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Host Of ‘The Food Truck Scholar’ Podcast Is Eating Her Way Through Her Ph.D.

Michelle Matthews al.com

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Ariel Smith is the host of "The Food Truck Scholar Podcast." In its third season, the podcast has featured some 75 food truck owners in Alabama and as far away as California, Hawaii and England. 

Birmingham

When Ariel Smith, the host of “The Food Truck Scholar” podcast, was a little girl growing up in Birmingham, she knew that when “The Price is Right” came on at 10 a.m., her great-grandmother would be setting out everything she needed to bake a cake from scratch. By 11, when it was time for “The Young and the Restless,” she would get to work, with Ariel by her side, standing on a chair pulled up to the deep freezer that doubled as their mixing table. That’s where Ariel learned to crack eggs and use the mixer.

“When I think about food and family, I think of my great-aunt and great-grandmother,” says Ariel, whose family has been in Birmingham for more than a century.

Now in the final year of her Ph.D. program at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, Ariel is far away from her hometown, where family – including her beloved great-grandma – still lives. But whenever she feels homesick, all she has to do is bake a pound cake and she’s taken back to her childhood.

When she visits Birmingham, she always bakes a cake for her family and makes sure her great-grandma samples it. “To have her seal of approval means a lot to me because my great-grandmother is a very picky eater,” Ariel says. “If she eats something from me and says, ‘Ooh, A.D., this is good,’ I know it’s good because it’s coming from her.’”

Those early days of baking – she also had her own Easy-Bake Oven in her play kitchen – and shopping trips to the farmer’s market with her aunt gave Ariel a strong familial connection to food. She never dreamed she would, or even could, one day make food – specifically, food trucks – the topic of a dissertation.

After majoring in business at UAB, Ariel wasn’t sure what to do next. “I was trying to figure out my fit,” she says. “I realized I liked aspects of business, but what I wanted to do wasn’t showing up in the business curriculum at that time, and so I thought that maybe I wasn’t a business person. Now I realize that’s probably right – I wasn’t a business person, but I was definitely an entrepreneur. That’s why I felt so out of place.”

She had always had a passion for education, which she attributes to her great aunt – the first person in her family to go to college and become a teacher. Ariel ended up going to Vanderbilt University, where she earned a master’s in education.

She confided to a friend that she didn’t feel at home in either the business or education field. He suggested that she find a way to combine the two, which she did when she discovered American Studies. Two weeks after earning her master’s, she started working on her Ph.D. in American Studies, which she describes as “looking at a topic from all different angles,” at Purdue.

“The best way for me to explain American Studies is through my own research,” she says. “When I study food trucks, I don’t just study the economics behind it or the food behind it. I study the culture. I study the history. I may even study literature to learn about street food culture. I study, sometimes, the law, the different ordinances that are around it.”

The interdisciplinary approach appealed to her entrepreneurial spirit. At first, she planned to focus on race in higher education and African-American entrepreneurship education. “We’re not represented in business case studies,” she says, “and when you talk about entrepreneurship in middle school, you don’t really see Black people. So I was like, where do we learn to become entrepreneurs?”

Throwing food trucks in the mix “started out because I was hungry,” she jokes. While stuck in Indiana, where the cuisine “could be better,” she says, suddenly she noticed that her friends and family members were posting about new food trucks in Birmingham. She started wondering why so many food trucks were popping up all of a sudden.

Soon after that, one of her professors asked her cohort to write a paper about a question on their minds. Ariel’s question about what’s going on with food trucks fascinated her teacher, who suggested maybe she write about that.

“If I do this,” Ariel thought, “I could possibly eat my way through a Ph.D.” She realized she was on to something. “And I have been eating my way through a Ph.D.,” she says with a laugh.

Her podcast, “The Food Truck Scholar,” came about because she wanted to do more than just eat her way through graduate school. “I wanted to be able to give something back to the food truck that I would potentially interview,” she says. “I wanted it to be something that could be mutually beneficial in some way.”

Now in its third season, the podcast has featured some 75 food truck owners in Alabama and as far away as California, Hawaii and England. Because her dissertation focuses on Black-owned food trucks, Ariel aims “to tell the stories of people from all different backgrounds” with her podcast. Still, “Most of them are Black because, in many of the spaces, they aren’t being recognized or highlighted, so we try to do the work there to bring awareness and amplify those voices.”

Doing the interviews has given Ariel a deep sense of connection to her subjects – especially the ones who make her feel that “it isn’t just a podcaster and a food trucker together,” she says. “They really have become part of my family.”

Some of her personal favorites include Birmingham-based Naughty But Nice kettle corn – and not just because she’s a big fan of the seasonal lemon ice flavor. “I love their mention of ‘popping with a purpose,’” she says. “I love how committed to the community they are. I love how they’re teaching their daughters to be entrepreneurial.”

When she gets off the interstate on a visit home, the first place she heads is Granny’s Fish and Grits. “It’s probably the only place that my great-grandma would eat grits that aren’t hers.”

In her spare time, Ariel loves to bake and listen to music. Right now, her “go-to playlist” includes a new gospel album from “Pastor Mike Jr.” of Rock City Church in Birmingham. “I’ve been listening to him on repeat,” she says.

And of course, she loves to travel and “tour cities through their food” – something she hopes to do much more of when she finishes her dissertation. She plans to own her own production company and continue producing the podcast “on a bigger scale,” she says. “My goal is to work for myself.”

The food truck entrepreneurs she spotlights on her show, like Crista McCants of TraePay’s Rolling Café, named for Crista’s sons, have influenced Ariel. The two became fast friends after Ariel brought her family along on a visit to Mobile to sample Crista’s cooking. “She has a beautiful heart and is very dedicated to what she does,” Ariel says.

It’s almost like she’s describing herself.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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