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Playing Chicken

The Pengest Munch episode 1 - Taste Of Tennessee, Old Street/Shoreditchish/Hoxtonish.

Elijah Quashie is the self-appointed Chicken Connoisseur. His childlike looks (although he is in his twenties) and sharp use of language have seem him rack up millions of YouTube viewers. His online series The Pengest Munch has a huge following, making him renowned as a chick-critic extraordinaire. He celebrates the everyday pleasure to be found in a food not normally treated as special. He’s not the only one. Like Instagram’s amplification of excessive, indulgent dishes and programmes like David Chang’s Ugly Delicious, we are seeing more and more efforts to recognise and even aestheticize street foods and not just the elaborately presented Michelin-star variety. These trends break down boundaries between fast and slow, high end and cheap eats, encouraging us to rate more humble yet eminently tempting food. This is food which might not be have refined or sophisticated visual appeal but has its own luscious language of deliciousness as well as its own social etiquette and protocol.

Elijah’s entry into online celebrity was pretty straightforward. In an interview with Feast he explained

I said I wanted to be a food critic for years as a joke, but from the example of Lordie and RD with Whippin in the Kitchen and the legendary £5 Munch, it was evident that I could just do it if I wanted to. So once I got someone to film, we just went ahead with it.

The appeal of fried chicken to Quashie also a simple thing rooted in the everyday food landscape of South London,

it’s cheap and cheerful delicious local estate cuisine.

His diet goes beyond fried chicken though, it isn’t his favourite food, “home-cooked meals win and I like pizza quite a lot too”. And while he seems cool and unfazed online, he is surprised at the reach of his creations (he’s getting his own show, the Peng Life, on Channel 4 soon). I asked him if he expected to be so popular and he admits, “not to this degree. I never planned for anyone beyond people of my demographic to understand it or take interest.”

Quashie’s use of the term demographic is apt because food offerings – particularly in an urban context – are often very demographic specific. The spots selling cheap take away food that Quashie features in his shorts find their main business in young consumers of a less well-off, even precarious socio-economic class.  There’s evidence that such areas, linked to economic deprivation, tend to have more fast food outlets – places selling food high in salt, fat and sugar. Fast food businesses target school areas and of course younger consumers. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan recently proposed banning new fast food shops being built within 400m of schools across the city to try tackle childhood obesity. There’s a clear social divide with poorer areas having access to “unhealthy” food – ie processed fast foods and less access to “healthy” food, ie fruit and vegetables. Like Khan, many others point the fingers at the fast food outlets.

But even if fried fast food is the evil monster, what can be done? A project in Tottenham, Chicken Town, creatively tried to address this, with Local Authority support, using chicken as their method. Set up by Ben Rymer and Hadrian Garrard, Chicken Town was a social enterprise that served fried chicken style fast food to inner city kids but with high quality ingredients and healthier recipes. They understood they were treading a fine line between hipsterfication and real social deprivation. Ultimately they could not compete in the urban fast food world and closed in December 2017.  

Like ‘which came first the chicken or the egg’, what causes the problem of poor health outcomes in specific communities does not have a simple answer.  It’s true that eating these foods contributes to ill health, and that spatially poorer areas tend to have more of these shops. But cheap fast food exists because it’s a food product that people on a low budget can afford. People can also be time-poor, getting family meals between shifts might not allow time to prepare from fresh. Chicken shops and cheap, basic fast food outlets are part of the fabric of everyday communities, an ungentrified normality of inner city foodscapes that does what it says on the tin. Trying to get rid of them, to be replaced with superfood-serving cafes and delis, has shades of paternalistic, even if well meaning, middle class assumptions that may alienate and certainly price out the original fast food customers.

As Oscar Wilde said, 

everything in moderation, including moderation.

You don’t need the Chicken Connoisseur to tell you fried chicken can be pretty peng. Maybe just don’t eat it every day. Denying its place within landscape of city food provision will only serve to alienate and ostracise young people for whom fasts foods are a well-loved and necessary part of their social identity. Knowledge about nutrition is related to the multiple levels of deprivation that exist; it’s education as well as time and money. Precarious parental working conditions and the lack of a living wage are the underlying deep issues. Banning fast food joints, without developing nutritious, affordable replacements and a healthier food culture, won’t solve the problem. Overreliance on fast foods should be replaced with positive and proactive food options for people, to ensure they have access to lifestyle choices just as healthy as the borough down the road.

The Pengest Munch episode 6 - Chick King, Tottenham.

Caitriona Devery

Caitriona is associate editor of FEAST