Britain’s Extra Crispy Class War
How fried chicken overran the United Kingdom — and kicked off a uniquely British row about race, ethnicity, and obesity.
As far as instances of political hypocrisy go, it was a minor one. But the choice of targets was telling. “We’ve got too many chicken shops in our town centers,” said then-London mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan at a campaign event last August. “We’ve got too many pawnbrokers in our town centers. We’ve got too many gambling shops in our town centers. Elect me to be the London mayor and we’ll sort all those three things out.”
Khan’s quote caused a small scandal, mostly focused on his two-facedness when it came to the fried chicken industry. Reporters dug up what one called his “history with chicken.” (Khan had once been the guest of honor at a 2012 banquet staged by a chain called Chicken Cottage.)
What fewer noticed, however, but has been pointed out by a handful since, was the strangeness of Khan’s list of marks to be “sorted out.” Pawnbrokers? Sure. Gambling shops? Fine. But why were the stores known in Britain as chicken shops — purveyors of greasy, cheap fried chicken meals — mentioned in the same breath as the places typically viewed as dens of iniquity and urban blight?
Few outside the U.K. probably have any idea just how much fried chicken the country eats. It eats a lot — and more every year. The chicken shop boom was born in the wake of the financial crisis, helped by its almost unbeatable price point. There are few places where a filling dinner can be had for less than 5 pounds and a lunch for less than 3 pounds. Since then, it has been one of the quickest-growing fast-food sectors in the country and has expanded more than 50 percent since 2008 to become a nearly $1 billion business, by one estimate. Multiple streets in London and elsewhere now have three, four, or five chicken shops within just a few blocks of one another, marked by their distinct — often red, white, and blue — shiny plastic storefronts, and their names, which gesture toward southern Americana: Carolina Chicken, Tennessee Fried Chicken TFC, Dixie Chicken, Dixy Chicken. (Some names, like Miami Chicken, miss the mark a bit.)
This rampant proliferation of chicken shops has generated a certain amount of angst across the political spectrum. “The Chicken Shop Mile and How Britain Got Fat,” reads the headline on one representative piece in the Guardian, from January. In it, the author and others fret about the overabundance of fried chicken in Tower Hamlets, a London borough with the sixth-highest rate of child obesity in the country and, apparently, 42 chicken shops for every secondary school.
Much of the anguish over these restaurants purports to be based on health concerns, and, with an obesity rate of 25 percent, Britain might prefer its growth industries to consist of something other than fast food. But some of the chicken-related anxieties — like Sadiq Khan’s, for instance — are tinged with sentiments that appear somewhat less savory (so to speak). In an article for the Daily Mail, one author writes about how “the grottier outlets lend an air of seediness and decline to the thoroughfares of many [of] our cities and towns, sharing customers with those other symptoms of modern urban deprivation: pound shops, betting shops and payday loan operators.” Somehow, fried chicken has become a quick stand-in for the ways modern life has gone wrong.
Fried chicken in Britain — in addition to being a reliable sponge for alcohol — is mainly poor and working-class people’s food. Many of those who consume it come from immigrant communities. (The shops often prominently advertise themselves as halal.) It is hard not to conclude that these associations with class and race have shaped the way the meal is perceived in Britain — at least by the middle-class observers frowning on poorer people’s lifestyle choices.
There is, however, hope for redemption — a chance that the meal might yet evolve from fraught symbol to humble supper. After all, before there was chicken, there was fish.
If Britain has an iconic food, it is fish and chips. A version of the golden fried hunks of fish and potatoes appears on the menu of any pub purporting to be British around the globe. When Britain’s Department for Culture Media & Sport asked the public recently to nominate “icons of Britain,” fish and chips was the first item on the list.
In his 2014 book, Fish and Chips: A History, De Montfort University professor Panikos Panayi dives deep into the history of what was once his favorite food. The son of Cypriot immigrants, Panayi enjoyed a weekly Friday night meal of fish and chips before he could even speak English — it was his first delicious step toward assimilation. But that’s only because he was eating it in the mid-1960s, at which point fish and chips had already attained its status as a paradigm of Britishness. That status took almost a century to achieve.
Long before fish and chips was Britain-on-a-plate, it was ethnic food — Jewish food, to be specific, with all the stigma that entailed. Middle-class Brits turned up their noses at the smell, Panayi writes, which they associated with inner-city ghettos and vicious anti-Semitic stereotypes. References to “hook nosed Jew[s]” and Jewesses working as “dealer[s] in fried fish” litter the pages of 19th-century newspapers.
The boom in “chippies” — which at their peak in the late 1920s numbered perhaps as many as 35,000 — was driven by global economic forces. Railways and ice meant that fresh fish could be available even inland; exploration of the New World provided a more ready supply of cod. Eventually the dish expanded beyond the ethnic ghettos to become the food of the British poor and working classes writ large. This, however, hardly won it respectability. The takeaways were still subjected to the scorn of what Panayi calls “sneering … educated commentators,” who viewed them as seedy places where customers were typically intoxicated men. Women who resorted to fish and chips instead of cooking to feed their families were seen as “part of a way of life which is downright immoral, subverting the basic values of home and family,” writes the historian John K. Walton in his 1992 book, Fish and Chips and the British Working Class.
