It had to be roast chicken. No contest. Most of us wee boys hadn’t been away from home for longer than a day or two back then. So lying in our damp and draughty Scout tent every night for a week, the favourite topic of whispered conversation always reverted to food. Specifically, the food we missed most and the one thing we’d be demanding to eat as soon as we were safely returned from midgie hell to the familiar world of Blue Peter, flushing toilets and secret lumps of Bazooka Joe bubble gum stuck under our beds.
Emboldened by the darkness and lined up in our sleeping bags like elongated pigs-in-blankets, we’d each describe that unique aroma of roasting chicken in mouth-watering detail, each boy trying to out-do the other. Then, first day back at school, none of us would admit to having been presented with cold ham with semolina for afters.
So it should have come as no surprise that just over a decade later, I relapsed into my preferred pre-pubescent fantasy – half-way across the world.
Naively embroiled in the civil war of a beautiful Central American country I’d not even heard of a few months previously, I found myself hiding out in a mountain village with a sizeable hole where my stomach used to be. Weighing little more than when a stripling ten-year-old, I’d survived several months of avoiding both ballistic projectiles and projectile vomit. My sparse diet had comprised of wafer-thin tortilla bread, rice and the occasional treat of – wait for it – beans.
But I had vowed that things were about to change. For I’d slipped quietly from a bus under the sanctuary of dusk the previous evening, solely because I thought I’d found my culinary Mecca. The crumbling adobe walls of the buildings facing the road were all crudely adorned with a red rooster logo and the immortal phrase, “Mas Pollo!” Even my rudimentary Spanish told me this meant ‘more chicken’. The political significance of the statement meant little to me in my famished and fatigued state.
Through a long and fevered night – during which the unfortunate soul from the hostel bed next to mine spent howling like an injured animal – all I could selfishly think about was roast chicken. Wrapped up in my own suffering, I craved the cuisine choice of my childhood, the only emotional and physical nourishment that could resurrect my lowly spirits. It had to be steaming hot, butter-slathered chicken, surrounded by glistening roast potatoes and a gallon of gravy.
I heard his body being unceremoniously dragged across the wooden floor at first light. Horrified, I staggered out into the humid morning and stood shaking as they bundled him into the back of a rusty truck and disappeared. I later heard he’d died of malaria, and I was soon to learn a great many people had ‘disappeared’ under the cover of darkness over that period.
But I took this as a sign. And in order to live, I needed chicken. All morning I hid in the shadows, counting my dwindling money reserves and drooling in anticipation of my forthcoming meal. There were no hotels or restaurants in this tiny village but I’d identified a rustic-looking cafe where they appeared to advertise the possibility of cooked food. Having existed for weeks by eating only my own homemade comestibles, purchased from cheap market stalls, this hallowed building was going to be my saviour.
By early afternoon, I could stand it no longer. I slumped wearily into a plastic chair and anxiously awaited the menu, noticing I was the sole customer. Three older women were barracking a young boy who unsuccessfully tried to get the overhead fan to move. Every few minutes they’d look over at me in a panic before scuttling back to what I imagined to be the kitchen, the glorious place where my chicken would soon be cooking.
Then I became aware of a woman standing silently at my shoulder. She held out a crumpled menu, ornately tattooed with the stains of earlier feasting. I gazed in wonder at the long list of possibilities, despite knowing that only roast chicken would fit the bill. Then she pointed at the card and shook her head. “No ai!” she kept repeating. My dry mouth dropped in abject horror as I realised she was telling me which item on the menu was unavailable. She seemed to be saying that everything listed on the menu was actually off the menu.
In a panic, I pushed the menu away and swept my arm around me with a theatrical flourish. “Pollo,” I shouted, instantly reverting to my petulant ten-year-old self. “You must have some chicken!”
I’ll never forget the look that crossed her face at that exact moment of mutual understanding. Her black eyes glinted like a tiny blackbird and she smiled excitedly. Looking back, I’m not sure who was more relieved. “Si!” she said. “Pollo! Perro, Pollo Negro.”
I didn’t care what colour the chicken was, it had my name written all over it and as she disappeared my stomach juices began to roil.
When the food arrived, I thought it must be a cruel trick. A fowl joke. The ‘chicken’ resembled an anorexic Glasgow Central pigeon. But I quickly decided that if it was any good I’d order a second one. The name of the dish comes from the black sauce which is supposed to cover the meat. But my chicken had only been crudely daubed with the stuff, probably by the same hand who’d painted the chicken logos all over the village.
The taste? Well, if you can imagine the bitter combination of crushed paracetamol mixed into a paste of off-yoghurt – then you’re half way there. To this day, it remains the most horrible thing I have ever tasted. It took me two hours and a lot of water, but I ate every morsel of chicken on that plate. And quite possibly, it saved my life.