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fried chicken sandwich Jacqueline Day for Vox

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The many, many conversations about fried chicken sandwiches, explained

On Popeyes vs. Chick-fil-A vs. our collective sanity.

It is official: Popeyes is out of the Sandwich. The chicken wells have run dry.

“Popeyes aggressively forecasted demand through the end of September and has already sold through that inventory,” a release from the company explains. “As a result, Popeyes restaurants across the country are expected to sell out of the Chicken Sandwich by the end of this week. We, along with our suppliers, are working tirelessly to bring the new sandwich back to guests as soon as possible.”

It is the logical endpoint of the recent fried chicken frenzy. If you have, for some reason, missed it, distracted by things that are not chicken sandwiches, here is what happened. On August 12, Popeyes, a beloved Louisiana fried chicken chain now headquartered in Miami, debuted its new fried chicken sandwich. The sandwich features a slab of crunchy fried chicken breast on brioche with pickles and mayonnaise. It comes in two varieties: The mayonnaise can be either spicy or not. Does this sound reminiscent of another chicken sandwich you know? Correct.

A week passed, and mostly, the world went on. And then on Monday, Chick-fil-A — America’s favorite restaurant, according to the American Consumer Satisfaction Index, for the fourth year in a row, despite its controversial political history — wrote a tweet. The tweet said: “Bun+Chicken+Pickles = all the [heart] for the original.” It did not mention Popeyes. It was just listing the ingredients of the chain’s core chicken sandwich. It was just saying — apropos of nothing! — that it had come first.

Chicken sandwich enthusiasts on Twitter were quick to take notice, and within a few hours, Popeyes — or rather, the advertising agency GSD&M, which oversees the chain’s social media strategy — fired back with its pièce de résistance: a quote tweet, plus a low-key expression of concern: “… y’all good?” it asked.

With that, the war was on, and everyone from passionate lay chicken enthusiasts to chicken professionals was weighing in. The conversation on Twitter, fueled by Black Twitter in particular, clustered around the hashtags #ChickenWars, and #ChickenSandwichWars, and the less combative, more descriptive #ChickenSandwichTwitter. Apex Marketing Group, an advertising consultancy in Michigan, released a report estimating that Popeyes received $23.25 million in free advertising, according to Reuters.

On Twitter and in the burgeoning chicken sandwich literature, the arguments generally break down like this. First, there are the flavor arguments, which examine the sandwiches on their comparative sandwich-related merits. Popeyes tastes better; Chick-fil-A tastes better; or the slightly more nuanced variation: Popeyes is better because I can now eat a delicious fast food chicken sandwich without supporting the politics of Chick-fil-A.

Still others pointed out that, despite the promise of Popeyes, there is no such thing as a morally pure fried chicken fast food sandwich. Fast food is built on factory farms and inhumane labor practices — poultry processing, heavily reliant on immigrant workers, is among the “lowest-paid and most dangerous jobs in the country,” and working conditions at the fast food restaurants themselves are notoriously grim. Which, of course, we all kind of know: A sandwich that costs $3.99 is almost certainly the product of some exploitation.

The latest dispatches from the front lines seem only to confirm the point, and highlight it in neon. Reports say some Popeyes employees have been working “more than 60-hour weeks” to keep up with overwhelming demand. “Everyone wanted to quit so bad because it was that bad,” one crew member in Orange County told Business Insider. “I had customers nearly fight some of my coworkers because they were told that we were not serving the sandwich because we had ran out,” a manager on the East Coast said.

(A fifth group, for a time, was other brands, including Wendy’s, which sells noted chicken sandwiches, and Yelp, which sells no sandwiches at all, attempting to break into the chicken discourse with their own hyped-up promotion.)

(Then a sixth discourse emerged, with some high-profile people — Judge Joe Brown and Janelle Monáe among them — suggesting African Americans cared more about standing in line for chicken sandwiches than voting or self-empowerment. This idea, which seemed to play into racist tropes, was not well received. Others were quick to point out that African Americans do wait in line to vote; that the problem is voter suppression; and that it really shouldn’t be easier to buy a hyped-up sandwich than to vote, and yet it often is. Monáe apologized.)

This is all to say that there is almost no discussion about life in America that cannot be had through chicken sandwiches. “People want chicken to do this heavy lifting that they’re not themselves willing to do,” says Psyche Williams-Forson, chair of American studies at the University of Maryland and the author of Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs, a study of the roles, both literal and symbolic, that chicken has played in some African American women’s lives. The story of the #ChickenWars is a story about brand identity. It is a story of human identity. It is a story about chicken.

Fast food chicken sandwiches are a point of personal pride, with a complicated history

It is hard to imagine two brands better positioned for a high-profile battle. Chick-fil-A is a fast food chicken pioneer. But it did not, contrary to its claims, invent the very concept of the fried chicken sandwich in the early 1960s — a history that erases the culinary legacy of African Americans. At Ebony, food journalist Donna Battle Pierce, searching black newspaper archives, traces the fried chicken sandwich back to at least 1936.