One of the more powerful dismissals of the working class’s culinary (and economic) choices in favor of fried fish came in the form of health concerns. The meal was written off by these same commentators as “indigestible … and unwholesome.” Doctors attempted to link it to typhoid fever; schools and town medical officers chastened mothers for feeding their children fish and chips, blaming it in part for high child mortality rates, “relegating,” Walton writes, “such issues as defective housing, sanitation, and water supply to the status of contributory factors.” On this point, Walton is full of righteous anger. For him, middle-class denigration of fish and chips was inseparable from repressive Victorian ideas about domestic womanhood; the dish a convenient scapegoat for a government looking to blame malnutrition on lazy working-class mothers rather than the policies that kept them in poverty.
What finally convinced middle-class Brits of the virtues of their dish was the arrival of competition. It was the Chinese and Indian takeaways of the 1960s and 1970s that elevated chippies from symbols of the slums to British icon. Britons faced with “ethnic” food wanted a speedy, cheap meal that was “theirs.”
What followed was a steady process of upmarketification. Today, there’s a real cracker of a fish and chips restaurant — not a chippie, mind you; those are on the decline — on the main street in my North London neighborhood. The fish is wonderful. The batter is light and delicate and not at all greasy. The chips are all you could want in a fried piece of potato. It costs 12 pounds ($15.80) a plate.
It may have taken fish and chips 100 years to go upmarket, but the movement toward upscale, thoughtfully sourced, free-range — but in no way less fried — fried chicken in Britain has already begun. A restaurant in the trendy East London neighborhood of Dalston called Chick ‘n’ Sours offers a fried chicken thigh on a bun, with an avocado, hot sauce, bacon, fried egg, and gochujang mayo for 12 pounds.
The meal still has a long road ahead of it, however. Most chicken shops remain modest affairs: counters with just a few seats, under very fluorescent lighting, staffed by just one or two people at a time. In my experience, the shops don’t feel seedy. At busy times they can feel like community hubs, where regulars stop and chat with the staff before picking up their meals. But they have the feel of spaces that one part of society finds comfortable and comforting, and another part would never set foot in. In a widely shared post last October, London-based blogger and entrepreneur Sam Floy, on the hunt for a flat in the city’s brutal property market, shared an algorithm he had developed to determine whether an area is “up-and-coming” — that is, whether it’s a good place to invest. What he found: Do buy in places with a high density of coffee shops. Don’t buy where there’s an abundance of fried chicken.
There’s another parallel between the story of fish and chips in London and the story of fried chicken; in this case, it’s not about the food itself, but about the people preparing and serving it. Panayi writes that, for all its claims to Britishness, fish and chips has always been a food of immigrants: not just the Jewish immigrants who initially brought it to Britain, but the Italians, Chinese, and Greek Cypriots who manned many of Britain’s fry shops into the 20th century. Opening a chippie was a relatively easy and cheap way for would-be entrepreneurs without much access to capital to become self-employed in a country where doing so as a foreigner was not always easy.
Fried chicken has become so ingrained in popular culture here that a few years ago, a South London chicken shop became the subject of a brief but heartwarming reality TV show that aired over the course of two seasons in 2012 and 2013, straightforwardly titled The Fried Chicken Shop. The concept was underwhelming. Cameras filmed the goings-on at Roosters Spot, on Clapham High Street, from opening until close over the course of a few weeks. But the show’s charm, as reviewers at the time noted, far exceeded its seemingly modest ambitions.
This was in part due to the staff, whom we got to know over the course of the show. Rooster Spot is a franchise, and we never met the owner, but its staff consisted, at the time, almost entirely of young immigrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan trying to make sense of British life. We met people like Imran and Harris, both from Pakistan, best friends who share the same shift. We watched the staff members grapple bravely with the task of serving food to customers who’ve had too much to drink. We hear that nearly all of them have side hustles: Imran was working at Rooster Spot to fund his business management course; Harris hoped to open his own Italian restaurant.
I visited the Clapham High Street Rooster Spot a few weeks ago, and while I was waiting for my chicken, I chatted a bit with the man behind the counter. Ahmad is also originally from Pakistan. He started as an employee at another chicken shop, where he learned the ropes of the business, and now says he is part owner of a handful of Roosters Shop franchises, including the one where the show was filmed. (KFC franchises are way too expensive, he says.) He’s also studying accounting. His partner owns his own accounting firm while managing the Clapham High Street store part time.
I also spoke with Afsar, a team leader at the shop. It was a few weeks before the mayoral election at the time, and he said he’d never heard of Sadiq Khan, though he was offended by Khan’s statement. Rooster Spot is a place for families, he said — not like pawnshops, and certainly not like betting parlors. But he also didn’t care much about what Khan thought. So what if the new mayor doesn’t like chicken shops? “Business is increasing every day,” Afsar said. “It just keeps going up and up.”
Photo credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Chicken Cottage image: Lucy Fisher (via Flickr)