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The host of The Food Truck Scholar podcast is studying her Ph.D

The host of The Food Truck Scholar podcast is studying her Ph.D

When Ariel Smith, the host of The Food Truck Scholar, was a young girl growing up in Birmingham, she knew that when Tonight's The Price is Right would air at 10 o'clock, her great-grandmother would be setting out everything she needed to make scrumptious cakes from scratch. When it came time for The Young and the Restless, she would go to work, with Ariel by her side, standing on a chair pulled up to the deep freezer that doubled as their mixing table. Ariel then learned to crack eggs and use the mixer.

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

Ariel is far from her hometown, where her family including her great-grandma - still lives, as she completes her Ph.D. program at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. But whenever she feels homesick, all she has to do is bake a pound cake and shes transported back to her childhood.

When she visits Birmingham, she bakes a cake for her family and ensures that her great-grandma sample it. Ariel says her great-grandmother is a picky eater and that having her seal of approval means incredibly much to her. If she eats something from me and says, Oh, A.D., this is great, I know its because it's coming from her, she says.

Ariels early baking experiences she also had her own Easy-Bake Oven in her play kitchen and shopping trips to the farmer market with her aunt gave her a strong family bond to food. She never imagined she would, or even might, one day make food specifically, food trucks the subject of a dissertation.

After graduating from UAB with a degree in business administration, Ariel wasnt 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 wasnt showing up in the business curriculum at the time, and so I thought that maybe I wasn't a business person. Ill admit, I wasnt a businessperson, but I was definitely an entrepreneur. I felt so out of place.

She had always had a passion for education, which she attributes to her great aunt, who was the first person in her family to go to college and become , the teacher. Ariel went to Vanderbilt University, where she earned a masters degree in education.

She told a friend that she didnt feel at home in the business or education industry. She discovered American Studies and found a way to combine the two, which she did when she discovered the subject. She began working on her Ph.D. in American Studies two weeks after earning her masters degree, which she describes as looking at a topic from dozens of 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 dont just focus on the economics of it or the food behind it. I study the culture. I study the history. I may even study literature to gain insight into street food culture. Sometimes, I study the law, the ordinances that surround it, and the laws that are enacted around it.

Her entrepreneurial spirit was piqued by her interdisciplinary approach. At first, she planned to focus on race in higher education and African-American entrepreneurship education. Were not represented in business case studies, she says, and when you talk about entrepreneurship in middle school, you dont see Black people. I was like, Where do we go to learn to be an entrepreneur?

The idea of adding food trucks to the mix started out because I was hungry, she jokes. When she was stuck in Indiana, where the cuisine could be better, she says, she noticed that her friends and family members were posting about new food trucks in Birmingham. She began to wonder why so many food trucks were popping up suddenly.

Soon after that, one of her professors asked her cohort to write a paper on identifying sexism. Ariels question about whatre going on with food trucks enthralled her teacher, who suggested that she write about it.

Ariel thought, If I do this, 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 sarcasm.

Her podcast, The Food Truck Scholar, was created because she wanted to do more than eat her way through graduate school. I wanted to be able to give something back to the food truck that I would possibly interview, she adds. I wanted it to be something that would be mutually beneficial in some way, he added.

The podcast has now reached its third season, and it has featured 75 food truck owners in Alabama, as well as as far away as California, Hawaii, England, Norway, Mexico, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Puerto Rico, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, France, South Africa, the United States, Hong Kong, Korea, Turkey, Nigeria, India, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Honduras, Panama, Guatemala, Peru, Canada, Chile, Russia, Asia, North America, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Because her dissertation focuses on Black-owned food trucks, Ariel aims to tell the stories of people from all backgrounds with her podcast. Still, Most of them are Black because they arent recognized or highlighted in many places, so we work to raise awareness and increase those voices.

Ariel has a strong attachment to her subjects after doing the interviews especially to those who make her feel that it isnt just 'a podcaster and a food trucker' together," she says. Theyve really become a part of my family, according to the former.

She also likes to cook from Birmingham-based Naughty But Nice kettle corn, and not just because shes a big fan of the seasonal lemon ice flavor. I love their mention of popping with a purpose, she says. I love how dedicated they are to their community. I love the way theyre teaching their daughters to be entrepreneurs.

Read more: This sweet and salty Alabama business pops with purpose.

Grannys Fish and Grits is the first place she stops when she gets off the interstate on a visit to the state. Its probably the only place my great-grandma would buy grits that arent hers, she said.

Ariel loves to cook and listen to music in her spare time. Her go-to playlist right now includes a new gospel album from Pastor Mike Jr. of Rock City Church in Birmingham. She says shes been listening to him on repeat.

Of course, she loves to travel and tour cities through their food, something she hopes to achieve even more of when she finishes her dissertation. She hopes to start her own production company and continue producing the podcast on a larger scale, she adds. My goal is to work for myself, he says.

Crista McCants of TraePays Rolling Caf, named for Cristan s children, has influenced Ariel. After Ariel's family took her to Mobile to sample Crista'' s food, the two quickly became friends. Ariel claims that she has a beautiful heart and is extremely dedicated to what she does.

Shes almost like shed describe herself.

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