As last week was going to be tough for me, my mother surprised me with an emergency food parcel. This, among other things, contained two chicken dinners. A (potentially) nutritious and tasty food that brings a particular kind of comfort, chicken is everything that anyone might want in a meal. Oh, unless you’re a vegetarian or vegan that is, but more on that later.
Chicken is humanity’s meat. In his book “Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization”, Andrew Lawler points out that there are more chickens alive today than cats, dogs, pigs, cows and rats combined, and that chicken is eaten on every continent, apart from Antartica (because of the risk they might pose to the penguins).
Pork is popular across east Asia and Europe, but is prohibited under Muslim and Jewish dietary laws. Lamb is particularly beloved of most ethnic groups in the Middle East and is practically the national food of New Zealand and Wales, but is as exotic as reindeer or kangaroo in the US. Beef cannot be eaten by Hindus and has a whiff of English and American nationalism that can leave a bad taste in the mouth today. But in a world where we disagree on so very much, we mostly all agree on chicken, and that very much includes London and New Orleans.
“For London, fried chicken is as much a culture as it is a cuisine,” David Clack wrote in Time Out London. I certainly never walk far after leaving the house before tripping on a chewed-over bone, a result of how chicken shops have thrived in London in recent decades. Clack’s article explains that this is because, as chicken is so popular all around the world, chicken shops have done well amid London’s multiplicity of ethnic communities.
Fried chicken appeals as much to the middle classes as it does to immigrant communities, and has been a bit-player in the saga of London gentrification. Dishes such as wings, chicken burgers and nuggets have followed the hamburger in getting a gourmet upgrade and London has recently seen a spate of posh chicken shop openings, such as Chick n Sours and Wishbone. Tottenham restaurant Chicken Town, meanwhile, represents a laudable effort to produce a healthy and also affordable version of chicken shop food while training up young people from historically underprivileged Tottenham to work in the hospitality industry.
You could say that to examine fried chicken eating in London is to examine London itself. Channel 4 documentary series The Chicken Shop, filmed at Clapham’s Rooster Spot, did just that, claiming to present “a unique portrait of contemporary life, illustrated by fried chicken, the staff who serve it and the customers who buy it”. More recently, “Chicken Connoisseur” Elijah Quashie’s collection of London chicken shop reviews entitled “The Pengest Munch” has gone viral on YouTube. “I genuinely don’t know what life [in London] would be without [chicken shops],” he told The Guardian.
Thanks to a profusion of world-class hyperlocal dishes, fried chicken is not as prominent in New Orleans as it is in London or elsewhere in the South. But people still eat plenty of it, whether in smartish French Quarter restaurant Fiorella’s, or in locally-founded chain Popeyes.
As in London, eating chicken in New Orleans is a window into the city’s culture and history. Chicken has been enmeshed in social rituals throughout New Orleans’ past. Chickens plays a part in some voodoo ceremonies. Slaughtering a chicken is traditionally the climax of the “courir”, the Cajun country version of Mardi Gras. Louisiana was the last US state to ban cockfighting, doing so in 2008.
How fried chicken is eaten in New Orleans today also reflects current social issues, again as in London. In its entry for world-renowned Treme fried chicken restaurant Willie Mae’s Scotch House, a recent edition of the Lonely Planet guide to New Orleans refers to the “offputting” sight of outsiders driving in for a “fried chicken from the ‘hood experience”. Here there are hints, if slight, of issues including gentrification, crime, racism and how the negative effects of an unhealthy diet disproportionately affect the poor. These plague New Orleans, and London too.
But, continues the entry, “the chicken is pretty damn good”. As ever, the meat of this bird can transcend divisions and difficulties through bringing the simple satisfaction of being well-fed. And, it seems, this applies even to those firmly committed to a plant-based diet. Round the corner from where I live in London, and with very long lines, an outlet opened last month serving up – what else? –“vegan fried chicken”.
Image: Thy Khue Ly