Chicago’s not a food truck kind of town. So culinary delights on wheels are scarce, but especially so on the South Side. There’s a lot of talk about having Chicago catching up with the likes of New York or L.A., but the trend’s just gaining momentum. But we found a woman who’s out in front. She already dishes up New Orleans cuisine, and she’s doing it in neighborhoods that are loaded with fast-food joints and convenience stores.
Tracee Bright likes cooking Louisiana fare for Chicagoans. Her large $7 Styrofoam cups of gumbo brim with seafood, vegetables and roux, or thickening agent. The smell drifts through the windows.
The truck is called Big Fat Tuesday, a nod to Bright’s native New Orleans. Sometimes customers playfully challenge her skills. I see this for myself one Friday afternoon outside the emergency doors of Trinity Hospital on Chicago’s Southeast Side.
One man comes up to the truck window and asks if the gumbo is real. He says he’s also from Louisiana and he’s accustomed to real Cajun cooking.
Bright gives a response as robust as her gumbo.
BRIGHT: Real gumbo? It don’t get no more realer than this.
The customer takes the bait.
CUSTOMER: It don’t get no more realer than that? What you got sausage and chicken in that?
BRIGHT: Sausage, shrimp. Crab.
CUSTOMER: Crab, shrimp and sausage? That’s close enough.
Bright opened up Big Fat Tuesday this spring and recently finished her certificate at Washburne Culinary Institute, part of the city college system.
She originally considered being a personal chef. But she saw an untapped market in food trucks.
BRIGHT: I’m on the South Side because no one else is.
Well, that might not be entirely true. But South Side neighborhoods are definitely underserved with food trucks compared to the North Side and downtown. Many food trucks that do venture south of Roosevelt Road flock to the University of Chicago.
BRIGHT: People on the South Side enjoy food just as much as everywhere else. They watch the Food Network. They know what’s going on. But it’s just not in their neighborhoods. So they see us and here’s a chance to sample what they’ve seen on the TV. There’s definitely a need for it. This is not fast food. This is real food, soul food, like the man says, like grandma’s gumbo. It’s real. Cooked with love, nutrients.
Bright goes through Englewood, South Shore and Roseland, the neighborhood she lives in. These areas are occupied with more fast food restaurants than anything healthy or homecooked. She sees between 50 and 75 customers a day.
Bright has some help in her truck; namely her dad. He gives instructions as she spoons out rice. One trick he taught her is to squirt yellow mustard on raw chicken wings before she dips them in flour to fry. It adds a bit of tang to the Cajun seasonings. I tested them out…as did a skeptical customer.
CUSTOMER: So is your chicken wings flavorful? I don’t want no old plain chicken wings.
Bright gets up at 3 a.m. most days to begin the arduous cooking process. Her red beans and rice have diced onions, bell peppers and celery. The greens are slightly bitter with a bite. The po’ boy sandwiches have smoked meat.
Bright tells me how she ended up in Chicago. Basically, she’s a Hurricane Katrina evacuee.
BRIGHT:The city was shutdown. There was nowhere to live. It was months before you could go to see what was damaged. And a year before people could come back and then when you could come back there really was no place to live. It was like living in a war zone basically. We didn’t have just months to wait to see what the city was going to do.
Bright figures she’s got more than food as selling point. She wants Big Fat Tuesday to ooze with Southern warmth and friendliness, too.
BRIGHT: Hey, how you doing?
Oh, and the customer who questioned earlier whether Bright’s gumbo was real?
Well, he came back to the truck to give his verdict.
CUSTOMER: Oh yeah, it’s real.