Barbershops And Community-Building In London And New Orleans

London New Orleans barbers

I recently wrote an article about barbershops. Hackney, the part of London where I live, has a lot of them. On one 500-metre stretch of high street alone, I’ve counted five.

Afro-Caribbean and Middle Eastern cultures have a strong presence in Hackney and barbershops are important social hubs in these cultures. The wealth of barbershops in the borough also reflects the existence of many other identity groups here that, like most of us, may use hair in part to define themselves.

E-Street Barbers opened around nine months ago and has built a following among musicians. Cuts & Bruises Barbershop is only a few weeks old and describes its team as “ex-skaters [and] tattoo enthusiasts”. Gender-neutral and LGBT, queer and trans-friendly shop Open Barbers, founded in 2011, has been operating since last year from a permanent base in Hackney. Barberette, set up by former Open Barber Klara Vanova, is also based in the borough.

Activities beyond cutting hair also link these barbers to their tribes. E-Street hosts music-focused events and parties. Cuts & Bruises’s basement is destined to become a tattoo parlour next year and will be a space for events like boiler room DJ sets and streetwear pop-ups in the meantime. Barberette’s many charity and community initiatives have included running a raffle at one of its regular client parties to fundraise for an LGBT counselling service and exhibiting the work of Hackney artists.

Thanks to their client bases and pricing, Hackney’s new breeds of barbershop risk association, however, with the problematic issue of gentrification. Vanova is concerned about cultural debts being forgotten as barbering in Hackney develops. Traditional Afro-Caribbean and Turkish barbering traditions have bequeathed much to the industry but, in her view, this is not acknowledged enough.

Cuts & Bruises’ story is an interesting study of change, continuity and legacy. Founder Kem Mehmet has some roots in Hackney’s Turkish Cypriot community and the building that currently houses Cuts & Bruises is both where he was born and formerly the home of a women’s hair salon run by his mother. “I’m keeping [the business] in the family and we’re not a chain that’s just come in,” he says.

For the moment, new barbershops seems to be mostly happily co-existing with other offerings nearby. This could be simply because barbering in Hackney is booming, so there’s more than enough business to go round. All the barbers I visited, or simply walked past, when researching my article were extremely busy. One barber even said that he thought there was enough potential trade for six more barbershops on his patch alone. Hackney’s longstanding love affair with hair is as passionate as ever, I concluded.

My article was about London, and businesses and issues specific to London. But I found myself thinking about New Orleans too; scraps of information I’d heard or read at some time began to gather in my mind like clippings around a barber’s chair.

The strong presence of black and Middle Eastern communities, and many other communities of all sorts, applies in New Orleans too. There is also a link between barbershops and music and other cultural practices here: they say Buddy Bolden was a barber, while in recent years second line group the Uptown Swingers has been known to parade from Dennis Barbers on Freret Street. And gentrification is as much as an issue in New Orleans as in London.

So in London, New Orleans, and probably wherever you are in the world, cutting hair is probably also helping to create something far beyond one person’s headspace.

(A final note: I’m once again taking a break from posting while travelling for the next few weeks.)

Image: adrian, acediscovery

Send In The Clowns

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Two weekends ago – apologies for not posting last week – a special event took place in Dalston. The Clowns International Annual Service is an act of worship for and centred around clowns always held on the first Sunday in February in Dalston’s Holy Trinity Church.

The service sees clowns from all over the world gather in full costume – shoes, wigs, noses and all, bright in the very gloomiest time of year in London – and mixes readings, singing, clowning and conventional worship, all followed by a performance for children in the church hall (see picture), and tea and cake.

The event always reminds me of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Like Mardi Gras, the clowns’ services shakes up the repetitive and humdrum rituals we all go through, churchgoers or not, things turn loud and garish, and we’re reminded of the importance of foolishness.

But, and I’d argue the same about Mardi Gras, the service shows how foolishness functions not just as a distraction from the realities of everyday life, but can also be a crucial tool in engaging with life’s seriousness and, ultimately, our own mortality.

