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Popeyes And The Fried Chicken Joke

Illustration by: Alexandra Bowman

In defiance of fast food and its basic ethos, it must first be said that the Popeyes Chicken drive thru is where you will place the order for your meal, but not where you will receive it. You will — as I have many times — most likely find yourself in your car, pulled into a parking spot, waiting for some part of your order to be assembled and rushed out to you. A hallmark of Popeyes is this: both always behind schedule and somehow still right on time.

I learned to fry chicken at an early age. First from my mother, who I imagine also learned at the feet of someone who learned at the feet of someone. And, of course, there is the joke about black people and chicken. How our hands are stained in grease, how we chase after the crunch of a bird fried just right. It is a joke rooted in both history and an absence of it. Both Scottish and West African cultures had early traditions of frying chicken. Though — and this isn’t a joke — the Scottish tradition didn’t involve seasoning the chicken. Rather, it was cooked in fat. West African fried chicken was battered, seasoned, and cooked in oil. When the slave trade brought West Africans to the American South the frying techniques came along with them. Women who worked in the kitchen would add seasonings and spices that were before absent in the chicken. Slaves were forbidden from raising any hogs or more expensive meats on their own, so they were given chickens to raise and occasionally fry up on special occasions. The meal of fried chicken, then, was a brief escape — a window into a freedom that seemed untouchable. After slavery fried chicken was a means of money-making for segregated black women. Food putting food on the table.

And so, yes, black people love fried chicken because it is one of the parts of our history that the empire did not tear down. The bit of it that remains, largely, as it was: seasoned well, a recipe passed down from kitchen to kitchen into the hands of someone younger. I was never good at throwing the chicken into hot oil. There’s a science to it, I think — a proper distance to stand so that the oil, upon its marriage to the wet and breaded bird, does not explode back at you in a projectile fashion. I learned this distance the hard way, after years of oil burns on my arms, hands, and sometimes face. By the time I learned the correct distance, however, I no longer felt driven to cook fried chicken in the house anymore. With my mother’s passing, I found myself cooking things that didn’t require a revisiting of her recipes, for whatever part of coping that might represent. And so, I do not cook fried chicken much in my house anymore, but I still praise it.

Popeyes is, by almost any measure, not the most spectacular chicken in the world. It succeeds in this, though: it knows what it is, and it does what it is well. Please do not arrive at the function with Kentucky Fried Chicken, what with its million different gimmicks, and inability to get any of them right. Church’s? I’ll pass. Yes, I will admit a fondness for Bojangles does exist deep within, but I do imagine that it is, in part, cultivated by the fact that Bojangles is a regional chain — one that exists outside of any region I have ever lived for a prolonged amount of time. And so to arrive at one feels special. Popeyes, though, the lover who is not perfect but is reliable, in all of their forms. I’ve spent the past two and a half years in New Haven, Connecticut. At their local iteration of Popeyes there was often a confusion among the masses. The restaurant was situated right in between Yale’s campus and the hood, which created, on any given night, a mixing bowl of white 20 year olds in pastel shorts and black men with Bluetooth headsets in, yelling about something in line until it was time for them to order. The woman behind the counter was surly and motherly — once, when one of the college students informed her that they were out of sweet tea, she looked them up and down and simply responded with “Ok.” And I say this to say that each Popeyes I have ever been in is its own character in the story of your night. In Washington DC earlier this year, road-weary and wrecked by heartbreak, me and two pals found the Popeyes near its closing hours and stumbled in, buying up nearly all of the chicken they had left and then all of the biscuits and then most of the fries. It was a small and freeing act: a reminder that if we must be burdened with the bad humor of chicken jokes then, yes, the chicken must come with it. The chicken must be ours.

Despite my disparaging of other chains in this very essay, I will say that there are chicken places for every personality. What I like most about Popeyes — particularly the experience that unfolds on the inside of one — is that the space demands you to come exactly as you are. There’s a type of equality leveled at a patron, something that I saw most play out in New Haven: within the walls of Popeyes, no one is too good or too educated to not be treated like a burden for someone behind the counter. There is something loving and familial in this that I feel nowhere else. Chick-Fil-A, tasty even in the face of all of its shaky past political history, is a bit too sanitized for my liking. At Popeyes, if I order a 3-piece, I might get two pieces of chicken, or I might get five. This likely means nothing in the grand machinery of fast food service, but I like to pretend, on the days I get a bit extra, that it is a blessing passed down from some higher power. On the days I get less, a reminder to keep the blessings close when they arrive.

It must be said that this is also about risk. I go to Popeyes less now than I did, say, five years ago. I do want to live, in spite of whatever desires I might have that pull me closer to an early grave. Popeyes is, by any measure, extremely unhealthy. If a box sits in your lap for too long, a small map of grease will begin to make its way across your pants. I think there is something beautiful about this, but I also think that it’s a beauty I’ve found myself willing to indulge in slightly less as I get older. Or at least more aware of what goes into my body at what hour. What this does, though, is make the trip to Popeyes a special occasion. It is, for my friends and I, like an adult prom. We go, we take pictures with our beautiful bounty spread out across a table with our joy and our cards and our jokes. We buy more food than we could ever eat, but we give it a good run anyway. There is a connective tissue in all of this: a food that our ancestors carried with them, born in a place they were stolen from. This is a food they perfected — a thing that offered them small glimpses into freedom. It is a celebration for us now. Popeyes at least has the decency to pretend to do their sides right. They have the good sense to pretend that their chicken is made in the spirit of someone who had a recipe passed down from someone else who had a recipe passed down. And of course it isn’t, but it is the brief illusion I return for now.

One day, I hope, I will return to frying chicken in my own kitchen. I certainly still have the ability to do so. I still have the knowledge of how to batter, how to test the oil’s heat and stand back from its coughing wrath. Whenever that day comes, I hope to have friends over to any place I am living, and spread the chicken out on a table where we crack jokes and remember our brightest moments. Until then, though, I am happy that Popeyes is our kitchen, our church, our gathering place. In any city where any of my friends live, we can find our way to a Popeyes Chicken. It is imperfect, but it will always do. It is a lighthouse that calls and calls, serving that which we could surely make ourselves, but do not because we have the occasional small mercy of money and a night full of hours that are willing to be stretched to fit our every desires inside of them. And that is a thing I hope is always worth celebrating.

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