I consider chicken again – and gladly! At night, in sweat-basted sleep, I slip and slide over chicken-skin terrain, popping juice-engorged blisters with my toecaps. By day I wonder if I should try out the new takeaway that’s opened down the road, the name of which – Chicken Valley – appeals to my sense of south London’s fowl topography: a vale of chickens, what might that be like?
But in the meanwhile there’s lunch to be eaten: I foresee the lurid clutter of spare ribs, I anticipate the jolly hiss of chips hitting the oil, I picture the jolly countenance of Mr Rohan Palmer, chicken fryer by appointment to the denizens of this neighbourhood, and my mind is made up: there’s no way I’m going to enter the shadow of the valley of chicken, I will go to my favourite fast-food joint, Favorite Chicken. Why the American spelling? Because over 25 years ago Favorite Fried Chicken dropped from its parent bird, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and became a separate network of franchises; and while the laying was fertilised by two Englishmen, they retained stateside orthography.
So, in answer to that vexed question: which came first, FFC or KFC? The answer can only be supplied by Mr Palmer, who was there when it happened. I stand one side of the counter in a tweed jacket, and he stands the other in a fetching semi-transparent blue plastic apron. Between us there is a sign reading, “Mild Chilli Cheese Poppas, Crispy Coated Delicious Melted Cheese with a Mild Green Chilli Warmth, 4 – £1.19, 12 – £3.49”. Overhead there are strange pictures of Styrofoam beakers, chips and chicken pieces arranged in meal-deal groupings that are oddly reminiscent of Richard Hamilton’s pop-art collages.
Mr Palmer tells me there are roughly 120 FFC franchises now – and that he’s held this one since the great disjointing from KFC. I’ve been intrigued by his name ever since I saw it on his certificate of halal authenticity, and he explains that his father named him after the Indo-Guyanese cricketer, Rohan Kanhai. Apparently when he was a boy it was an unusual name – but now there are lots of Rohans in Jamaica, which Mr Palmer left when he was 11. I imagine that he’s seen a lot of changes in the fast-food business in the past three decades, and Mr Palmer tells me that back in the day they had a floor-to-ceiling steel grille through which the pieces were doled out: “We don’t have the rude boys like we did before,” he explains, “they’ve all grown up and moved away – the CCTV helps as well.”
It’s refreshing to talk to someone who, far from having an irrational fear of crime, takes a generally sunny view of social change. Is the favourite at Favorite the chicken pieces themselves? “Absolutely,” Mr Palmer replies, “although it’s not the same at all the franchises – down at Caterham, where the clientele is more . . . well, English, they serve a lot more burgers, but round about here they like their chicken.” We like our chicken, too, but while not wishing to impugn Favorite’s food-sourcing, it’s difficult to conceive of it being especially ethical – which is why we mostly go for chips. Mr Palmer and his staff fry a mean chip: firm, nicely crunchy, not too greasy and with a genuine flavour. What’s your secret? I ask him, and he just shrugs. If only those celebrity chefs would just shrug – it’d be a much quieter, happier place.
We like the FFC chips so much that we often send one of the kids across the road to get some when we’re having steak at home. I love augmenting home-cooked food with fast fare – or even supplanting it altogether. This, surely, is what being an urbanite is all about – I once lived opposite a café called Rosa’s, and I’d skip across with a plate and get them to pile it high with a full English. True, it was a little bizarre sitting in my own chintzy interior with that very distinctive film of egg and grease coating the inside of my mouth – I kept expecting burly truckers to barge in the front door and start calling me “luv” – but I got used to it.
I’ve got used to Favorite Chicken as well, with its Rappa Meals and its Fillet of Fire Meals, and its mirror-splintered interior. Mr Palmer says that he’s had ’em all in over the years – Frank Bruno, Craig Charles, Dean Gaffney off EastEnders, and even the most celebrated soap star of them all: “Two Jags, he came by here once.” Really, I say, my curiosity piqued, and what was he like? “I dunno,” Mr Palmer replies imperturbably, “he sent his driver in to get the grub.”