The Austin Chronicle

American Dreamer

Tiffany Harelik writes her own story through her cookbook series dedicated to Austin's food trailers

By Melanie Haupt, February 14, 2014, Arts

What comes to mind these days when someone mentions the American dream? It used to be that with hard work, plucky Americans, both natural-born and otherwise, could climb the metaphorical ladder of their choosing to achieve riches and acclaim regardless of their station. Once upon a time, this could be achieved by getting a good job at a young age and sticking with it until retirement, but that's a misty, watercolored memory these days. America's new economy means that conditions are ripe for people to break out of traditional narratives of work and success, creatively using their skill sets in nontraditional ways. Along the way, they can write new stories for themselves and, by extension, the culture.

For many folks, that new narrative of work and success involves quitting their cubicle jobs and opening food trucks. Some of them succeed; scores of them don't. And if few standard aptitude tests offer "food truck operator" as a career option, it's probably safe to say that even fewer of them suggest "food truck historian" to future job seekers. And yet, that's exactly what Tiffany Harelik has become.

In December 2009, Harelik quit her low-paying, unfulfilling job in search of something a little more meaningful. From that leap of faith was born the Trailer Food Diaries, a blog-turned-cookbook wherein Harelik documents not only popular recipes from Austin's most beloved food trucks (and some who didn't make it), but also their stories and advice for trailer-food hopefuls looking to break in to Austin's vibrant food scene.

"There's a lot more wisdom out there for these folks that are starting out than the ones who were starting out earlier in the game," says Harelik on the phone from Marathon, Texas, where she is working on a cookbook centered on the recipes and folklore of the Big Bend area. "I'm hopeful that they can understand how to get through all the cold, hard winters and where to apply for all the festivals and how to fix their own plumbing and find locations. There are a lot more resources now than there were before."

In many ways, Harelik is the perfect person to record these stories and concurrently help midwife new food trucks. A fourth-generation Austinite, her great-grandfather Haskell Harelik immigrated to Galveston from Russia a century ago and, in the spirit of chasing that American dream, started selling bananas from a cart for a penny each. As Harelik recounts in the introduction to the first volume of her book (published by the History Press in 2011), her great-grandfather worked his way up from selling bananas from a cart to owning five general stores in the Central Texas area. You could say that food trailers — not to mention questing for that elusive goal that defines this nation's ethos — are in Harelik's blood.

Her investment in this particular culture, apart from the ever-expanding Trailer Food Diaries brand (the third volume of the Austin cookbooks comes out this month; she has also authored Diaries for Portland, Dallas/Fort Worth, and Houston), is rooted in the connections that she's made with the owner-operators of local trucks. "You want people to be successful. Maria and Abdu [Souktouri] at the Flying Carpet are going to treat you like family. They're going to cook for you, and they're going to be proud and happy when you take that first bite of a Big Abdu [a Moroccan-style beef, eggplant, and french fry sandwich] and see you smile. That makes it worth it for them. And then you want to go back and be a patron, that's when it works for everybody."

Harelik's relationships with local owner-operators have benefits beyond their immediate sphere. In 2010, she curated the Gypsy Picnic with C3 Presents, which then morphed into the seasonal Trailer Food Tuesdays, a once-monthly event at the Long Center from April to October that allows food truck lovers to dine al fresco surrounded by a rotating cast of their favorite food trailers, watching the sunset with a gorgeous view of Downtown Austin. Through this program, the third season of which kicks off on April 29, Harelik builds her brand as a trailer-food expert, the trailers get exposure to a broader audience, and the public gets to try new food. Everyone wins. And if that's not a pure expression of the American dream, I don't know what is.

Trailer Food Diaries Cookbook: Austin Edition, Volume 3 will be released Tuesday, Feb. 18, from the History Press.

Copyright © 2017 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.