As promised, here is a terrific essay by the queen of the street food herself, Marianne Maroney. Look for an article about Marianne in the spring issue of Edible Toronto, a magazine that “celebrates the abundance of local foods in the Golden Horshoe”. Aside from her community building, Marianne is trying to change the way street food is delivered in Toronto and trying to expand well beyond hot dogs to more exciting and nutritious food.
Marianne is closed for the winter, but come spring, drop by to say hello and have something to eat. You will not regret it. Plus you will see that despite being a pedestrian-unfriendly wind tunnel, that little corner of University Avenue is a hopping hub of community.
by Marianne Maroney
I never said to my parents, “I can hardly wait to grow up and become a hot dog vendor”. I was a rather a lucky little girl, growing up in a loving family with 5 brothers and a sister.
After suffering a serious motorcycle accident when I was 19, I finished my university degree in Calgary. I worked across Canada as an actress and found myself at 28 living in Toronto where I have spent the last 24 years, 19 of which have been spent as a vendor of one type or another. I always loved making jewelry and sold some of the work from time to time at markets and street fairs. I travelled to Thailand to purchase stirling silver, beads, leather and came back to Toronto to make pieces in between gigs.
I was told there was a lottery for a city location and I put my name into the mix, winning the location outside Mount Sinai Hospital where I pushed my jewelry vending cart everyday for about a month from my home in downtown Toronto. I waited daily for people to buy my work. Although I sold a fair amount, it certainly was not lucrative and for a month I heard from nearly everybody, “where is the hot dog guy?”
The location I had won was known for its hot dogs and what I was selling was not edible. So I asked the city if I could include hot dogs on my license, got a loan from Bread and Roses Credit Union and purchased a brand new hot dog cart. Oh yeah did I mention I was a very strict vegetarian at the time? I think I was the first vendor to offer whole wheat buns and vegetarian hot dogs.
The first year was one of trial and error and a lot of sweat, hard work and emotional trials as I had just lost my baby daughter Gabriela Grace. It was a very dark period for several years. I was not motivated to work in film, TV, or theatre and I was questioning my life a great deal.
Then something amazing happened. As each year rolled into the next, I became proficient as a vendor and my business really began to succeed. My customers became my friends and they began sharing their stories with me.
I have listened to people who are challenged by their health or the health of someone they love daily. I have seen the eyes of a new father recognizing the enormity of the new world of becoming a parent and the lump in his throat and the held back tears of joy.
Why the hot dog stand? Well you don’t have to belong to any club to enjoy a hot dog. You can have a lot of money or very little. Some who come are able to enjoy a steak from Barberian’s Steak House or may never afford an evening there, but almost everyone can afford a hot dog. They taste great and in Toronto we offer excellent toppings. For under $4 you can have a tasty meal with half the calories of a phad Thai dinner, either stand and eat it or just walk away into the mix and eat it on the run. It is a truly great street food.
I have known through my own heartache that I was sustained through my faith and it is through that lens that I have been able to recognize the enormous struggles people face as they share their heavy burdens with me over time. Sadly many treatments last months, sometimes years on end. During those daily, weekly, or monthly trips to one of the various five hospitals in the area, many people treat themselves to a hot dog as their deserved badge of honor for having undergone one more treatment or made it to another milestone. Many a person has shared tears of joy as they left the hospital with the words, “in remission” ringing in their ears, which they share with me not just in words but with a hug and tears that flow with gratitude. Many, many others waiting in line are caught up in the emotional stories and openly share theirs while others will simply nod, knowing the pain and the ache of many of the stories.
Everyone’s story is slightly different, but what is equalizing is the burden of ill health and the challenges everyone faces. Pain, physical and mental are the most acute, but the courage comes when so many are faced with the mounting bills for the astronomical costs for treatments not covered. I watch as their old cars become buckets of bolts and their clothes become threadbare as whole families try to keep up with the mounting bills. The sacrifices come in all sorts of ways and somehow they feel justified to celebrate at the hot dog stand their small incremental improvements or their acceptance of their mortality. It is not just the elderly but the many many children who courageously skip to the hospital when they can or are carried on the shoulders of parents sick with worry that their little ones will not make it. Fortunately many have grown up to become parents themselves, keeping in touch with me via email. Sadly I have participated in the funerals of others, that sacrament the communities perform in loving support for families who now have to live with the gaping hole.
There are many questions of my whereabouts when on the odd time I have to be absent from the stand. When I wondered about it, I was told that the hot dog stand, the meal and I together were part of how they reward themselves for having to endure another treatment. The sense of responsibility has at times been overwhelming, but somehow I have recognized that it is a mind game for most to have their day play out the way they would like it and I take it as a huge thank you that I can play a part in making someone feel better even for a few minutes.