Popeye's Chicken & the Essence of My Food Personality
Understanding how I approach food and cooking through the prism of the best fried chicken on the planet
My interest in food and cooking television really took off in the mid 2000’s, which was in some ways late to the game depending on where you grew up. It takes longer for the culture of the coasts to reach the middle of the country. Being a life long southerner, having split my childhood between the suburbs of Atlanta and then Little Rock - I had no idea who the fuck Mario Batali (RIP) was. Cooking on tv was boring to me, and I could not imagine why anyone would care. Yes I loved to eat, and I grew up eating all the typical delicious southern food that comes to mind, but let’s just say that going to Chili’s on my birthday was a real treat. I was pretty picky, and never expanded my horizons past a Chinese Buffet, which for 12 year old Aaron felt quite exotic. I imagine in 1995, the rest of the 8,000 residents of Cabot, Arkansas would agree with that assessment. That “triple delight” with fried rice was very tight though.
So what happened? Goddamn Bobby Flay. Yeah it’s embarrassing now, but it’s the truth. Maybe you are reading this and don’t understand why it would be embarrassing. It’s only embarrassing in total hindsight, and there really is no shame in admitting what first turned you on to cooking. But at the time, around 2006-2007, Bobby Flay was all over the food network and he seemed to care about his food. Just a few weeks of watching his shows inspired me to go get a job in a restaurant in downtown Baton Rouge. I remember week one on the job telling the chef how much I liked Bobby Flay and how utterly unimpressed he was. Obviously, there was work to do. He immediately gave me a book called Devil in The Kitchen by Marco Pierre White (for those unfamiliar he was the first “rockstar chef” go read it). That changed everything.
It was the beginning of an evolution that started with thinking Pizza Hut was the best pizza in the world when I was a teenager, to turning my nose up at the idea of any human anywhere choosing to patronize a fast food establishment. It’s a necessary evolution, and I see people at different stages of it all the time when I get in a conversation about cooking, eating out, or see what kinds of meals they are posting on socials.
I was obsessed with the idea of “fine dining” and had aspirations to eat at all the “best” restaurants in the world. I had zero money and no chance of actually visiting these places back then, but I would dream. I would read books and live vicariously through Anthony Bourdain as he got to experience Alinea, Le Bernardin, The Fat Duck, St. John, Eleven Madison Park, Per Se, The French Laundry, Joe Beef and on and on. There was a time, where I believed this was the food that mattered most, and the food I was cooking at home reflected that. I was always trying to be fancy or elevated and I never, ever, went to McDonald’s.
I don’t judge people when I see them in this phase of their culinary journey. It was very exciting to learn about even the possibility of eating at such high caliber restaurants and then trying to replicate this at home. The moral superiority of shunning the shitty food Americans consume on a daily basis was intoxicating. I knew something that they didn’t. Also, fuck your crockpots and your basic homemaker bullshit. Do you even know how to schmear bearnaise onto the plate with dots of herb oil you simpleton? Youth gives us the gift of passion but little in the way of wisdom. I was so wrong.
Who saved me? Well, even though he was responsible for entertaining my fantasies of dining among the worlds richest and most privileged, Bourdain was working on helping me find my culinary truth the whole time. I just didn’t realize it.
I will say, it wasn’t long after I got into all this bullshit that I truly recognized the value of the hole in the wall type joint. Obviously that was a staple on No Reservations in every city he visited. I often waited in line in a strange neighborhood to try whatever the cheaper, cool local delicacy was. When I went to Europe for a month in 2008, most of my meals consisted of Doner Kebab or whatever street food I stumbled upon. It’s not a hard sell for someone who is into the world of food that where they really want to be is standing in line for and hour to get the best tamales in San Diego, or experience a life changing $10 bowl of ramen in Tokyo. But, how do you work your way all the way back to really truly appreciating a thin crust Pepperoni Lover’s from Pizza Hut?
Bourdain had a roundtable discussion episode for a Christmas Special one year that featured Bill Buford - an author I loved that wrote about Mario Batali’s flagship restaurant in NYC - and a couple of other people I can’t remember. They were food people though. Food people that Bourdain obviously had tremendous respect for, as he was taking the time to talk about these things on the television with them. The question of “death row meals” came up, and the woman on the panel ever so confidently responded…
“Kentucky Fried Chicken.”
It wasn’t so much her answer that surprised me as it was Bourdain’s response. He didn’t lambast her and launch into one of his famous self righteous but poignant tirades about how bad her opinion was (there are wrong food opinions by the way - it’s a fact). He raised his eyebrows, almost as if he respected the balls she had to say that the last thing she would want to eat before having 250,000 watts of electricity sent through her body was Kentucky Fucking Fried Chicken.
Now, KFC is garbage. And that’s a fact. But something clicked for me. I realized in that moment, that these people I idolized did not approach food the same as me. They possessed a wisdom that allowed them to see past all the accolades and fussy platings and preparations and outrageous costs of the meals I aspired to eat. Yes, part of that was the advantage of having already experience all that I had wanted to, but it imparted on me something that seems so simple yet so many people miss.
What’s good, is good.
I’ve since had the opportunity to eat at some pretty fucking good higher end places in more recent years. Babbo, Husk, Catbird Seat, Chez Panisse, Joe Beef and so on. I’ve expanded my horizons, I’ve traveled more than most people, and I consume a lot of food media and think about food and cooking basically all the time. And through all of these experiences, and this culinary evolution I’ve been talking about, I’ve come to only one 100% certainty in my views on this whole world. And it’s about fried chicken.
And I hate to break it to you, but Popeye’s Chicken is the best Fried Chicken on the planet earth. No I don’t mean for a chain restaurant, or fast food. I mean in totality. There is none better.
I’m not talking about fucking chicken tenders, or chicken sandwiches, or buffalo wings. I’m talking about real, proper fried chicken. Which for future purposes, we will define as chicken still on the bone and fried in some sort of batter or breading.
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Fried chicken is one of my favorite foods, which I realize is not much of a hot take. Everyone likes fried chicken. I love lot’s of different versions too. Korean Fried Chicken, Japanese Fried Chicken, Nashville Hot Chicken, Fancy Restaurant Fried Chicken, Fried Chicken that’s been Smoked as BBQ and then Fried. I love it all. But nobody anywhere, not Sean Brock, Paula Deen, or David Fucking Chang has figured out a way to make fried chicken that is tastier, juicer, crispier, and more consistent than Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen. And even more amazing, is that there is probably a location less than 5 miles from you at this very moment and it’s a near certainty that it will be just as perfect and delicious as the location 2000 miles away from you. Shit, I was in Canada last year and one had just opened up. I tried it, and it was just right. FUCKING CANADA. They do not have any clue what fried chicken is or should be, and Popeye’s made it happen. That’s the nail in coffin for my argument if anything is.
Because, what’s good is good.
And if you want to sit there a pontificate about your “local” spot and how it truly is the best, I just don’t believe you. I will be praying for you to gain the wisdom that I didn’t know I was searching for, that has allowed me to judge what is on the plate in front of me, not based on any grandiose delusions of some idealistic existence where the only food that can taste good is if it was “crafted” by a “local”. Local and one of a kind is only as good as it tastes.
By the way, the new McDonald’s quarter pounder that was rolled out a couple years ago is better than 90% of the “local” burgers in my city. Chew on that you fucking snobs.
Love y’all. Eat at Popeye’s. Actually, just eat what you want. I’ll be happy for you as long as you believe it’s good.