Mardi Gras is indivisable from the solemnities of Lent, and the clowns’ service is also a memorial service, primarily for Joseph Grimaldi, a eighteenth century actor known as the father of modern clowning and commemorated in a window at the church, but also for all the clowns who have died that year, whose names are read out during the service.

Life is short and death is coming, the service and Mardi Gras seem to say, and the best response is joy and laughter. This message has a particular meaning in a Christian context and has been turned into an art form in New Orleans, but I think it’s also one that has a resonance for humans everywhere.

Bold As Brass

Earlier this month, I read a great bookRoll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans by Tulane professor and musician Matt Sakakeeny. It’s an analysis, one of the first, of the work and lives of the musicians who play in the new generation of hip hop-influenced New Orleans brass bands. Sakakeeny mainly writes about musicians in the Hot 8, the Soul Rebels and Rebirth, many of whom he has close personal relationships with.

There are many things I really like about this book. But what I want to draw attention to here is the way in which Sakakeeny emphasises the relationship of culture and its political and economic contexts, a relationship I’m very interested in. He highlights how the creation of New Orleans’ distinctive and beloved brass band music today has always been enmeshed in complicated social and financial structures.

For example, Sakakeeny rightly recognises the jazz funeral as the musical heart of the New Orleans brass band tradition, but points out that these events are also an important source of income for brass band musicians.

He goes on to examine at length how their participation in these funerals, particularly in the tragically not unusual experience of where they’re for colleagues, relatives and friends, can be a source of musical inspiration and hence financial profit and are a part of a wider artistic engagement characteristic of New Orleans brass band musicians with the poverty, violence and injustice that are often presences in their lives.

We do have a brass band tradition in the UK, but it’s different to that of New Orleans and, certainly in the case of London, not on the same scale. However, as with the musical culture Sakakeeny has studied, there is a significant political and economic dimension to the work of brass bands here.

There’s historically been a strong connection in the UK between brass band music and working class life, particularly in the case of colliery bands. This connection was very effectively examined in 1996 British film Brassed Off, which tells the interlinked stories of the closure of a Yorkshire village’s coal mine and the fortunes of the community’s colliery band.

London has no collieries but does, you might be surprised to hear, have a colliery band. Named after the area where I live, Hackney Colliery Band is made up of classically-trained musicians who would be quick to admit that, while most of them are based in Hackney or nearby, they do not have local connections equivalent to the community roots the members of New Orleans brass bands or British colliery bands tend to have.

Rather they aim to represent in their work a mixture of some of the very diverse musical influences found in Hackney, including jazz, rock, African music, Balkan music, hip hop and a vibrant club scene. “We try to imagine,” said Hackney Colliery Band trumpeter Steve Pretty when I spoke to him earlier this year, “that there was a colliery band [in Hackney] – there’s this whole tradition of colliery bands being the hub of the community, reflecting the musical tastes of that community.”

They’ve also drawn musically on the rich worldwide brass band tradition, including New Orleans brass bands, and embraced the tradition’s commitment to social engagement. For example, parading, that powerful use of performance as a political act so often engaged in by brass bands, is an element of their onstage (or should that be off-and-around-stage?) presence.

Taking things one step further, the band are currently working with young brass players in a project set up in conjunction with the Roundhouse performance venue in Camden, a borough adjacent to Hackney in north London with a similar mix of privilege and deprivation.

To give a third example, the band have named their latest album Common Decency which, Steve told me, “came out of the fact that I wrote a tune when I was quite annoyed with people not behaving properly and it’s gratifying that it’s now the guiding philosophy of the band.”

You could read Steve’s statement as an understated, and thus characteristically British, expression of a laudable commitment to social justice that’s shared by many brass band musicians. Sadly, social justice is something that’s sorely needed in London, across the UK, and in New Orleans. And the part that brass bands and other producers and guardians of culture can play in bringing it about should never be taken for granted or forgotten.

Carnival!