“[Chick-fil-A] invented, maybe, a modern take on the chicken sandwich,” says Williams-Forson. “They invented this new way of marketing a chicken sandwich. But when folks laid down at night back in the day and they wanted a late-night snack, and there [was] a loaf of bread, and some meat that was left over from dinner or supper, they put those pieces of food together, and while they may not have said, ‘this is the chicken sandwich!’ in fact that’s what it was.”

Like the history of fried chicken itself (and like most food histories), the origins of the fried chicken sandwich are hard to definitively trace. “When we start talking about origins, I think we run into a lot of different problems,” Williams-Forson says, because “foods travel, animals travel, spices travel.” Fried chicken has Scottish and African origins, and the version we know today builds on both.

So Chick-fil-A did not “invent” the chicken sandwich. At the same time, though, the brand’s impact on the chicken sandwich is undeniable. As most of the industry struggles, Chick-fil-A keeps growing, and this June, officially assumed its place as the third-largest restaurant chain in the US, up from the seventh.

In the world of fried chicken franchises, according to a July industry report from IBISWorld, the chain has 27.9 percent of chicken market share, more than any other single band. This is despite the chain’s continued history of making donations to anti-LGBTQ causes, ThinkProgress notes, and the company’s refusal to include sexual orientation and gender identification in its employment nondiscrimination policy. Chick-fil-A may be the incumbent chicken champ, but there is room for an insurgent.

In this case, the insurgent is Popeyes. Per IBISWorld, Popeyes has less than half of Chick-fil-A’s market share, with 10.1 percent, but its chicken is beloved, not just by regular fast food diners but also by critics and highbrow chefs. “Popeyes fried chicken is fantastic,” wrote chicken poet and New Yorker food correspondent Helen Rosner. “The meat is flavorful and juicy, encased in a spiky, golden sea urchin of batter — surprisingly light, uncommonly crispy.” Chef Wylie Dufresne, who is known for popularizing molecular gastronomy — molecular gastronomy! — served Popeyes at his wedding, because, as he told First We Feast, it’s “just the most delicious chicken.”

Popeyes and Chick-fil-A both sell chicken to lots of groups of people. But as Williams-Forson observes, there is — at least in perception — a kind of racial affiliation, As the narrative goes, she says, “Popeyes equals black, and Chick-fil-A equals non-black, which is kind of interesting to me,” and she isn’t alone.

“I have no scientific basis for saying this, but I think Popeyes has more brand loyalty with African Americans because there seem to be more outlets in black neighborhoods, the spicy IS spicy, and the food is cheaper,” soul food scholar Adrian Miller told me. “I don’t really see Chick-fil-A in black neighborhoods.” A 2013 Washington Post article chalks this up to strategy: “Traditionally, Popeyes has been focused on the ‘urban’ market, which in retail parlance can be code for ‘black.’”

Popeyes underwent a corporate makeover in the late 2000s, which included tweaking the name “Popeyes Chicken ’n Biscuits” to the more locavorian “Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen,” along with a push to expand into “the suburbs.” And yet, despite the revamp, part of the delight of Popeyes is in how it hasn’t changed: “What I like most about Popeyes,” writes poet and critic Hanif Abdurraqib at Medium, “is that the space demands you to come exactly as you are. There’s a type of equality leveled at a patron ... within the walls of Popeyes, no one is too good or too educated to not be treated like a burden for someone behind the counter.”

By contrast, Abdurraqib writes that he finds Chick-fil-A, despite its politics, or perhaps because of them, “a bit too sanitized for my liking.” Chick-fil-A, maybe, does not want you to come exactly as you are, but the bathrooms are the cleanest in the industry.

Until recently, Popeyes, like almost every other player in the industry, had failed to produce a god-level chicken sandwich. Last year, McDonald’s introduced a fancy Buttermilk Chicken Sandwich, and the world mostly stayed calm. McDonald’s is not a fried chicken leader. Popeyes, on the other hand, was uniquely positioned to ruffle feathers for one simple reason: It is threateningly good.

That the fight exists at all is a testament to the rising tides of the fast food chicken sandwich

As a general category, chicken has been on the rise since the early 1980s. In 1977, the McGovern Senate report laid out a first set of dietary guidelines, which “created serious shock waves about the perils of red meat,” says Adam Chandler, author of Drive-Thru Dreams, about the American history of fast food. Chicken could be the answer. Heavily processed fast food chicken wasn’t actually healthy, but it exuded a health-adjacent glow, because it is not beef.

A 1984 New York Times article chronicled the boom, noting that chicken had become “the fastest-growing segment of the fast-food industry.” People were eating more chicken than ever, because it was “cheaper and lower in fat and cholesterol than beef, and market studies indicate that women prefer chicken,” which is a statement we must unpack another time.

