The Last Popeyes Chicken Sandwich in AmericaLatest
Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Popeyes, Getty Images)
Sometime in the middle of August, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen quietly launched a spicy chicken sandwich that gripped the nation. I first became aware of the sandwich thanks to Jezebel’s very own influencer, Clover Hope, who quietly shared with the group one day that she had tried a spicy chicken sandwich at Popeyes and that it was “very good.” Though Clover’s proclamations are usually correct and should be heeded at every turn, I ignored these on-the-ground reports from our culture editor, and largely ignored the sandwich, which was picking up steam on the internet in a way that I did not particularly care for.
The lore of the sandwich is as follows: Sometime earlier in August, before its national rollout, Popeyes partnered with Sweet Dixie Chicken, a Southern California restaurant, to debut a new spicy chicken sandwich. Twitter found the sandwich, Chick-fil-a got involved, and now anyone who has ever been in the presence of a piece of fried chicken has run their mouths thusly. The sandwich’s arrival presented food writers across the internet with an opportunity to rummage around for their most complicated metaphors, elevating a very good $3.99 sandwich to a culinary event worthy of canonization, controversy, or a specific combination of both.
“The Popeyes chicken sandwich is here to save America,” trumpeted the New Yorker’s Helen Rosner. “Popeyes fried chicken is fantastic,” she wrote. “The meat is flavorful and juicy, encased in a spiky, golden sea urchin of batter—surprisingly light, uncommonly crispy.” “Best of the bunch,” an anonymous Eater employee wrote in their group review. “I want more, like, stat.” At Slate, Justin Peters deemed the sandwich merely fine. The Ringer produced a tepid take chronicling the uproar and pointed to Oakland restaurant Bakesale Betty for a more “transcendent” chicken sandwich experience. The backlash soon followed, raising the ethical implications of a sandwich made by minimum wage employees using factory farmed chicken to feed a demand generated largely by a social media standoff between brands. Engaging with this sort of discourse internally is a pleasure I would snatch from no one, but remembering that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism does wonders for the blood pressure and peace of mind. Think about the sandwich you’re going to eat—consider the chicken—and then eat it, understanding that your role in this horrible chain is to consume and then eventually, to be consumed by the one force larger than yourself, which is death. Besides, nothing this delicious or controversial lasts forever: Popeyes announced on Tuesday that until further notice, the sandwich is sold out. Death’s icy grip eventually comes for all of us, sparing no one—including viral chain restaurant sandwiches.
Maintaining a healthy sense of nihilism is important to me for living a good life. Remembering that eventually life ends and we all die alone buoys me through moments of professional or personal crisis: a quiet reassurance that honestly, none of this matters and eventually, the worms will eat us when we return to the earth. This approach works for me, but a similar strain of nihilism in regards to the sandwich caused some to veer a little off the rails. Drawing a line from the chicken sandwich to the workers that make the chicken sandwich that then connects tenuously to ICE raids at a poultry farm in Mississippi and the teary children watching their parents be detained is a stretch. Wrestling with that particular thought experiment isn’t the issue, but using a goddamn chicken sandwich from a fast food establishment as a vessel for sociopolitical rhetoric is a desperate virtue chickening that Popeyes could do without.
Everything about the sandwich that I heard over the past month plagued me, like a big fat fly trapped in my apartment that I can never quite catch. Hype works in ways both frustrating and extremely predictable. First, there is anger that the hype itself even exists—a petulant refusal to buy in to whatever the internet is selling. This anger eventually blossoms into capitulation, colored by my willingness to see both sides of every argument. As sure as the sun sets in the west, enough chatter about something that “everybody” loves will drive me to seek the thing I previously hated in order to prove for myself whether or not it is worthy of any attention.
Death’s icy grip eventually comes for all of us, sparing no one—including viral chain restaurant sandwiches.
Publicly deigning to eat the sandwich in the first place is a different sort of virtual signaling that smacks of bougie, farm-to-table snobbery. Every now and again, foodies will rediscover something “lowbrow,” because they like it, but also because it’s an easy gesture towards relatability. Ironically eating a Big Mac at a rest stop in Stamford and giggling about how good it is to be bad is a noxious affectation that does nothing more than convey bourgeois values. Expressing shock that the beautifully crispy hash brown potato puck McDonald’s sells for $1 is actually good is willfully short-sighted. Fast food tastes good because that is its primary purpose: to be consistently delicious and cheap across the board. A Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger from Wendy’s in Kalamazoo will taste the same as the one acquired from a rest stop in North Carolina, and it is delicious. Disputing that fact and expressing wonderment that a national chain restaurant could achieve culinary excellence is disingenuous and unnecessarily elitist. Everyone knows that McDonald’s is going to taste good and eating it out of some sort of secret shame is just denying oneself pleasure for the sake of maintaining a class distinction that doesn’t quite exist.