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Last weekend I went to carnival. No, not Mardi Gras – here in London, that’s the day we go round to each other’s houses and see just how many pancakes we can eat at one sitting. And that’s thin plate-sized ones that we fold into triangles and eat with lemon and sugar – you won’t see many American-style stacks drizzled with maple syrup on Pancake Day, though we love those too, just at other times of year.

Which brings me back to carnival in London. Here the last weekend fully in August is the one for dancing in the street – and it’s a long one for most people as the Monday is always a public holiday. On this weekend, Notting Hill Carnival happens. It’s impossible to sum up in a few words, but we’re talking narrow streets full to bursting, steel bands on lorries and sound systems on street corners, beautiful people in feathered outfits of every colour, jerk chicken and curried goat (not really goat, by the way), Red Stripe beer and bottles of rum, whistles and garlands, and hundreds of thousands of people enjoying themselves in the sunshine, which always seems to magically appear over London just in time.

This festival, now the biggest street party in Europe, grew out of various events organised in the late 1950s and early 1960s. One of the main intentions of the early organisers of these events was to find a way for London’s African-Caribbean community to showcase their culture and history as a response to some race-related tensions of the time. Its evolution over the following five decades is closely interwoven with that of race relations in London – the festival has seen clashes between revellers and police and some violence on occasion, but these days the overwhelmingly dominant flavour of the event is celebration of London’s African-Caribbean communities and heritage, and of London’s diversity in general.

But that’s not to say that the festival doesn’t still highlight social tensions, such as those caused by the fact that Notting Hill has changed hugely since the 1960s. Back then, many of the area’s rows of big Victorian terraced houses, usually split up into many small flats, were home to working class tenants, many black, enduring some of the worst housing conditions in the country. Now they’re the homes of millionaires – in recent decades the area’s undergone a gentrification process something like that of the Marigny district in New Orleans. And, judging from the locked gates and boarded-up windows I see every year, many of these millionaires leave the area when carnivals’s on. In 2011, the year of the most recent major London riots, I even saw security guards patrolling outside some of them.

And it’s not just some of the residents of Notting Hill who have an ambivalent attitude towards the festival. I know plenty of Londoners who love it just as much as I do, but also some who see it as a stayaway event, if only because they’re afraid they won’t be able to find a toilet when they need one, admittedly always a bit of a problem (solution: do some advance scouting, get over paying £3 to use a bucket behind a curtain in someone’s garage, and drink rum not beer if you can).

This somewhat anxious attitude towards carnival is mirrored to a certain extent by authorities in London  In the years I’ve being going, I’ve certainly noticed that police presence and crowd control has become heavier. And in 2004, then mayor of London Ken Livingstone’s Carnival Review Group suggested that the festival should be moved in part to Hyde Park as a way of avoiding overcrowding issues.

But for me, the way in which the Notting Hill Carnival occupies and flows around a tight grid of west London streets – including everything from council estates to rows of pastel-coloured palaces to strips of boutiques to corner shops – is a key part of its meaning and its appeal, and I wouldn’t have this, or pretty much any other aspect of it, any other way. I’ve had many different experiences of carnival over the years I’ve been going, all of them wonderful.

Moving from sound system to sound system down a tree-lined road, drinking Red Stripe, and ending up at my friend’s cousin’s Brazilian restaurant, which meant a bonus queue-free toilet stop. Sitting in a pub, watching and hearing the floats go past and eating red velvet cupcakes. Wandering by myself in 2011, noticing the extra police around and trying to decide if things had changed. Dancing outside, watching tens of people try to climb onto a garden wall which had become an impromptu podium. And this year, taking photos of parades and swigging run from the bottle. Carnival is different every year, and you have to go with your instincts – to quote what brass band Rebirth say of Mardi Gras in New Orleans in the title of their classic carnival song: you’ve got to “do watcha wanna”.

