Thursday, 23 August 2012

Chicken Town

Well, I'm going to bore the pants off you again with another junk food scribbling. I can't help it, just this week, both critics in London's leading free newspapers have filled their columns with burgers, there's a new posh chicken shop opening in North London somewhere and hot dogs are popping up all over the place.

I could just about put up with Burgers, being somewhat of an icon now for so long, it's almost a given they will feature on most pub menus, and the gourmet version having its own restaurant was only a matter of time. I still feel they're all 'shooting at the same rabbit' essentially, and unless they are doing them really well, as a few truly are, they will probably fade or if they're lucky, end up as a chain rolled out across the provinces to feed the less trend fickle, unfashionable small-town peasants in Ugg boots for years to come.

So no. I won't bore you with burgers. This one's about chicken.

It was an old friend of mine moving to Peckham in around 2001 that once remarked to me, 'what is it about the locals round here and fried chicken?'. He was of course rather diplomatically referring to the working class, local people, of various ethnic backgrounds, who gathered in 'chicken shops' and enjoyed this fast food above all else. If we weren't so middle-class and polite ourselves we would have called them 'the poor' basically. Which is what they were.

"What shall it be tonight?" my friend would mockingly mutter to me at work about which of two rival businesses he should visit. "Chicken World, or World of Chicken?". The choice was indeed endless. KFC was the obvious king. But imitations were in abundance. There was little to differentiate between them. Designwise they all shared the same traits. A red white and blue colour scheme, presumably to evoke some kind of link to America is paramount, as is lightbox menus, and cheap over-branding on everything.

Feel free to make a cup of tea while I bore you with a little history. Fried chicken has of course for many years been the food of the poor, a quick visit to Wikipedia well tell you that. The idea of 'spicy' coatings of course originating from remembered West African recipes imitated by Slaves of southern USA using local spices, and the chicken being the single abundant meat a plantation worker could afford, being allowed to keep them on their own plots.

So it is of little surprise we find our poorer boroughs saturated with an enthusiasm for fried chicken today. Kebabs and curry - too spicy, Fish & chips, too old fashioned, Pizza - too expensive, McDonalds - for kids. Chicken is tasty, clean, has a healthy image (white meat is not fattening right?) and above all it's cheap. Very cheap. At less that £5 for a meal, almost anyone can afford to eat out. And now of course, the more affluent 'commoners' have an upgrade, being Nando's, that temple of chavvy vulgarity that no foodie would ever admit to visiting. Footballers, reality celebs and pop stars love it though. Am I sensing a trend? 

So chicken is for chavs. Dammit. It's actually quite tasty. How can we eat it too without dying of embarrassment or mixing with the prolies?

The answer of course, is to posh it up. Enter the gourmet chicken shop. At least four or five have been announced, to fit in with the whole 'fine diner' junk food revival trend. But these are not a natural progression. You won't see the local kids dreaming of eating inside one of these joints. In fact you probably won't see any local 'commoner' inside, because at twice the price of the regular counterpart, they won't see further than their wallet.

"Suit yourself, if they want to eat shit let them" is the obvious retort. And fair enough. Because this new breed of outlet boasts 'guilt free eating', with free range meat, ethical this and local that. Clever. None of this appeals to the 'commoner'. They won't buy into it.

In fact price is a good filter. When you pay a premium for gourmet junk food, you're not just buying quality (which, to be fair it undoubtedly is) you are buying exclusivity. You are paying your membership into a club, free from riff raff, just like any other private members club. You get inside and it's a little enclave of knowing winks, we know what it's about, we get it. We don't like to say but they just wouldn't understand.

And that's what's really important here, the snobbery.

I think it is this cocky self-righteous middleclassness of it all that gets my goat, that brazen sneering from the gilt edged balcony, laughing about the chronic stupidity of the working class and their dopey adoration for basic food stuffs and simple flavour hits.

By 'ironically' decorating these restaurants in piss-take fast food style interiors, we act the same as a public school 'chav ball' where privileged toffs dress up as commoners, or like a 1920s fancy dress party where people went as slaves. 

"Let's all dress up like the natives" they shriek, as they install the tongue-in-cheek saturated colour food images in light boxes and 70s Cooper Bold fonts on the menus (American typewriter is a bit 2011 now, didn't you know).

Let's draw attention to the fact that a huge section of the public actually aspire to this, and take the royal piss out of it. We'll be eating their food, in their environment, but ours will be far superior.

And as we all scoff our fancy buttermilk fried chicken, with its packaging just so, and wash it down with the jokey 'bottomless Coke' (ooh daring, quite the 80s rebel) we can all believe in some weird way we are actually in one of these places, for real. Like those reggae clubs where all the crowd is white, or rich kids into gangsta rap, it's a way we can get into something, without getting our hands dirty (metaphorically). Because of course we love our food to be dirty.


  1. I'm not sure I'm technically a foodie, so perhaps I'm not really bucking any trends here, but I love Nandos and am not ashamed to admit it :-)

    The chicken thing is interesting though - it's the same round here and where I grew up (in different bits of London) - where there used to be a plethora of different fast food type joints, increasingly, with the exception of the odd Domino Pizza, they are all being replaced by seemingly identical fried chicken places...
    And they're all pretty busy, so they must be doing something right.

    I've actually never had fried chicken from a shop - I might give it a try some time. The youth of Hackney can't all be wrong...

  2. I think the appeal must be that Fried chicken is actually pieces of a real animal cut up, rather than denatured, processed, mechanically reclaimed "stuff". Yes, the chickens are the cheapest industrial chooks you can buy, but they're still not artificial processed gloop.



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