I grew up in the dinner party era. Among my favorite childhood memories is falling asleep to the mysterious sounds of my parents’ parties—roars of laughter, clanging glasses and high heels across wooden floors. My parents loved them, too. When preparing for their guests’ arrival, they always floated around the house with a gleam of anticipation.
Today, dinner parties are dead. Though an autopsy shows no clear cause of death, the reason I hear most often is that we have all become just too busy. Among work, family and checking our Twitter feeds, who has time to throw a dinner party?
Enter food trucks. One of the many virtues of food trucks, the latest culinary trend to hit town, is mobility. They can be wherever, whenever.
When acclaimed chef Whitney Matthews wanted to move back to Virginia earlier this year, she drove to Charlottesville with her SpiceSea Gourmet food truck—named best seafood in San Antonio by San Antonio Magazine—and set up shop. Try that with a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
While this mobility allows going where the crowds are—breweries, vineyards and festivals—my favorite place for a food truck is my driveway. A food truck in the driveway makes home entertaining so easy that the concept might help to revive the lost art of dinner parties.
Case in point is a party I threw last month with South Fork. Phillip Gerringer started South Fork in 2013 to fulfill a dream of running his own food business, and, just two years after launching, his truck has already won a Best of C-VILLE award. What accounts for its success? Talent, yes. But, also, a passion for food. Delicious homecooked meals prepared by his mother and grandparents first kindled Gerringer’s love of food as a child.
Years later, while working for Michael Lewis at Mono Loco, Gerringer’s passion really caught fire. “I give a ton of credit to Michael for reigniting my interest in cooking and the industry,” Gerringer says. “His encouragement left a lasting mark.”
True to its name, South Fork focuses on Southern cuisine. “It was the only type of food I ever considered,” says Gerringer, who grew up in Burlington, North Carolina. “It allowed me to pay respect to all of those family meals I took for granted as a kid.” (read the full interview with Phillip Gerringer)
For our party, a spread of Gerringer-created snacks greeted guests on arrival: chips with fresh watermelon salsa alongside platters of Cajun shrimp rolls, bite-sized slices of rolled tortillas filled with shrimp, cheddar, avocado and roasted peppers with chipotle crema.
Over the course of several hours, guests walked outside at their leisure to the truck parked in the driveway and ordered whatever they wanted. Depending on the host’s preference, Gerringer will either keep a running tab for the host to cover at the end or charge each guest along the way. All that’s required to entice him to your home is to guarantee a certain dollar minimum.
While Gerringer loves street vending, what makes private parties so much fun, he says, is the chance to create new menu items with the host. Our party’s menu offered crowd-pleasing and always well-executed Southern fried chicken tenders with chipotle barbecue sauce.
But, at our request, Gerringer also created a catfish po’ boy with spicy remoulade and pickled onions. Of course, South Fork’s menu staples are so good that specials are hardly necessary. “It’s hard to take anything off the menu,” says Gerringer, “because a bunch of people come just for that item.” Our vegetarian guests swooned over Gerringer’s personal favorite, a grilled pimento cheese sandwich on Mission Home wheat bread topped with fried green tomatoes and arugula. Among carnivores the conversation piece was the truck’s signature smoked jalapeño meatloaf sandwich on grilled sourdough, piled high with bacon, garlic mashed potatoes, green tomato salsa and chipotle barbecue sauce. Handcut fries and Southern classic sides like butter beans and sautéed collard greens rounded out the meal.
It’s hard to know whether the cans of Champion Brewing Company’s Shower Beer that we periodically passed back to Gerringer and his crew enhanced the food quality. But, they couldn’t have hurt. South Fork’s famous sweet potato fritters—reminiscent of a sweeter hush puppy—have always struck me as straddling dessert and side dish. For our party, I asked Gerringer to make a full-fledged dessert by topping them with Splendora’s cinnamon gelato. It was a first for him, and we agreed it was a huge success.
As delicious as the fritters and rest of the food were, though, the best part of a South Fork party may be its ease, leaving hosts time to enjoy guests’ company. The truck even brings a trash can to take away any mess. Just throw some beers on ice, pop a few bottles of wine, mix up a couple of pitchers of margaritas and you’re good to go. Maybe there’s hope for dinner parties after all.