This year, we went in from the west rather than from the east, meaning we saw a different side to the event. We went past fewer big white houses with columns outside and more social housing, including the listed but much-maligned 1970s Brutalist block Trellick Tower. There seemed to be more parades here, and we followed them in earnest for the first time, picking up goodies left in their wake, like a flag and a vuvuzula, and ending up at the square around Trellick Tower, which seemed to be a popular point for the floats and dancers to pause for a while and crank things up a notch.

Watching the parades closely helped me pick up on some of the links between Notting Hill Carnival and the African-Caribbean community in Hackney in east London, where I live. I noticed a carnival troupe based out of Visions Video Bar in Dalston. And I later discoverd that black political activist Claudia Jones, who I know of mainly because of the community organisation named after her based on Hackney’s Stoke Newington Road, was involved in the founding of the festivals, organising a music and dance celebration in 1958 for London’s black community in response to the race riots of that year in the streets where the carnival now takes place.

There was also a bit of New Orleans in evidence. One of the biggest and loudest carnival floats I spotted, followed by plenty of costumed dancers and other revellers, was called “Lagniappe Mas”, after the Louisiana term for “a little bit extra”. And of course, there was plenty of New Orleans below the surface – carnival in New Orleans, just like in London, stems to a significant extent from the traditions of a large Caribbean diaspora population.

So I feel justified in ending with a New Orleans phrase: “Laissez les bon temps rouler” for Notting Hill Carnival. I’ll also add a final word from Trinidadian and Londoner Claudia Jones: here is the motto used for the events she organised that arguably got carnival started in London, but which could stand in defence of street festivals everywhere: “A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom.”

Planes, Trains, Automobiles And Streetcars

I recently made the very long journey back from staying in both one of New Orleans’ loveliest hotels and my favourite guesthouse to my home in Hackney. While struggling with the jet lag I acquired as a result, I’ve been thinking about public transport in both cities.

I was fortunate enough to get picked up from the airport after my flight home, so I didn’t have to sit for an hour on the Piccadilly Line as I did on the way out. This was especially good because, as well as my suitcase, laptop bag and handbag, I was struggling with a rather large box containing what I think is a very special New Orleans souvenir (which I hope to write more about in another post soon).

I could start complaining here about the tube, which Londoners just love to do but, you know what, unless you have a very large box, it’s not that bad. And a woman I got talking to once in one of my favourite bars in the French Quarter reminded me that London’s public transport is actually amazing.

No, the tube doesn’t run all night like the New York Subway. Yes, it’s a whole lot more expensive than the Métro in Paris. But guess what? It’s reliable, extensive and, a big tick in my book, pretty much safe all the time. And remember you’re riding through history – lots of it is well over a hundred years old, with the oldest lines generally also being the deepest ones. My grandfather used to tell me which these were, and I think the Piccadilly Line, my budget Heathrow Express, is one of them. And I haven’t even started on our world-famous red double-decker buses, our river ferries that I’ll always love for running all day and all evening for free to get people home after the July 2005 bombings, and our small collection of streetcars, or trams as we call them.

There are also plenty of special things about public transport in New Orleans. It’s certainly not as extensive as the system in London. But I’ll never forget how excited I was when I discovered that even buses in New Orleans come in Mardi Gras colours. I love clanging though the Garden District on the St. Charles Streetcar, stopping for silver dollar pancakes if I have time along the way, but I also love the different view of New Orleans you get from taking the Canal Street line through Mid-City, up to the New Orleans Museum of Art and City Park, or to the cemeteries nearby. And on my recent visit to the city, I took the ferry to Algiers for the first time, getting a different view again.

Speaking of new ways to travel, in recent years, Hackney has been treated to a new tube line or, more precisely, overground line, branded a cheerful orange, probably either to exude positivity or because it was the only colour London’s transport tsars had left in the box. The East London Line has made it a lot easier to get between parts of the city that were a pain to find a link between before, like Hackney and its south London hipster paradise twin Peckham, thus reshaping not only the city’s physical geography but also its cultural landscape. The “gingerline” community even has its own supper club, whose events are always held at a secret destination somewhere along its route.

