Sdwjr – Journalist
I’d promised myself that as soon as I was old enough, I’d eat fried chicken all the time. Only, by the time I made the move to London in 2000, with its countless chicken shops, I’d read about the inhumane conditions most birds destined for fast-food fryers were subjected to, so my trips to them were rare, often preceded by alcohol and always succeeded by guilt.
Already, I was noticing a pattern. The cheap chicken shops, fronted with happy cartoon chickens, were always concentrated in poorer areas, ones with a bigger black population.
It wasn’t the first time someone used a racist slur against me that went over my head, like the time someone called me a golliwog and I laughed along with them, too young to understand the inference. But with fried chicken it runs deeper.
Historically, chickens held special importance for enslaved black Americans, being the only livestock they were allowed to keep. Black domestic workers would cook fried chicken for their masters and, later, their employers. And then, after emancipation, women known as “waiter carriers” would hawk trays of fried chicken and biscuits to travellers through open windows as their trains stopped in stations.
But while these black cooks and homemakers effectively invented what would become known as southern food, their contribution was erased. The white folk took the credit for its creation, while black people were mocked and parodied merely as greedy consumers. It’s one of the most outrageous examples of cultural theft.
The racist 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, widely touted as the first blockbuster, attempted to paint black people as aggressive, disorganised and untrustworthy. In one scene, elected black officials are seen swigging from whisky bottles and putting their bare feet on tables. And then one man is seen animalistically gnawing on a chicken drumstick. In that one clip, the negative association was cemented.
But while the US was trying to unpick the racist issues surrounding fried chicken, the UK’s Conservative government was stoking the flames. The Home Office’s decision to put anti-knife crime messages on fried chicken boxes perpetuated yet more racist stereotypes about knife crime and chicken shop customers.
It all feeds into that same shame. During a recent podcast recording, I was asked what my final supper would be. As I said “fried chicken”, I couldn’t help hearing an imagined, knowing, “Of course!” in response.
The US comedian Dave Chappelle got it. In one sketch, he mimics white people watching him as he eats some chicken. “Look at him,” they say in amazement, “he loves it just like it said in the encyclopedia.”
But enough is enough. The time has come to start undoing the negative associations and start giving fried chicken its dues. I look to the US chef Edna Lewis for inspiration. In her seminal 1976 cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking, Lewis, who died in 2006, spoke affectionately of the fried chicken of her childhood. She grew up in Freetown, Virginia, a town founded by freed slaves who included her grandfather.
“In Freetown,” she wrote, “fried chicken was a very special dish. Frying chickens were produced only once a year in late spring through to early summer.”
Imagine, fried chicken so special it was a seasonal dish. I should be proud that this food of my heritage has taken over the world. Yes, its most famous purveyor may be a white, bespectacled moustachioed colonel, but fried chicken is firmly rooted in black innovation and creativity. It should be a source of pride for the African diaspora. That we’ve been bullied and made to feel ashamed of it is one of the biggest outrages in culinary history.
So now, it’s time to admit it. Fried chicken: I love you. And I don’t care who knows.