But while McNuggets flourished as soon as they were introduced, in 1981, the fast food fried chicken sandwich has been tougher to perfect. It is always further in the distance, just inches out of reach. McDonald’s introduced the first McChicken sandwich in 1980, then abandoned it, and then brought it back, and has flip-flopped ever since.

In an age of drive-thrus, a sandwich is practical in a way a bucket isn’t: You can eat it while you drive. In 2005, McDonald’s debuted an attempted Chick-fil-A competitor, the Southern Style Chicken Sandwich, but pulled it in 2015. Burger King had a megahit in 1990 with the broiled-not-fried BK Broiler, but it lost momentum two years later and has been cycling through new iterations ever since. Wendy’s has a fried chicken sandwich, and so does Arby’s, and so, too, does White Castle, which was news to me.

Yet the goal remains. Shoot for the moon, the saying goes; even if you miss, you’ll end up with a fried chicken sandwich.

The chicken fight is not over yet

“The fastest-growing food over the last 10 years in the restaurant industry has been fried chicken sandwiches,” one analyst told the New York Times in 2008. A decade later, the quest still marches on. In 2016, Bon Appétit announced that we had reached “peak fried chicken sandwich mania,” citing Shake Shack’s much-buzzed-over entry into the category, the Chick’n Shack, as evidence.

The data backed it up: Between 2011 and 2016, chicken sales at quick-service and fast-casual restaurants catapulted 42.1 percent, according to the market research firm Euromonitor International. Chicken chains were thriving, and non-chicken chains were doubling down on extra chicken offerings: It was, let us never forget, the era of Taco Bell’s Naked Chicken Chalupa, which used a blanket of fried chicken where the tortilla was supposed to go.

The reasons for the increasing chicken mania are more or less the same as they ever were. Chicken is still cheaper than beef. It still seems healthy in a way that beef does not — not just for you personally, but for the environment, because, again, it is not beef. It is novel, compared to the crushing hegemony of burgers. And it is trendy.

The past two decades, Miller says, have seen an increasing interest in regional American cooking, and one of “the most dynamic and popular regions is the American South,” and so of course there’s massive interest in fried chicken. For high-end chefs, the chicken sandwich has become a kind of test, a blank canvas on which to display their culinary chops. In 2015, both David Chang (at Fuku) and Danny Meyer (at Shake Shack) debut their high-end fast-casual fried chicken sandwich iterations.

This is great because fried chicken is delicious, but, as Osayi Endolyn writes in an essay on fried chicken for the book You and I Eat the Same, that catapulting trendiness is “where things can get tricky.” Enslaved people were known for selling chicken as far back as Mount Vernon — this is the beginning of the long and fraught relationship between African Americans and chicken — and after emancipation, newly free black women, known as “waiter carriers,” began cooking and selling fried chicken to travelers at pretty much every train stop in the South, one of many, many historically uncredited but increasingly appreciated contributions African and African American cooks have made to what we now consider Southern food.

But when you look at who gets famous — and rich — things get dicey. “There is a distinct pattern in the United States, wherein African American chefs struggle to find parity with their white counterparts in terms of recognition, funding, and reward,” Endolyn writes. “Both codified and unspoken social policies ensured that the black women who worked as waiter carriers in the nineteenth century never saw their business become a global franchise.”

Even now, when it comes to chicken, the big players (Chick-fil-A and Popeyes among them) have white founders and white CEOs. When the #ChickenWars broke out — again, driven largely by the enthusiasm of Black Twitter — it wasn’t lost on the participants who was doing the work, and who was getting paid.

So who, ultimately, wins the #ChickenSandwichWar?

If Chick-fil-A is the reigning king of the chicken sandwich, the pressure is on to usurp the throne. McDonald’s US franchisees have been urging the company to develop a chicken sandwich to rival Chick-fil-A’s, what the defunct Southern Style could have been but wasn’t. “Chick-fil-A’s results demonstrate the power of chicken,” the National Owners Association board wrote in an email to fellow operators last month, just. “Chick-fil-A invented the Chicken Sandwich, but we can do one better.” Can they, though? It is unclear. Can Popeyes? By most accounts, they can.

And yet the counterintuitive beauty of a fast food Twitter dispute is that there are no losers. Fast food chains have harnessed the power of Twitter the way almost no other industry has. Though it contains multitudes, fast food brand Twitter tends to be absurd, or whimsical, or vaguely embarrassing; it is pop-culture obsessed and sometimes ill-advised. It is in on the somewhat uncomfortable joke, which is that brands are not people, even if they pretend to act like them. At the same time, though, fast food brands are so ingrained in American culture that we do, sort of, have emotional, humanoid relationships with them.

Chick-fil-A made an overture, and Popeyes responded — “we saw a major boost in organic conversations about the excellent quality of our sandwich and we felt it made sense to jump in and participate,” a spokesperson told me — and the result was that for a few brief hours, everyone was talking about chicken all the time. “Because taste and fandom are subjective,” says Chandler, “everyone wins in a fast food social media war.”

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