Down in New Orleans, change is afoot as well, with a new streetcar line planned to run along North Rampart Street, the lakeside boundary of the French Quarter, then along St. Claude Avenue, the top edge of historic Creole neighbourhood the Marigny, and all the way to Elysian Fields Avenue, the street where Stella and Stanley are described as living in Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire.

A supperclub, a play – these remind us that public transport is not just a way to get around. Streetcars, buses, trains and ferries also have cultural – and hence political – significance. How this fact manifests itself in London and New Orleans could fill many books, but I think one of the key themes here, and in other big cities, is that access to transport means power.

New Orleans once had dozens of streetcar lines, including the Desire line made famous by Williams’ play. These, however, were mostly ripped up between the 30s and the 50s due to the rapid rise of the car to prominence in twentieth century American life. That left people without access to a car at the risk of physical isolation and political disenfranchisement, a problem which was made particularly evident after Hurricane Katrina, when a longterm lack of mobility among some communities was shown to be not just inconvenient, not just disadvantageous in terms of cultural capital, but also deadly.

In London, meanwhile, the East London Line was a welcome addition to a part of the city that had never been covered anywhere near as well by the tube network as other areas an equal distance away from the centre of town. And as in New Orleans, this historic lack of access to public transport has been part of a longstanding web of social disadvantage and poverty.

I wish there were a streetcar or tube line linking London and New Orleans. Until someone builds one, I guess I’m stuck with flying. But while I hate droning along in a big cold tin can over the North Atlantic, I’m grateful I have the means to make these journeys.

Markets

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The other night, my sister’s boyfriend said: “When I arrive somewhere new, I head for the nearest market“, on the grounds that it gives him the best sense – and you can usually use all your senses – of what a place is really like.

He then proceeded to recount a horrible tale involving good intentions, dead kittens and stir fry, which I’m not going to repeat here. All I’ll say is that if you see a live animal for sale at a market, it’s probably going to end up as someone’s lunch and there’s probably not a whole lot you can do about that. Sorry.

Anyway, even after hearing that story, I still love markets. And I’m lucky enough to live near lots of them. In or around my patch of Hackney you’ll find Broadway Market just off London Fields, the nearby but newer Netil Market and, in super-trendy Clapton, Chatsworth Road Market. I’ve also heard good things, from a reasonably reliable source, about Walthamstowe Market, allegedly “Europe’s longest street market”.

But my nearest market and my favourite one is Ridley Road Market. It’s an old-school east London market which, excitingly, was apparently the inspiration for the street market in EastEnders (if that means nothing to you, don’t worry about it). None of that cupcakes or organic soap nonsense at Ridley Road – here you can have fruit and veg, underwear, or cheap electronics, plus a whole host of other genuinely useful stuff.

Many of the goods for sale at Ridley Road are associated with one of the ethnic communities found in the area – you’ll find West African cloth, fresh Indian naan bread, Caribbean carnival CDs and more. You’ll also find one of my favourite bars in London, perfect for a dose of tropical in what is often a grey and cold city.

Unfortunately, the multicultural nature of the market has led to some arguably racist hysteria about the nature of the products on sale there in recent years. More happily, the mix of cultures and products available has also inspired some very creative people to set up stall.

Earlier this summer, artist Lorenzo Vitturi exhibited the results of a year-long project centred around Ridley Road Market at Fishbar gallery, also in Hackney. After taking photos and collecting objects and substances from the market, Vitturi began a process of “decomposition and re-composition” to create a series of artworks. These mix together, say, meat and hair dye or fabric and fruit in surprising and sometimes disturbing combinations.

He then took many of these works back to exhibit at the market, at his own stall and he also gave photographs to stallholders to display. “Initially perceived as a chaos,” he says in his notes about the exhibition, “the market has, day after day, revealed to me its own order and harmony…It became really important for me to take the work back into the community to complete the cycle.”

Dalston Coathanger also thinks that markets, and Ridley Road Market in particular, have something to say about social chaos and harmony. This organisation makes T-shirts with slogans and designs inspired by the summer 2011 rioting in London, some of which took place pretty near Ridley Road, and sells them at the market where they hope their range will help people “explore social and political issues that are still at the forefront of minds across the country.”

