Chicken Talk: Station North and the ever-elusive chicken box

Last week, Station North Arts and Entertainment District commemorated the demolition of 1 W. North Ave.—formerly known as The Station North Chicken Box, an arts venue, and before that, New York Fried Chicken. The Chicken Box is being knocked down to make way for the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway Film Center. The new film center, made up of the renovated old Parkway Theatre and a new addition built on the site of The Chicken Box, will house two 100-seat movie theaters.

Station North's Facebook described the commemoration as a celebration of "chicken specials all over Station North," and listed participating restaurants such as BAMF Café, Club Charles, Colette, The Crown, Crown Seoul, Liam Flynn's Ale House, Nancy by SNAC, Jerry Carryout, Joe Squared, Pen & Quill, Station North Arts Cafe, Tapas Teatro, and The Windup Space.

But the entire conceit is dicey. Station North is in the midst of a scary-quick transition into the hip arts district that everybody, even some of its prognosticators—and given how much City Paper covers Station North events, we are among them—should challenge a little bit. The announcement of the event immediately elicited digital eye rolls: plenty of reposts of the Facebook event page were appended with the crying-to-keep-from-laughing or cringing emoji. Initially, mind you, the event was called "Chicken Box Day," though it would feature, for the most part, no chicken boxes. (Many restaurants simply highlighted the chicken items on their menus as "specials" and went about their usual business.)

Presumably following some indignation on Facebook, organizers changed the name from "Chicken Box Day" to "Commemorating 1 W North Avenue." A small but not entirely insignificant amount of credit should go to StaNo for not doubling down on Chicken Box Day once it was revealed to be an incredibly stupid idea. Then, it was pretty much a non-event. It boiled down to some vague "chicken does exist" awareness-raising day.

Nevertheless, there's something worth thinking about here. Namely, this was an event celebrating the chicken box—a Baltimore cheap food tradition—based on knocking down a building that represented this cheap food tradition to make way for a fancier building.

By the way: Even when the building housed New York Fried Chicken, you couldn't technically buy a chicken box there. You could buy chicken in a box with some French fries, but the chicken box proper—a slightly oversized group of gently-fried chicken wings with ketchup on top and, more recently and almost exclusively these days, hot sauce splattered all over (but not cooked into) them, along with pepper, salt, and a pile of french fries—wasn't really something you could buy at New York Fried Chicken. Though you could buy it a little further east on North Avenue at Tyrone's Chicken before it closed a few years ago. So calling it The Chicken Box was just some glib, misinformed attempt at being "down" all along.

All of this before you even wade directly into a conversation about fried chicken and the racist stereotypes surrounding this food. I'm reminded of Claude McKay's 1928 novel "Home to Harlem," wherein a black dining car chef acridly comments on the double-standards of food and racial expectations: "'All this heah talking about chicken-loving niggers,' he mutters, 'the way them white passengers clean up on mah fried chicken I wouldn't trust one o' them near mah hen coop."

The politics of chicken can be profound—and can play out in curious ways.

Consider HipHop Fish & Chicken, which has nearly 20 locations in Maryland, the majority of them in the city, and pretty much picks up where New York Fried Chicken left off and is totally OK taste-wise, but, over at its Reisterstown Road location, near Druid Hill Park, provides a quasi-communal space for some of the city's subversives. On Sundays, it is the central gathering place for Baltimore dirt bikers who pretty much dominate its parking lot and buy its food, along with the many people who show up to watch dirt bikers stunt on the flat strip of road in front of the chain. That's a really thrilling and very Baltimore thing: The twisting of some corporate thing into a place occupied by an important if not exactly legal subculture that brings plenty of joy to a city that always needs more joy. Rather than push it away, HipHop Fish & Chicken has embraced it. It's a model for sharing space and navigating competing expectations.

And I like to also consider that "REAL MEN SUCK DICK" graffiti that was briefly slapped on the front of the Popeyes on Howard Street, not far from Station North not long after it opened, as the gentrification of the chicken box coming home to roost. Hiding inside this hilarious tag is a rejection of a corporate chicken chain (which, by the way, sells 10 pieces of chicken, two sides, and five biscuits special called—wait for it—the Louisiana Purchase) and a subversive queer tradition (locally, John Waters and Miss Tony, and hyper-locally, controversial leather bar the Baltimore Eagle and the increasingly challenged queer sex work of Old Goucher just a street or two over). It seemed like an indelicate, intersectional form of protest. That it happened not long after the Popeyes opened was too perfect.

It is hard to craft an un-self-conscious chicken box in 2016, if only because it comes with so much context and baggage. But if you're looking for a chicken box near Station North, I like the alleged chicken box (it's close enough to count) at Mini Mart and Beauty on Maryland Avenue.

For $3.99, you get four nice-sized wings—my ideal chicken box chicken wing must answer "absolutely" to the question of, "Does this look a wing that could've come from that dancing chicken in 'Eraserhead'?"—and a stack of French fries, which here are crinkle-cut rather than wedges or just typical fries; but it works, mostly because you've got this kind of greenhouse effect going on in which the hot chicken and hot fries closed inside the Styrofoam make everything sweaty and soggy so the fries get idyllically limp and soak up some of the hot sauce. And the skin on the wings is uncharacteristically soft, which makes the wings rightly wet—it doesn't have the dried-out "The Elephant Man" skin look or feel that briskly fried stuff gets sometimes. And the way the hot sauce is disproportionally splattered across the wings and fries leaves places that are just salted or peppered but not hot and other points that are the optimum combination of all three. There's a lot going on with this chicken box.

Therein lies the spell of cheap food like this: It's all about subtlety and variance. And that's something our food and the conversations surrounding our food could all afford to have a little more of, don't you think?

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