Ralph James was my idol my freshman year at Syracuse University. He came to my dorm every night, even during the throes of the infamous Central New York winter weather. No snow was too deep, no winds too blustery to keep him away. I never knew exactly when it was he’d show up, but I didn’t have to worry. He always rang the bell to let me know he was downstairs because ... Ralph James was the Dingleman.
The what? It’s simple, really. Today you would categorize Ralph James as just another food truck, but back then he was unique as the only campus traveling “lunch car,” even though he only came in the evening. Ralph James, the Dingleman, was a fixture on The Hill (as Syracuse University is affectionately known). In the 1950s, long before I got there, the campus was filled with hungry students, many of whom had just returned from World War II. “Back then a hot dog or a bagel with cream cheese cost just 15 cents,” says Tony Claps, son of the late Vincent James Claps, who started the mobile food wagon. Back then, as a teenager, Tony worked with his father and his father’s son-in-law, Ralph Tortora; thus, Ralph James of Dingleman fame was a merger of the two names.
Those who turned their noses up at buying food from a truck referred to it as the “roach coach,” but in actuality James kept a whistle-clean kitchen on those four wheels, with bells mounted on the side of the truck, alerting students of his nightly arrival at their dorm, fraternity, or sorority house.
James’ legacy spanned three decades, the Dingleman being a campus icon serving everyone from construction workers building Quonset huts in the late ’40s to those enjoying Winter Carnival Week decades after. The menu was simple, ranging from sandwiches and burgers, to coffee, pastry, and soda; but perhaps the most popular offering on the menu was a “cheese jaw” ... a double cheeseburger on an Italian roll. I drool now thinking of all that dripping cheese and ketchup, the redolent freshly sliced onions, and the stories that accompanied every order. The other thing that came with every order was added pounds, so in a short time, I was a walking advertisement for what was then called “The Freshman 15.”
Food trucks became scarce for a while, then re-emerged during the recession of 2008. Now they are much-sought-after accoutrements to events like fairs, festivals, outdoor concerts, and the like, representing a billion-dollar-a-year industry. If you’re ever in the neighborhood outside Yale New Haven hospital from early lunch to late dinnertime, there is a veritable circus of food trucks lining the streets with folks of all ages queuing up for chow. Mexican street tacos, Thai food, Cuban sandwiches, gelato, seafood, vegetarian and vegan, Peruvian, fusion, edible cookie dough, Oriental, crepes, Greek ... it goes on and on. But nowhere is there anyone serving up what Ralph James the Dingleman had. Nope, the object of today’s food truck is to get into position, advertise your daily specials on Facebook, get ’em served, get the money, and “Next!”
The legacy the Dingelman left is more than the memory of overstuffed cheese jaws, hot dogs, and coffee; it is a generous helping of sweet remembrance, of lessons taught and lessons learned. He was never too busy to listen to a student’s problems or concerns and would even feed those who were short on cash, once loaning a sophomore $20 to take his girlfriend on a date, while agreeing to be repaid at the rate of $1 per week. The Dingleman and his crew became adoptive parents, surrogate parents, or mentors if ever a student needed a willing ear or a shoulder to lean on. Along with extra ketchup for your cheese jaw, there was always a cup of kindness offered and usually taken.
Before he retired, Vincent James Claps, the Dingleman, told the local newspaper, “People don’t realize that these students were just young kids away from home. Sometimes they got homesick, sometimes they got a little wild. But most of them were good kids, it kept us young being with them.”
So while today’s mobile gastronomic options are ubiquitous and varied, I still hearken back to those days long ago when there was just one, navigating around the snowy corners on The Hill, always ringing those bells.
Rona Mann has been a freelance writer for The Sun for 18 years, including her “In Their Shoes” features. She can be reached at email@example.com or 401-539-7762.