A couple of decades ago it was reported in the press that a madman had vowed to wreak havoc through the North by putting poison in the burgers sold outside football grounds. As my friend Ed, a Hartlepool fan, mused: ‘He really must be mad if he thinks he can make them any more poisonous than they already are.”
Ed said this while munching on a double cheeseburger he’d bought from a van parked round the corner from the Millhouse Stand at Victoria Park.
“If you can survive this, you can survive anything,” he said wiping ooze from his chin. “I reckon I’ve built up such an immunity over the years I could probably get through a nuclear attack.”
The Poolie burgers were by no means the most lethal food sold outside football grounds in those days. That disreputable honour went to the pies on offer from a van parked near Oxford United’s old Manor Ground one midweek night when Boro played there back in the Nineties.
Heated in a microwave from frozen, the pies managed to be freezing cold on the outside and boiling hot in the middle. It was like a savoury Baked Alaska in reverse. Though not much like one, admittedly.
To make things worse, when you bit into them they sent out a molten spume of greenish gravy that looked like something a startled octopus might shoot in the eye of a predatory dogfish.
Such encounters as these over the years had made me a tad suspicious of food vans, though I knew there were good ones that served palatable food. Back when I was at catering college, I’d spent one summer serving top class nosh from a silver American caravan on a Pinewood film set. Hollywood stars just could not have tolerated a greasy bacon butty.
Aside from that though, I’d found that the food served from vans was nothing to write home about. Well, not unless your spouse happened to be a health inspector anyway.
Lately though, I’ve had my opinion changed.
The revelation came at a craft ale festival on Tyneside when I stumbled across Parmstar (quite literally – it was late in the evening), John Coulson and Lisa Cheung’s Seamer-based business.
John and Lisa not only sell a top-notch version of the Teesside classic, the Parmo, in a home-made brioche bun, but also do its Aussie equivalent, the Parma, which comes with a slice of ham, rich tomato sauce and a mixture of white cheese melted on the top. On a cold November night in the North-East the latter went down even better than it would have on Bondi Beach.
Parmstar are not alone in providing gastro-portable grub to Teesside and beyond. Since then I’ve also enjoyed the sizzling, crispy thin Neapolitan pizzas that Rocket Pizza serve fresh out of a food-fired oven in a very lovely 1970s Citroen van, and home-made Three Brothers steak and ale pie, piping hot, with mash, mushy peas and onion gravy from the award-winning Pie Jackers.
I can honestly say I haven’t enjoyed food bought from a cart this much since dear old ruby-cheeked Mr Bowers used to bring fresh fish on a horse-drawn wagon all the way from Whitby to Great Ayton back in the 1970s (I suspect that nowadays Health and Safety overlords might have had something to say about the food hygiene of that particular enterprise).
Sadly, none of these fine vendors pitch up outside football grounds, but you can catch up with them at Teesside’s excellent farmers’ markets. The only bad thing about any of them is that – unlike Mr Bowers – they don’t deliver to your door.