The Half Life of Chips


They’re everywhere. You’ll have seen one. You’ll probably have smelt one. You may even admit to having entered one. I won’t judge you, I know what it’s like. There is a time when nothing else quite hits the spot. The Fried Chicken Spot.

Here in the UK we know no one does the fried chicken thing like the Americans, and no American does it quite like the Colonel. Sadly branding comes at a price, as does pumped and piped sugar based liquid refreshment. Free trade in the EU and cheap Lithuanian Pepsi resolves the latter problem, the former needs some creativity.

Undeterred by not being American or wealthy enough for the KFC premium we have become a nation of chicken shop keepers. The names follow a certain pattern. The purists style themselves on KFC and take name along the formula <insert US state of your choice> Fried Chicken. The obvious one is taken of course, but calling yourself Minnesota Fried Chicken still has that essential sense of Americaness. No matter if Minnesota has no heritage of flash frying battery farmed water and hormone infused poultry. No matter if most Brits could not separately identify any US states on a map. It’s an American state and it’s got Fried chicken in the title. Order up a hundredweight of cardboard food boxes from Cost Co and lets do business. The only one I haven’t seen is Milwaukee, possibly because it is so hard to spell.

The heretics pour scorn on this. No US aping for them. Theirs is the new religion, the one that looked across the road at Pizza Hut and thought “now there’s a way to name your restaurant: the food it serves and some form of dwelling.” The acolytes of this radicalism are the Chicken Huts, the rectors and preachers are the Chicken Villas, and top of the tree, king of the hill, father of them all is Chicken Spot.

You know the feeling. Bad day at work, dinner with friends that love to experiment in the kitchen, a day with a “y” in it, something happens and as you walk past the door out wafts the smell of stuff cooked in oil. Drowsy neurons in your head make a sudden connection, by passing your memory centre of every other time you ate there, and you walk in.

There’s chicken. There’s burgers, but don’t waste time on them, they take longer to cook. There’s chicken. It is currently the year 28 AN (After Nando’s) so there is probably peri peri chicken too.

Twenty minutes later there is grease on your fingers and on your chin. Your arteries are holding a strike ballot, it could go either way. Somehow the napkins are never quite strong enough. The oil has a particular chemical quality that turns it from lubricant to glue. You ask the surly guy behind the counter who can barely speak English (he might be native born, but he can still barely speak English) for one of those wipes that smells like Toilet Duck lemon. You succeed only in smearing the grease a little thinner and reminding yourself that sometime soon a lavatory is in your future because one way or the other this is not stopping in your system.

And no matter how vehemently and passionately you swear you won’t be back, you will.

Accepting the inevitable I have decided to improve the lot of man by setting out a quality measurement system for the purveyors of supposed gallus domesticus frixus.

It has nothing to do with the chicken itself. That all comes from the same chick to chook, pumped and plucked production line. The Colonel may have preserved the secret of his recipe but somewhere someone has made a fortune selling a KFC-esque coating. It satisfies some nosmic pareto rule of being close enough to the real thing, without triggering the memory that visits to KFC, like dreams of what you should have done, also leave you with a lingering sense of regret.

No. The key to quality is in the potato based accompaniment. The French fry, the chip, the wedge, whatever your poison (and chemically some of them may be), therein lies the true test of your down-at-heel eatery.

At the moment of provision, as they land on the plastic tray with its paper flier, they always smell heavenly. This time, they promise, this time you won’t leave the premises feeling a little dirty. Now you face a dilemma. Hell hath nothing so noxious as cold cheap friend chicken. The coating comes away and the oil, emulsified with the water used to bump up the weight of the bird, oozes out over the surprisingly small amount of actual meat.

Now you are India Jones facing the leap of faith. Can your chips survive the waiting? If you’re having a burger it is a no brainer. You pour out the chips into the other side of the polystyrene box, load up on ketchup and munch fries three at a time, the burger will bear the waiting. But the two piece chicken with chips meal is where the rubber hits the road. You have to go chicken first, but the clock is ticking.

Behold the half life of chips.

When they land in your tray the chips are a passport to unearthly wonders. The potatoes have been skinned by rolling them gently on the thighs of dusky maidens. Unicorns cut and sliced them with their horns, and they have not so much been fried as bathed in soothing unguents. That phase only lasts about twenty seconds, and if the chips have been sitting in the metal jobber for any length of time before serving then forget it. Don’t feel aggrieved. Even if the chipista has made them fresh, unhurried by the queue behind you, you won’t make it to your seat before the peak of taste has passed. Eat them en route or never know this pleasure.

The next phase is the crucial one. The chips are still hot, but they seem to be very poorly insulated. The temperature drops rapidly. During that second phase the ubiquitous red sauce will see you right with a thin swipe.

