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The Fast Food Chicken Sandwich


We are now evidently at Peak Fast Food Discourse, with major magazines running pieces on the rivalry between fast food chicken sandwiches.

During the throes of #popeyesgate, I found myself surprisingly sympathetic to Sanchez’s position. It’s not that I was onboard with the idea of buying one restaurant’s food to sell at another, or marking up a four-dollar combo some three hundred per cent on the secondary market merely by putting it on a stoneware plate and throwing in a waffle. But it was hard for me to find fault with Sanchez’s underlying aesthetic principle: Popeyes fried chicken is fantastic. The meat is flavorful and juicy, encased in a spiky, golden sea urchin of batter—surprisingly light, uncommonly crispy. Fried chicken is one of the world’s great culinary syntheses, found in cultures and kitchens on every patch of the planet: bird, flour, fat. American fried chicken, whose recipe was cultivated by enslaved Africans in the South, is, at its best, a food of transcendent deliciousness, an object of near holiness. There is almost certainly better fried chicken in the world than the version found at Popeyes, but only marginally so—and, in most of the forty-nine states where Popeyes locations can be found, it’s unlikely that whatever’s better is more convenient or reliable. If you were going to try to pass off another restaurant’s fried chicken as your own, and you had a Popeyes nearby—well, you could do a whole lot worse.

The chicken sandwich that Sweet Dixie Kitchen served for that two-day tease is, as of last week, available at all 3,102 Popeyes locations in the United States. There are dozens of fast-food chains in America, débuting hundreds of new menu items each year. Of these, maybe two or three in a generation make significant inroads into our collective culinary consciousness: a McRib here, an Impossible Whopper there. Perhaps the stunt with Sweet Dixie Kitchen wasn’t even necessary: the Popeyes chicken sandwich has ascended to the pantheon in record time, not because of a catchy ad campaign or an irresistible pricing scheme but because it is, if Twitter, Instagram, and uncountable blog posts and off-the-cuff reviews are to be believed, the best goddam chicken sandwich in the world. For the past few days, my social-media feeds—which, most of the time, read like bleak, polyphonic litanies of the falling-apart world—have been overwhelmed instead by discourse about the sandwich. I’ve watched friends and strangers go through the stages of enlightenment: skepticism, curiosity, anticipation, capitulation, ecstasy. It was, specifically, the ecstasy of Nia-Raquelle Smith, a scholar and food writer in Brooklyn, that pushed me out the door and into my nearest Popeyes. “That Popeyes sandwich had me in my feelings. That’s probably the most emotion I’ve shown all year,” she tweeted, and went on to enumerate its additional virtues: “The chicken is perfectly fried! The breading isn’t falling off. You get crunch in every bite!” The bun is “a buttery cushion”; the sauce “takes it over the top. Is it healthy? NO! But dammit don’t it taste good. It’s truly a gift from the heavens.”

I am constitutionally obligated on these issues, so here we go:

  1. If you have to eat fast food, Popeye’s is pretty close to the best you can do. Do I believe this is a transcendent sandwich? No, I do not. Is it a pretty solid meal? Yes, especially given the quality of the sides at Popeye’s.
  2. Fuck Chik-Fil-A with a rusty chicken killing hatchet. It’s not only that the chicken sandwich is mediocre at best–which probably keeps it solidly in the top half of the abomination that is fast food–it’s that I prefer my chicken sans killing gay people. It is disqualified by the high and mighty of principles of discriminating against fascists.
  3. Do you really need to eat fast food, even Popeye’s? I grant that in most parts of the country–very much including Rhode Island–there are not a plethora of really good chicken sandwiches. But still, are we really going to do this? You know, why?
  4. At least no one has respect for KFC.
  5. All of this is vastly superior to most fast food, especially the McRib, the eating of which should be a felony. Of course that would put Farley in maximum security. But then he also eats Arby’s, which is really a worse experience than a 25-year sentence in Supermax.
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