Over to New Orleans, and this city has fabulous – and though-provoking – markets too. When I’m there, I always end up at the French Market at some point. I love the great food and drink, but also all the other good things that seem to bear the French Market tag  – free music, food festivals, and one of my favourite WWOZ shows.

I also really like the Crescent City Farmers’ Market – on my last visit, I got the best cinnamon roll I’ve ever eaten and a free peach – what more could you want for breakfast? But this market too is about more than just one meal. Farmers’ markets in general are great for reconnecting us to what good food tastes like – and why eating local and seasonal is often a good idea. And when I was there, they also had music and childrens’ activities going on, showing that markets are about building communities as well as making dinner.

Recently, I was reading about what’s going on in the St. Roch neighbourhood in the Bywater, and was excited to hear that its market has been redeveloped. It’s a beautiful old building, with plenty of history – it was built in 1875 and a 1930s renovation was part of one of the original Works Progress Administration projects after the Great Depression. It gradually fell into disuse during subsequent decades, however, and finally closed post-Katrina.

But now the city government has invested $3.7 million to redevelop the space into a community market, due to open very, very soon. It’s part of a wider renewal project in the St. Roch area, which also includes a park, art walk and new streetcar, which again shows that markets can’t be separated from the communities around them and that more markets are generally a sign of more good things for everyone. Unless, that is, you’re a kitten. Sorry (again).

Things Are Getting Hairy

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Over the past month or so, I’ve been attending a great series of events on Morbid Anatomy, held at the fabulous Last Tuesday Society museum/shop in Hackney, and created by Brooklyn-based artist, curator, blogger, and graphic designer Joanna Ebenstein.

The series arose out of her fascination with death and its manifestations in different cultures and time periods. This fascination led her to make a “pilgrimage” around “the great medical museums of the western world”, then to her “Morbid Anatomy” blog (see link above), then to the creation of the Morbid Anatomy Library in Brooklyn, of which she is “Keeper”.

I’ve written about this series of events in general elsewhere, but here I want to focus on what I think is one very interesting aspect of them – what I call the the “getting up close and personal” dimension. Ebenstein has deliberately included a number of hands-on sessions in the series, including a “Wax Wound Workshop”, a session where you can make your own “Bat in Glass Dome”, and classes on the Victorian art of hair jewellery.

Getting close to bodily structures and their fragility as a way of “making sense of ourselves” is very popular today, says Vadim Kosmos, the manager of the Last Tuesday Society’s shop/musuem. I’d argue that this interest is currently very evident in both London, and also in New Orleans which, in the view of New York master jeweller Karen Bachmann who ran the hair jewellery classes, is “a death-obsessed city”.

This widepread interest, Kosmos thinks, is what’s behind the popularity of the society’s shop/museum, which is stuffed with a mixture of natural history specimens, mineral samples, religious iconography and ethnographic items. “It’s so compact and crowded – you’re literally nose to nose with something in there,” he says. That “something” could be a piece of antique taxidermy, a shrunken head, or a “Fiji mermaid” (in reality a mixture of monkey, fish and papier mâché).

And the Morbid Anatomy workshops allow participants to get closer still. In the hair jewellery classes, for example, they were encouraged to bring in their own hair, or the hair of a loved one to work with. That’s hair from the head, by the way, though Bachmann did reveal that she’s been asked to make jewellery incorporating pubic hair for clients in the past.

Bachmann used to work at Tiffany’s, famous as a purveyor of neat heart lockets and icy engagement rings for Manhattan princesses, but she’s long had an interest in more earthy Morbid Anatomy-type decorative objects. She has, she says, always collected “dead shit” – “bugs, bones, freeze-dried animals”, and has been building a personal collection of hair jewellery for over fifteen years. She bought her first piece – a brooch made out of Whitby jet – in Harvey Nichols in London, and her collection also includes items found in New Orleans.