Phase three comes all too quickly. The texture has gone from light and fluffy inside, to a cardboard tube wrapped in a condom. Ketchup can still save you but you had better hurry because in Phase four a hod carrier will arrive to ask if he can use your lunch to build a wall.

It’s not called fast food because of the speed with which it is served, but because of the speed with which you have to eat it.

How long it takes to get through the phases tells you all you need to know. If you are in phase four by the time you get to the table from the counter then get up and leave now. No good will come of this. Take the lesser pleasure of having bought fast food, and be content with that.

If you are still in phase three by the time you finish the chicken then you’ve probably found a keeper. This is your local every bit as much as the pub.

And if you are in phase two by the time you are consuming the chips then enjoy life while you can, because sooner rather than later you will choke to death from eating chicken too fast.


Open Letter to the Labour Party

Munstead Wood - Red Rose

Munstead Wood – Red Rose

I am not a member of your party, but over the years I have voted for it (apart from a hiatus in the Blair era). I am writing to you as a social democrat who believes in the power of both the labour movement and the union movement. I am writing to you with a plea that you reconnect with the soul and traditions of the Labour Party and abandon the aping of the Tory party that began with New Labour, and threatens again.

The Tory ideology is the pursuit of individual gain, and devil take the hindmost. It is utterly inimicable with the pursuit of social justice at the heart of the Labour party. If you chase a short term electoral gain through low-calorie conservatism to become a Tory-lite party you may indeed succeed for a time. But you will leave behind the majority of your supporters, and crucially you will abandon those who rely on you to be their voice in a world that would increasingly silence them. Yours is the party of inclusion and humanity. You relinquish that at great peril. What you will lose will be much greater than what you gain. The Blair years proved this. What emerged from New Labour was soulless, a husk stripped of all that made it vibrant and inspiring.

If you admire the Tories for anything, then admire the tenacity with which they have held to their principles. In the face of extraordinary egregious behaviour by the banks, flaunting of our tax laws by their funders, they have stood by the few they serve and exacted the toll from the many who would look to you if only you gave them something to believe in.

That is not to say there is no need for change. There is a parallel between the change you need to address and that needed by unions. Technology has changed the working landscape beyond recognition. Union protectionism of obsolete ways of working depresses the growth potential of the entire country. The unions need to find a means to make themselves continually relevant in this new landscape, by supporting the re-skilling of their members and promoting the benefits of collective bargaining to an increasingly atomised workforce. As individuals we are slave to our fear of poverty and will allow firms to employ us too cheaply in order to line the pockets of executives. This holds true as much in the burgeoning technology sector as it once did in manufacturing.

The same challenge applies to Labour. We are better informed, more mobile and working in a more globalised economy than the last proper Labour government. We are in a worldwide competition for investment funds and the brightest most able people. My contention is that the cold offer of wealth is not sustainable, and is one that other countries could replicate. Investment we win in the Tory model could as easily flee tomorrow to the next country offering cheap resources and low taxes.

How much better to offer those bright minds and those innovating firms a country with the best universal healthcare system, which will keep their employees safe and productive; the best education system in which their children can flourish; and an inclusive, just society in which they can live freely and without fear. Those firms will look for flexibility in employment terms, but only as one element of their investment decision. A well-educated, well trained workforce, that is adaptable to a changing environment will always trump a low skill, low ambition workforce which can be stripped of its jobs without consequences.

As you embrace this necessary change hold on to and be guided by your principles. Social justice is as relevant now as it ever was. The Tory model of differentiation and selective gain for the few has left our society riven and fractured, and vulnerable to darker forces from outside our borders. Social inclusion and cohesiveness are core Labour tenets. A society where we all grow together will in the long term outstrip one where the few accumulate vast wealth and leave the rest behind. Don’t chase the votes of those holding a Tory lottery ticket with no hope of ever winning. In their inevitable disillusionment they will turn back to those who stood by those things that they believe in, courageously, passionately, unwaveringly, and say “Yes, there is a better way.”


Faith and Continuity

Suleimani Aqeeq Ring

Suleimani Aqeeq Ring

In Islam we differentiate between Muslims (those who submit to the will of Allah) and Momins (those who believe). Believers have attained a higher state of faith than those who submit. One of the five signs of a believer is that they wear a ring on their right hand, typically a carnelian, and this is mine.

My maternal grandmother bought this in Iraq as a gift for my father, her son-in-law. My brother inherited our father’s utterly gorgeous Omega watch, and I got the ring. That’s pretty much all he had, and as all my grandparents were poor as church mice the gift is probably as much as my grandmother could afford.

I also inherited my father’s mannerisms, but alas not his elegant fingers; the ring has been widened twice since I have owned it.

This is my symbol, of the things I believe, who I am and where I came from.


More symbols here