These are not the reasons I sought out the sandwich. I sought the sandwich because I love fast food and have the palate of a 16-year-old stoner who watched Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat once and now lives by those tenets. Food should contain each of those elements in some measure, be it a Chez Panisse tasting course or a Sourdough Bacon Ranch special from Jack In The Box, served with a brisk fountain Coke. The sandwich seemed to exist in a liminal space between highbrow garbage or lowbrow art. Consider a recent fan: Alison Roman, cookbook author and New York Times food columnist responsible for delicious viral recipes that also happen to look good on Instagram. Per an Instagram story, Roman received the sandwiches via a messenger sent by one of her followers. She shared the bounty with the man who delivered the sandwich, then launched into her assessment. “So, I’m gonna go ahead and say the sandwich is very, very good,” she said—the compelling opener to a 10-slide review that deemed the sandwich tasty but not worthy of waiting in line.
I sought the sandwich because I love fast food and have the palate of a 16-year-old stoner who watched Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat once and now lives by those tenets.
Three weeks into sandwich frenzy, in the middle of a particularly dreadful late-summer slump, I decided that in order to process the sandwich, I must eat it. However, this task was more difficult than I could’ve ever imagined. The Popeyes closest to the Jezebel office was sold out of the sandwich—a fact I confirmed after showing up at 8:42 am., roughly an hour before it opened, and reading a sign that said as much. I then called a variety of Popeyes in and around Manhattan, but found that many of the numbers I dialed led to busy signals. Perhaps the employees at the Popeyes near Union Square tired of phone calls from a starving public and wisely left the phone off the hook.
Undeterred by the sign I saw less than an hour before that clearly informed me that the sandwich was not available, I dutifully trekked back to the Popeyes in question a little after 10 a.m. The store was open and two teen boys and their mother stood with me, contemplating the sign. “It says they’re out of the chicken,” the taller teen said. I informed him that I didn’t believe the sign and that since we were all here, we might as well try. Leading the charge, I strode into the store with confidence that somewhere within the premises, a single sandwich lurked just for me.
“Do you have the chicken sandwich?” I asked the harried woman behind the counter.“No,” she said, in a voice so soft I had to lean forward to catch it. “There’s no sandwich here,” I told the teens behind me. Defeated, we returned to our lives.
My failure to acquire a sandwich in Manhattan led Jezebel Deputy Editor Alexis Sobel Fitts to volunteer to pick up the sandwich from a Popeyes in Brooklyn. Once ensconced in line, she described a relatively serene scene absent of any frenzy or panic. There were some people in line in front of her and while one woman proclaimed that she would order six sandwiches was nearly booed out of line, a mutiny was staved off thanks to a calm employee and some shred of human decency. Fitts returned to the Jezebel offices with the sandwiches in hand, despite being propositioned by a man on the subway to purchase one off her for $20. Given that Quavo of Migos fame is offering to sell the sandwiches for $1,000, that didn’t seem like enough—though if the same man had offered me $20 and a half-smoked pack of cigarettes, I would’ve surrendered, for I am easily bought. Thankfully Fitts didn’t cave, and the sandwiches, God rest their souls, made it back to the office unscathed. “The woman working imposed a three-sandwich limit,” Fitts told me after she returned with the last two sandwiches from that particular restaurant, mere hours before Popeyes announced it was sold out indefinitely. “I was stressed.”
Anticipation often ruins everything. It did not kill this sandwich, which was just as good as the people screaming about it on Twitter said. The brioche bun was a nice counterpoint to the mayo and though my sandwich was lacking pickles, that did not take away from its beauty. The chicken itself, of course, is the star: still moist with a crispy shell even after a harrowing journey through the New York City subway. Popeyes gets the coating right—shaggy enough to look and taste homemade, and strong enough to hold up in transit. Of course, fried food is best when consumed immediately after leaving the fryer, shiny with grease and burning hot to the touch, but a good piece of fried chicken travels well. It loves a picnic and thrives at the beach. The Popeyes chicken breast survived its journey in the hot bag intact and also did not crumble under my ministrations. I poked the breast. I peeled the crust off and ate it alone. I licked the mayo off the bun in an attempt to see if I could figure out why the New Yorker said this:
Both sandwiches stick the landing on the most important element of a fast-food sandwich: the fusion of its distinct components into an ineffable, irresistible gestalt. The salt, the fat, the sharpness, the softness—together, they’re what flavor scientists might describe as “high amplitude,” a combination so intense, and so perfectly balanced, that they meld into one another to form a new, entirely coherent whole.
After eating an entire sandwich in silence and chasing it with a biscuit and a few limp Cajun fries, I was not hit with any sort of revelation that moved me to declare that a new flavor profile had been discovered. It was a good chicken sandwich and one that I’ll probably never have again—not because it’s so good, but because the sandwich itself is officially canceled.
Per an alarming report from Business Insider, hysteria around the sandwich has led to fights at various outposts between customers thirsty for an internet-famous piece of chicken. Popeyes employees have been worked to the bone, slathering buns with mayo and pickles in preparation for the daily onslaught of customers clamoring for their right to eat a sandwich that even Gayle King, Oprah’s best friend, has been unable to locate. To be absolutely clear, none of this is worth it. It’s a sandwich that, in the words of Jezebel’s own Kelly Faircloth, tastes like the best kind of Southern gas station chicken. That is to say, it’s very good, but it’s certainly not worth this level of hubbub. There is no pleasure in this chicken that is anything close to pure and that, of course is part of its allure. Are we eating the chicken sandwich? Yes, of course, we are. But more than that, my friends, the chicken is eating us.