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WHAT SHE’S HAVING

Popeyes’ fried chicken sandwich: a delicious distraction, a cultural lesson

The new Popeyes chicken sandwich.
The new Popeyes chicken sandwich.Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post

You would have read this days ago, if only I could have gotten my hands on one.

Popeyes’ new fried chicken sandwich is the status item of the season: fervently sought after, commensurately hard to come by. The fast-food chain introduced the sandwich Aug. 12, four days after Burger King launched its Impossible Whopper. Never mind a beefless burger; what truly seems impossible is that Popeyes didn’t already have a chicken sandwich on its menu.

If this has been the summer of Greenland, Jeffrey Epstein, mass shootings, ICE raids, burning rain forests, trade wars, and a stock market doing the floss — a “this is fine” summer of the first order — it has also been the summer of the Great Chicken Sandwich Rush of 2019, and that, somehow, has been a mercy.

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This is the distraction America needed. This is the distraction America deserved.

It began, most accounts will tell you, when Popeyes tweeted out a beauty shot of the chicken sandwich with this message:

“Chicken. Brioche. Pickles. New. Sandwich. Popeyes. Nationwide. So. Good. Forgot. How. Speak. In. Complete. Sandwiches. I mean, sentences.”

In response, rival chicken chain Chick-fil-A petulantly tweeted: “Bun + Chicken + Pickles = all the [heart emoji] for the original.”

To which Popeyes replied slyly: “ . . . y’all good?”

Competitors such as Shake Shack and Wendy’s soon entered the fray. It got people’s attention. They tried the sandwich, and they couldn’t stop talking about it. Or else they couldn’t stop talking about the sandwich, and so they tried it. They made memes. They formed lines around the block. They bought up all the chicken sandwiches. Customers using services like DoorDash and Uber Eats reported that delivery people were unrepentantly eating their orders. There are now dozens of Popeyes chicken sandwiches for auction on eBay. There’s one that on Monday had 75 bids. The highest is $4,316. The sandwich retails for $3.99.

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It’s worth at least that. The Popeyes chicken sandwich is indeed very, very good.

The first time I tried to get one, there was a sign on the door: “SORRY BUT WE DON’T HAVE CHICKEN SANDWICH UNTIL TOMORROW I APOLOGIZED !!!!!” The all caps, the exclamation points, the distraught mixed-tense mood — it was clear the owners of the shop understood what deep disappointment feels like.

My next try, I encountered another, more-professional sign. It looked like a PDF sent around by corporate, but the message was the same. The sandwich was sold out for the day.

A sign notified customers that the new Popeyes chicken sandwich was sold out.
A sign notified customers that the new Popeyes chicken sandwich was sold out.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

It was on my third attempt that I found the fast-food holy grail. At a Popeyes across the street from a deserted Crown Fried Chicken, after waiting in a very long line, I purchased two chicken sandwiches: one regular, one spicy.

I sat at a table and a beam of sunlight illuminated my tray. I unwrapped the classic version: A shiny bun, squishy on top and toasted where the surface met a judicious slick of mayonnaise. A few pickle slices, crisp and tart. And then the white-meat chicken encased in craggy golden batter, perfectly salty, perfectly fried. That texture! That crunch! The spicy version was even better.

What is it about chicken sandwiches that gets us so worked up? In some ways, they are a blank canvas, a basic item we all understand, like sneakers — a category that encompasses both plain-vanilla Keds and highly hyped Nike collaborations. It’s in the details that we reveal ourselves.

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The Chick-fil-A sandwich is made from the same basic template as Popeyes’. But it’s dialed down a notch. It doesn’t have the same savor. It’s a little Ned Flanders. It is also flavored by the substantial donations that the company makes to anti-LGBTQ organizations. Don’t think you can’t taste that in the mix.

The Popeyes location on Brookline Avenue near Fenway Park in Boston.
The Popeyes location on Brookline Avenue near Fenway Park in Boston.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

“Chick-fil-A’s sandwich tastes like it was cooked by a white woman named Sarah who grew up around black people,” wrote a Facebook user named Nadiyah Ali, breaking down the difference between the two in a comment that went viral. “The flavor is definitely there, but Sarah cares about your cholesterol so she’s careful about the breading and grease content.

“Popeyes’ sandwich tastes like it was cooked by an older black lady named Lucille that serves on the usher board and has 12 grandkids that call her ‘Madea.’ Madea don’t give a [hoot] about your cholesterol because God’s in control.”

I’m thinking about every miserable bowl of matzo ball soup I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant and laughing in commiseration.

This episode in fast-food history has largely been portrayed as the chicken sandwich wars, in which savvy companies vying for eyeballs had a spat on social media, garnering the equivalent of about $23 million in advertising for Popeyes, according to a report from Michigan-based Apex Marketing Group.

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But it’s also a story about the power of Black Twitter. African-American Twitter users picked up the Popeyes news and ran with it — celebrating the sandwich, making jokes about the sandwich, retweeting one another’s jokes about the sandwich, in such volume that those outside of the community heard it, and listened. A simple sandwich is never just a simple sandwich. It’s a mirror of culture. This one reflects how ours is shaped and disseminated, and who gets elided in the narrative about taste-making and influence.

There are so few communal experiences we have left. We aren’t a religious nation the way we once were. We aren’t all watching “Dallas” together on CBS. But something as prosaic as a chicken sandwich can still bring us together — in our quest for something that satisfies, in our common desires. We are all hungry. We all face a hard road ahead. I found my chicken sandwich at the Roxbury Popeyes. I’ll save you a place in line.


Devra First can be reached at devra.first@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.