Is there something unhealthy about the appeal of handling these kinds of objects, in contrast, perhaps, to relishing the vanilla sparkle of a standard Tiffany bauble? No, says Ebenstein, who took part in one of Karen’s London classes. For her, the process of being able to turn an anatomical relic like hair into a cultural object has a profitable philosophical resonance.

“In workshops like these,” she says, “you think about what the pieces mean, how it’s really about the thought of the deceased, and you realise how painstaking and slow [the work] is. You get it on a different level: it’s like meditation. Someone could have explained that [in a lecture], but I don’t think you really get it until you try to do it yourself.”

Ebenstein sees using these kinds of experiences to promote thoughtfulness about death – and life – as central to the Morbid Anatomy mission. “I think if you believe as I do that our time on earth is it,” she says “you want to do the best you can, and reminding ourselves of our mortality is a really good way to stay on track.”

Food Glorious Food (part 2)

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Hackney, the part of east London where I live, has certainly been made culturally richer, and its eating options yummier, by a long history of waves of immigration. If I walk the length of Kingsland Road, I’ll pass though Vietnamese, Chinese, West Africa, Turkish and Orthodox Jewish communities – and their eateries.

But the biggest food influx in east London in recent years has been…yes, American food. Within easy walking distance of my home in Hackney and where I work, a little further south, there are countless rib rooms, multitudes of dirty burger options, red velvet cupcakes and whoopie pies galore, and no shortage of speakeasy gin bars. And not only have east Londoners been chowing down on barbecue and fondant icing, and slurping juleps and Old Fashioneds, for a while, but we’ve also adopted other US dining conventions, like having cocktails with dinner (just fine in my book) and queueing at no reservation restaurants (not so happy about this one, unless I can have a cocktail while I wait).

I think, however, that I can now sense a new trend on the horizon that’s on the verge of displacing the American food that’s been so ubiquitous here in recent years. Just as the humble burger got jazzed up, layered up and priced up into the gourmet delight east London’s hipsters know and love, humble fried chicken has now ben getting the same upmarket treatment at spots like Tramshed and Wishbone.

But I think all this clucking over spicy wings and poussin is actually part of something even bigger and newer than the fast food-gone-gourmet scene. There’s so much more to chicken than American-style fried chicken, divine as it can be at the right place. Many cultures across the world love chicken and think of it as their own – just ask the Singaporeans, or Jewish people – but right now I’d like to highlight the fact that it’s at the centre of French cusine.

You may think the promise of “a chicken in every pot” is something US presidents say. However, it was in fact first used as a political slogan by late sixteenth/early seventeenth century French king Henri IV. And a cousin of a friend who works in a very swanky London restaurant, says the smart money on the London dining scene is looking east to Paris rather than west to New York these days.

And round where I live in Hackney, French or French-ish restaurants are sprouting up everywhere – east Londoners, have you tried Oui Madame or Bouchon Fourchette yet?

Just to be clear, we’re talking French food Hackney-style here – the informality of the indigenous greasy spoons and the more recent US diner trend has made an indelible impact on how any food gets served up here. This is not slices of kiwi fruit and raspberry coulis novelle cusine-style dishes. We’re talking peasant food and Parisian café fare – croque monsieur, coq au vin and proper chocolate mousse, all washed down with humble vin rouge.

I even reckon there are signs that this new-style earthy French food is even making its presence felt in the Big Apple. For instance, the latest foodie craze there is a doughnut (ok, if you insist – donut)/croissant hybrid that apparently has Manhattanites queuing round the block every morning.

But if I want American food with a little bit of je ne sais quois, I know where I’m going. New Orleans was always there already, taking African dishes and adapting them with French techniques, or making a French staple from local ingredients and creating something new and special in the process.

New Orleans food is my favourite food in the whole world. For anyone like me who was brought up standard European home cooking, eating gumbo or beignets in New Orleans feels like a departure, but also a homecoming to somewhere you never knew you belonged. Is there a better way to represent America on a plate?