they operate and because roadside food vending is essentially “a hustle,” they push the boundaries of that space. She has become sufficiently reputable with her customers that no one troubles themselves to wonder whether or not her credentials from the municipal authorities are in order. They are not but that is not an issue with her customers even though the authorities will certainly contend that she is trading outside the confines of the law. The official inspection process, she says, is haphazard and there are ways of getting around it.
We asked her about the spaces in which she prepares her food. Her kitchen is simply not designed for the volume of cooking that it must accommodate. Home meals – for a family of seven – come from the same pots that are fetched to the streets in the evenings where the remaining amounts of food are disposed of.
The inappropriateness of the kitchen manifests itself at several levels. It is sufficiently small, sufficiently ill-appointed and sufficiently stocked with an assortment of boxes and huge plastic bags – many of which appeared to have been in the same position for months if not years – to make it an inhospitable environment for food preparation. A huge four-burner stove takes up a sizeable corner of the already cramped kitchen. It is the only item in the space that does not have an ancient appearance.
A small wooden table sits near the stove, the edge closest to the stove charred by its sustained proximity to the heat. All the sauces and spices associated with the cooking lie on the table, bottles, the contents of which have, over time, drained onto the table, leaving a grotesque collection of stains. On the whole the area seemed to be a haven for cockroaches.
The only available space for the two huge pots was on the floor. Other small pots were stored inside the larger one. When we visited Shelly-Ann’s kitchen one of the three pots was dirty, filled with water, awaiting washing. Washing is usually done over a relatively small sink with water made available at a rate not a great deal above a trickle, coming from a green hose attached to a standpipe outside the house. The availability of water, Shelly-Ann said, was “a problem.” By that she meant that the service was ‘rationed,’ that running water could only be relied upon during the early hours of the morning and even then, not every day.
The kitchen seemed worryingly vulnerable in terms of its proximity to the toilet. The back door of the kitchen opened almost directly into the toilet and whilst we were there Shelly-Ann’s two children were using the toilet with monotonous regularity. By the smell of things, it seemed that there was always a battle between the scent of urine and the spices used to prepare the food, for supremacy. It was not difficult to tell that Shelly-Ann found the somewhat suppressed smell of urine in the kitchen embarrassing.
Cooking was going on in an atmosphere of splendid confusion. The heat in the kitchen was close to unbearable, compelling Shelly-Ann to strip herself of any item of clothing that was not connected to the protection of her modesty. Unused food boxes were everywhere.
Just at the point when a huge pot of cook-up rice was beginning to smell as though it was burning two sturdy-looking young men were summoned from the yard to remove it from the stove. The only conceivable area in which it could be placed was in an already cramped corner. A cover was removed from a shelf and placed on the steaming pot…unwashed. At the same time a huge frying pan was produced from the stove’s oven. It was almost filled with already used cooking oil, the giveaway being the fragments of burnt fish swimming in the oil. Nonchalantly, Shelly-Ann placed the pan on the stove and watched the oil heat as she began to flour the fish.
We had seen more than enough to persuade us that the circumstances under which Shelly-Ann was preparing her food to sell on the street that evening could well pose health-related dangers to customers. She conceded her delinquency, insisting, simultaneously, that she was doing her best, that she was usually careful and that a measure of confidence had been built up between herself and her customers. When we told her that all of what she had said didn’t gainsay the fact that her food preparation standards were well below what was expected she fixed us with a quizzical stare, seeking at the same time our further reassurance that we would not, accidentally or otherwise, blow her cover.