A Perfect Fried Urban ‘Problem’

by Alex Rhys-Taylor

London’s first fried chicken takeaway and restaurant, Kentucky Fried Chicken, opened in Finchley in 1968. As any Londoner will know, however, the more recent growth in annual fried-chicken consumption in urban areas (of around 4.5% a year), has been driven by aassortment of independent entrepreneurs,working within smaller franchises – Perfect Fried Chicken, Morley’s and Chicken Cottage. Notably these have clustered particularly in the city’s poorer areas; Hounslow, Hackney, Tottenham, Barking and Stratford; Mile End’s ‘chicken mile’, Lewisham’s New Cross Road or Whitechapel Road.

As well-established as the fried chicken takeaway is on London’s corners, a taste for them amongst Londoners is equalled, if not exceeded, by a deeply visceral distaste. In fact distaste is perhaps too less-of-a-word to describe the deep corporeal disgust that, for some, is elicited by the sensoria of the fried chicken takeaway. Importantly, very few of the many critical commentaries on fried chicken present their disgust as simply arbitrary. On the contrary, the gut-felt revulsion is readily justified with reference to any one of a number of specific ‘problems’ with fried chicken. In efforts to rationalise the gut-felt anxiety Londoners feel around frittered poultry, concerns about animal welfare and industrialised slaughter are perhaps second only to anxieties about feckless working class consumers and ‘the national obesity crisis’ they engender.

As prominent as these rationales are, however, they are not the only ‘reasons’ that fried chicken takeaways are seen as a problem. Perhaps equally significant, if rarely acknowledged in rationalisations of disgust, is the clear relationship between fried chicken and already-problematised youth subcultures. That is, the fried chicken takeaway is an integral part of urban subcultures that have been widely problematised for decades already for the significant challenges they pose to traditional understandings of ethnicity and identity. In north America, of course, fried chicken has a long history of negative association with racialised urban cultures. While not directly translated from the United States, this historical association with ‘race’ inflects both the appeal of the dish to London’s multicultural youth, while also informing the ways in which the food and its consumers have become seen as the primary symptom of an urban crisis.

In contrast to the widespread stigmatisation of the fried chicken shop, its culture and its consumers, this session will present a short film  exploring the place of the fried chicken takeaway in the lives of East London’s young people, followed by a Q and A with the filmdirectors.

Hoodfort’s film “Chicken” is made by a local community project and explores the fried chicken phenomenon in Tower Hamlets, providing an insight into what fried Chicken means to different communities. It has won multiple awards, and has been featured on ITN News and the Guardian.

Alex Rhys-Taylor and Mile End Community Project will be discussing Hoodforts’ ‘Chicken’ in Panel  5 – Aesthetic/methodological responses to multiculture  PSH LG02  12pm-1.15pm

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