How The Fried Chicken Sandwich Became 2019’s Culinary Lightning Rod

“Solid, good cooking and comfort are always on-trend,” says Chef Richard Blais. We reached out to the Top Chef all-star and co-owner of The Crack Shack to talk chicken sandwiches because, well, that’s all people seem to be talking about lately. We figured, if anyone would understand how a sandwich basically turned into a cult obsession at the tail end of summer ’19, he might.

“Chicken is incredibly universal and always a crowd-pleaser,” Blais adds. “As is fried food, so… I think it’s just math.”

While he may be ignoring one massive reason for the phenomenon — Popeyes, the brand at the eye of this storm, has created a sandwich that is certainly very good, if not great — the chef is definitely onto something. It’s hard to deny the utility of a great fried chicken sandwich. The cushy bread, the tangy mayo, the crunch of a salty pickle, and, of course, a beautifully seasoned and deep-fried piece of chicken (hopefully brined thigh meat) is about as complex-yet-simple as a sandwich can be. Add a little heat and it’s bliss in a bun.

Still… probably not worth holding people up at freaking gunpoint for, right? Right? Okay then, how did we get here? What were the harbingers of this madness?

A Little History

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The history of fried chicken (sans bun) is murky at best. We know the Romans were frying chicken in both breading and/or bread crumbs as far back as 100AD. Looking further afield, it’d be pretty crazy not to think people across Asia weren’t also tossing chicken in oil for millennia. Hell, even the Polynesians — isolated by the vast Pacific ocean — had pigs (for lard) and plenty of chickens (for frying in said lard). You think they missed the chance to combine the two? Nah. What about the Americas? You don’t suppose that the Incas or Mayans or Mississippians, having figured out the riddles of astro-architecture tens-of-thousands of years ago, celebrated by putting a few pieces of local fowl into some rendered fat? Sure they did (remember that the Southern food tradition is rooted, in part, in Indigenous food).

The point is, pieces of fried meat — breaded or not, chicken or not — have been in our shared culinary culture for eons. Probably for the exact reason Blais points out: the combination is a crowd-pleaser.

The heritage of the fried chicken sandwich as we know it today hems a little closer to modern, colonial cultures than those ancient foodways, though. You could argue that the introduction of the cotoletta alla Milanese and the Wiener schnitzel via Italian and Germanic migration to the Americas and the advent of Southern fried chicken via Scottish and West African migrations formed the basis of our modern take.

The piece of fried chicken that appears on sandwiches from McDonald’s to Chick-fil-A to Popeyes is a combination of techniques and migrations, molded by those migrants (both willing and unwilling) over generations. This isn’t just a branch on the chicken tree, it’s a tree all its own. If you wanted to get truly granular, you could trace a branch from the Argentine Sándwich de Milanesa to the Mexican Torta de Milanesa to Chicken Parm from a corner deli in New Jersey. Those breadcrumb fried chicken sandwiches are cousins to the now ubiquitous battered and fried chicken sandwich we see across the United States. Japan’s Tori Katsu Sando is similarly related to what we see today. That sandwich dates back to the 1800s when Japan started cooking “yōshoku,” which is a Japanese interpretation of “Western” foods.

Which is all to say: we’ve been eating some version of this food around the world for a very, very long time. It’s the food of the common folk — portable and easy to prep — and was ubiquitous well before the “Chicken Wars.”

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