KFC’s latest salvo in the chicken sandwich arms race (wings race?) in the fast-food industry immediately prompted outrage.
Some, understandably, saw the over-the-top offering — a fried hunk of bird between two glazed doughnuts in place of a bun — as a nutritional abomination: the fat! the sugar! the calorieeeeees! Others had more existential takes. “Fried industrial chicken smashed between two stale doughnuts is maybe the best metaphor yet for Trump’s America,” was Grub Street’s summation.
But what if — and stick with me here — it were actually … delicious?
Reader, I think it might be.
I tried the sandwich at a KFC in Hopewell, Va., outside Richmond, one of three markets where the chain is testing the limited-time menu addition. For $5.99, I got the sandwich (does anyone really need a side of potato wedges with this?) and a gratis case of early-onset regret for the gastronomic sin I was about to commit.
It arrived in a cardboard shell bearing a clue as to what I’d find inside: Running down the side was a large drip of sugary glaze, like a warning sign on a highway to Candyland. But I had braved the traffic on Interstate 95, and now I was seated under a large poster of Colonel Sanders and there was no turning back. Once in hand, it was clear the doughnuts were fresh from the fryer, evidenced by the way the topping melted off the pastry, pooling on the paper bed beneath it and sticking to my fingers as I attempted to wrestle it into my maw.
But when I did? A sweet-meets-salty, crispy-meets-pillowy mash-up that my lizard brain immediately loved despite that snooty voice in my head mocking it. The chicken filet was well-seasoned and juicy, encased in a peppery, craggy coating. The soft doughnuts deflated a bit as I ate, pressing the glaze into the chicken and making the concoction easier to handle, though I still went through seven napkins eating only half of it.
There are no toppings on the sandwich and no sauce, all of which would have interfered with its straightforward appeal. It’s just fried chicken. On doughnuts. What did Aristotle write about the sum being greater than its parts? Well, he might have dug this sandwich, too.
Not that KFC has created something new. Novelty buns are been-there-done-that. After all, it was the chicken chain that also gave the world the “Double Down,” the bacon-and-cheese sandwich that no one needed, which swapped out buns in favor of chicken patties.
Ditto doughnuts-as-buns. Author and soul food historian Adrian Miller notes that the KFC chicken sandwich can be seen as a descendant of “The Luther,” a sandwich styled after R&B legend Luther Vandross. According to pop-culture mythology, Vandross, who died in 2005, liked his burgers with doughnuts instead of buns. And so “The Luther” was born, just like the Elvis sandwich of peanut butter, bananas and bacon, or the iced-tea/lemonade blend that is the Arnold Palmer.
The KFC sandwich also shared some DNA, I suspected, with chicken and waffles, a dish that Miller has studied. It’s often described as an invention of a cook named Joseph Wells who catered to diners in the 1930s leaving Harlem clubs too late for dinner but too early for breakfast. But Miller says its roots go even deeper. In handwritten cookbooks as far back as the late 1700s, Miller says, “you’ll see fried chicken paired with hot bread — think of that as a fresh roll, waffles, pancakes or a biscuit.”
The combination fell out of favor by the early 1900s, he notes, “long enough for Joseph Wells to frame it as a Harlem thing.”
Sounds like Wells has something in common with KFC, which is just tapping into old flavor profiles — and new trends — in its marketing.
In the news release touting the new KFC version, the company noted that it was merely introducing an existing food fad to a national audience. “The Chicken & Donuts trend has been gaining popularity, but mostly on a local level in areas like Philadelphia, San Diego and Portland.”
In the Washington area, Astro Doughnuts and Fried Chicken has been combining its titular foods into one dish since 2014. About a year after the first location opened in 2013, with glazed doughnuts served alongside bone-in pieces, the owners realized lunch customers wanted easier-to-eat options and added filet sandwiches and tenders. When it came time to find a bread, co-owner Elliot Spaisman said they determined the best option was already being made in their kitchen. “We thought, we’re sitting on a supply of brioche buns, so why would we outsource?” he says. “It turns out it combines really well.”
Astro, which now has two locations in the D.C. area and two in California, serves its chicken sandwiches on unglazed doughnuts, which Spaisman says makes them easier to eat and more savory (a BLT version is one of the company’s bestsellers).
As for the KFC version, Spaisman isn’t worried that the national chain will eat into his business — if anything, he says, it can only help raise awareness about how well doughnuts and chicken get along. “The more the merrier,” he says.
More from Voraciously:
KFC’s Cheetos chicken sandwich looks toxic and tastes like a missed opportunity
The key to White Claw’s surging popularity: Marketing to a post-gender world
We did it, America. We ate Popeyes out of chicken sandwiches.