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Why the Fried Chicken Sandwich Is the Perfect Hot-Button Issue

Popeyes’ new sandwich sparked nationwide debate. It’s not the first—or last—time feathers will get ruffled over who serves the best bunned bird.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last year, while on a short family trip to New Orleans, my brother and I contemplated eschewing all our responsibilities to drive two hours west for a pilgrimage to the last remaining Popeyes buffet on earth. That sounds quaint these days. Popeyes, already a perfect food establishment, has upped its own ante: A heavy-duty chicken breast—encased in that legendarily craggy fried breading—lined on both sides with mayonnaise, nestled on top of a cool pad of two thick-cut pickles, held in place by the gentle embrace of an airy, buttery, pliable brioche bun. I’m spending my summer in Canada, where the sandwich has not been introduced; I may or may not have dreamt about flying home just to get a taste.

Popeyes’ new fried chicken sandwich seems like a best-of-all-worlds creation, a rare example of nearly unanimous mainstream approval. It takes the objective, populist perfection of Popeyes’ signature flavor profile and applies it to a tried-and-true sandwich form popularized by Chick-fil-A for more than six decades: fried chicken, pickles (always under the chicken, never on top), buttered bun, and not much else. It isn’t the most ambitious crossover event in history, but it might be the most logical. Its torrential success, then, comes as little surprise.

The sandwich has become a sensation. You know this. Competing businesses know this, as many have been stimulating the meme economy under the prevailing notion that a rising meme lifts all brands. By the time you read this, the sandwich will have already sold out for the day. Left in its wake is The Great Fried Chicken Sandwich War of 2019—a raging debate over which fried chicken sandwich is best.

But while the unveiling of Popeyes’ sandwich may seem like the most consequential moment in the history of fried chicken sandwiches (if you live on the internet), we’ve seen it before. Though the hype feels unrelenting, the fried chicken sandwich, as a form, truly peaked as a phenomenon in 2015.

In June of that year, David Chang offered his ideal version of the fried chicken sandwich by opening the first Fuku in Manhattan’s East Village; weeks later, Danny Meyer’s ever-expanding Shake Shack empire soft-launched the Chick’n Shack in Brooklyn, later expanding nationwide at the beginning of 2016, which contributed to a 43 percent revenue increase for the company’s 2016 Q1 earnings. In October 2015, Chick-fil-A opened a 5,000-square-foot location in the Garment District of Manhattan, its first full-service location in New York, where opening lines looped around blocks. Bestselling cookbook author and James Beard Award–winner J. Kenji López-Alt hosted fried chicken sandwich pop-ups in Harlem and Los Angeles’s San Gabriel Valley that same month, using science-driven techniques from his cookbook, The Food Lab. I watched old food stall proprietors stare in bewilderment as a massive line formed in an Asian supermarket food court that, on most days, was sparsely populated—all to get a taste of López-Alt’s monstrous kimchi-brined fried chicken sandwich, twice-fried in beef tallow, topped with gochujang mayo and pickles. Ironically, 2015 was the year McDonald’s discontinued its Southern Fried Chicken Sandwich—a near-identical approximation of a Chick-fil-A sandwich. (Just last month, McDonald’s franchisees begged the corporation to produce a new Chick-fil-A competitor to take advantage of a high-demand market.)

It was also in 2015 when Los Angeles was first introduced to the newest addition to its sandwich pantheon. Howlin’ Ray’s, a Nashville-style hot chicken restaurant that has become one of the busiest food institutions in L.A., modestly unveiled its hot chicken sando in August 2015, back when the business operated out of a food truck. It’s likely the most Instagrammed sandwich in the city; Howlin’ Ray’s Chinatown storefront now sees two-plus-hour waits regularly. I was among the first to try the sandwich, a week after chef Johnny Ray Zone finalized the recipe, at the L.A. Arts District farmers market. I’d had my moment of transcendence with a fried chicken sandwich years before—at Bakesale Betty in Oakland—but Howlin’ Ray’s was the closest I’d come since.

By 2016, the fried chicken sandwich had been recognized as a full-blown national trend by Bon Appétit, but by then, they were really just stating the obvious. The formula for the fried chicken sandwich’s success over the years is really just the formula for a fried chicken sandwich, isn’t it? At the center of it is the fried chicken—a touchstone of American cuisine, from any perspective—and everything in its orbit is meant to serve as equalizing counterpoints. A sponge-like bun offers contrast to the crunchy fried exterior, with the mayonnaise serving as a liaison to make sure the textural transition is made fluidly; the acidity of pickles cuts through the greasiness of the fry job; the slaw (if there is any) offers a different kind of crunch, one that perseveres even if the fried chicken’s doesn’t. The fried chicken sandwich establishes its balance by simulating a complete meal, and all the sensory factors that go into one. Fried chicken is universal; the condiments and additions to the party may vary drastically from one purveyor to the next, but at its core, it is a unifying form.

I can almost trace the arc of my life in fried chicken sandwiches. I was 6 the first and only time I felt indestructible: I housed an entire Original Chicken Sandwich from Burger King by myself, its oblong, submarine shape making it seem much larger than the typical burger. I was in Dallas for a high school speech-and-debate tournament the first time I ate at Chick-fil-A, which ignited my devotion to the franchise through college. A new Chick-fil-A opened a mile from my college apartment, and every new Chick-fil-A had a raffle that awarded a set of 52 free meal vouchers to 100 random people who signed up to camp out at the restaurant for a day; I did, and suffered through some of the worst food poisoning of my life for those free meals. In 2011, during the NBA lockout, I ran a Chick-fil-A blog called Starving on Sundays, where I reviewed menu items, power-ranked the many sauces available, analyzed the efficacy of their advertising campaigns, and eventually, reckoned with the fact that the corporation openly supported and funded anti-LGBTQ groups. I’ve eaten at Chick-fil-A sparingly since. (For transparency’s sake, I didn’t have Chick-fil-A’s waffle fries anywhere near the top five in my personal fast-food rankings.)

Chick-fil-A is, for better or worse, the standard-bearer. It dubiously claims to have invented the form, but given the South’s history of erasure of black communities and achievements, as in the case of Nashville hot chicken, the full timeline of fried chicken sandwiches may never be uncovered. As such, Chick-fil-A may always be the measuring stick. Popeyes has seen countless Chick-fil-A comparisons over the past week, just as Fuku, Shake Shack, and McDonald’s had before it.

Each of Popeyes’ major-market predecessors saw a massive wave of hype eventually die off, but the enthusiasm for fried chicken sandwiches seems endlessly regenerative. And today, the handheld morsel has become a form of passive resistance against a titan in the industry; Chick-fil-A may always stand as the archetype, but there is value, clearly, in striving for something better. Thus the fried chicken sandwich—an amalgam of two ideal food forms, right there in its name—has become a quintessential food of the viral age: a symbol of perfection that nonetheless has the power to capture the imagination.