NEW YORK (AP) — A nation already polarized finds itself divided once again, but this time politics isn't at the heart of it: The blame lies squarely on a fried piece of poultry.
People are choosing sides and beefing over chicken, thanks to Popeyes' release of its crispy chicken sandwich and the social media debate that has followed. With just one addition to a fast-food menu, the hierarchy of chicken sandwiches in America was rattled, and the supremacy of Chick-fil-A and others was threatened.
It's been a trending topic on social media, fans have weighed in with YouTube commentaries and memes, and some have reported long lines just to get a taste of the new sandwich. "Our grandchildren will ask us where we were when the great Chicken War of 2019 began," Twitter user @MilesRodrigo1 declared.
While Popeyes has been selling chicken for a long time, the chain was a contender in the bone-in, skin-on, fried-chicken space, not the fried, boneless, skinless cutlet on a bun.
Popeyes announced the new sandwich on Twitter last week with hyperbole that would soon define the social media commotion to come: "Chicken. Brioche. Pickles. New. Sandwich. Popeyes. Nationwide. So. Good. Forgot. How. Speak. In. Complete. Sandwiches. I mean, sentences."
And from that moment, it was ON. People began ardently advocating for their favorite sandwich, whether it be the new-kid-on-the-block Popeyes one, or the OG Wendy's or Chick-fil-A versions. And the social media managers for the companies reveled in the green light to talk smack to each other.
"We Didn't Invent The Chicken, Just The Chicken Sandwich!" Chick-fil-A bragged on Twitter. "Bun + Chicken + Pickles = all the (heart emoji) for the original."
To which Wendy's responded: "Ya'll out here talking about which of these fools has the second best chicken sandwich."
Popeye's quick retort: "Sounds like someone just ate one of our biscuits. Cause ya'll looking thirsty." (Which frankly seemed as if they were bragging about dry over-salted biscuits? Wendy's thought so, too, tweeting, "lol, guess that means the food's dry as the jokes.")
As the week wore on, people debated on social media, in chat rooms, in person.
And even though the topic was the chicken, there were political overtones, with some throwing their backing to Popeyes because they disagreed with Chick-fil-A's opposition to LGBTQ rights and its chief executive's derogatory comments about same-sex marriage. (Though the chain has insisted that it has "no political or social agenda.")
Even the weighty New Yorker chimed in: Food writer Helen Rosner called Popeyes' new edition "simply beautiful" in a commentary titled "The Popeyes Chicken Sandwich is Here To Save America."
But why has the meager poultry sandwich riveted a nation so? Why do people have such intense feelings about a fried chicken cutlet on a bun?
Nancy Hopkins, former food director of Better Homes & Gardens magazine, and a veteran food editor for over 20 years, has this to say: "America loves anything crunchy, salty, crackly, and good. And Americans love chicken . just about any way."
"But this sandwich is simple and straight to the point," she said. "We love fried chicken, but we don't make it at home and we love it as a splurge. The sandwich seems less guilty. The thought of it fitting nicely on a bun seems better for us. It is just simpler all the way around. Pressure fried chicken, a pickle, and a bun."
In February Bon Appetit ran a story about why fried chicken sandwiches were so popular, and traced the answer to a creation in the 1960s by Chick-fil-A's founder, Atlanta restaurateur S. Truett Cathy. In the ensuing years everyone from fast-food chains to renowned chefs started offering their version of the fried-chicken sandwich, with many garnering praise and a devoted following.
In 2011 David Chang opened cult-favorite Fuku in New York, a restaurant centered on the beauty of fried-chicken sandwiches. Shake Shack rolled out their super popular take on the sandwich nationally in summer 2016 to high acclaim. Popeyes has certainly come out a winner in this latest debate, at least in terms of publicity. Some franchises reported being sold out of the sandwich as ardent fans endured long lines snaking into the street just to get a taste.
Tyler Manchuck of New Canaan, Connecticut, was one of those who tried the sandwich after hearing about the hype. "I figured it would be rude not to go check it out; it's my obligation as an avid chicken sandwich connoisseur," he said.
He decided to get the spicy (it also comes in classic). Once he bit into it, he said he "had an almost out of body experience. The new bun, that sauce gives it the edge. In the realm of fast food, Popeyes' chicken sandwich definitely has the advantage."
Still, Chick-fil-A, Wendy's and other restaurants have their devoted fans, and the Great Chicken Debate is far from being settled. Perhaps that's fitting in this day and age. As Twitter user @cHolidaydds said: "There's nothing more American than being divided over something. This week it's a chicken sandwich."