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Food Porn Friday: The chicken sandwich conundrum

The fried chicken sandwich at Willa Jean: A Platonic Ideal

The fried chicken sandwich at Willa Jean: scandalously good

Many years ago, I remember seeing a commercial for Church's Chicken, advertising a "foot-long chicken sandwich." The ad contained two construction guys -- one telling the other about said sandwich.

His compadre is totally incredulous. "A foot long? CHICKEN SANDWICH?" he asks, as though someone has just told him that a scientist just patented a cheap and easily produced cold fusion device. Or at least that's how I remember it; even my Google-Fu couldn't rustle up a copy of that ad. But in my young mind, I was similarly shocked by this phenomenon. Mind you, this was years before Subway put a marketing stranglehold on the whole "footlong sandwich" thing, which actually turned out to be something of a scandal (those sandwiches were only a paltry eleven inches, the shame!). Eventually, I got to sample the Church's sandwich, and it was all it claimed to be, namely a foot long, and also a chicken sandwich.

Thus began my ever-growing fascination with both chicken sandwiches and the scandals, lawsuits and controversy that seem inextricable from them. First off, let me say that I adore chicken sandwiches, specifically of the fried variety. Growing up, I have fond memories of enjoying the admirable crispy chicken sandwich at the Wendy's in Spanish Fort, as my family drove to the Gulf Coast from NOLA for our annual beach vacation. I looked forward to that sandwich for three hours in the car, which, for a ten year-old, is basically eleven-hundred human lifetimes. When I finally sunk my teeth into it, the thing was all but a miracle: hot, crispy, juicy, with just the perfect slathering of mayo.

Most recently, I enjoyed the even more miraculous fried chicken sandwich at Willa Jean Bakery, which is deceptively simple, served on a sturdy but soft house-made roll with jalapeño slaw. The key is that the proportions are absolutely perfect.

With a chicken sandwich, you're often using a whole breast of the bird, which can poke generously out of the sides of the roll, giving you an inadequate ratio of chicken to bun. As with all sandwiches, you ideally want every bite to contain each individual component, right up until the last morsel. If you have too much chicken, you wind up having to eat the surplus with your hands, which is fine, but to me a failure in the sandwich architecture department. Also, at Willa Jean they slowly cook the meat sous vide before battering and frying, ensuring the breast is both crispy and marvelously juicy. It's a majestic thing, and you should go out and sample it as soon as humanly possible.

And then there's the whole controversy element. There continues to be significant scandal over the chain Chick-fil-A, which makes, I have to admit, a totally decent chicken sandwich (it's all in the pickles), one that I consumed far too regularly in my college cafeteria. Also, they have waffle fries. But the Chick-fil-A flap had less to do with the quality of the sandwich than allegations of homophobia by the corporation itself. At this point, it's almost become a punchline.

Recently, State Senator and avowed adulterer/prostitute-enthusiast David Vitter came under scrutiny when he tweeted a picture of himself eating a Chick-fil-A combo in his car on the same day the Supreme Court declared gay marriage legal in all 50 states, a clear (but tactless) nod to his opposition of the ruling. There was much reaction to the tweet on both sides of the political and social divide. You can't say that a chicken sandwich is the cause of such tumult, but you also can't deny that, however inconsequentially, it was involved.

Adding to the the chix-sandwich scandal department, last year a woman in North Carolina who allegedly found a swastika burned into the bun of her McDonald's country-style chicken sandwich. This might have been one of many fast food hoaxes, but still, it involved a fried chicken sandwich. Curiouser and curiouser...

In recent months, there was a lawsuit by a man attempting to copyright the "Pechu Chicken" sandwich from Church's. (Again, Church's!) He claimed that he invented the recipe for the fried chicken creation back in the 90's, which quickly became a bestseller for the chain. Since the man never received a dime for his kitchen ingenuity, he took legal action, claiming the Pechu as his intellectual property. Sadly, the court declared that one cannot, in fact, copyright a sandwich, and he lost the case.

For my part, I feel that America lost, as well. Sandwiches should be intellectual property, in my opinion. Inventing a great chicken sandwich is, in no small way, similar to painting a picture, penning a song, or writing novel (or at least a novella). It is a significant creative work, and it deserves some legal respect and protection, dammit.

So, what is it with chicken sandwiches and controversy? Why does this, of all sandwiches, so often find itself embroiled in philosophical discussion, political debates, and courts of law? My contention is this: when something achieves true greatness, it will attract both adoration and contention. And really, the classic fried chicken sandwich is great enough that it probably should be the subject of scandals and controversies. If you don't believe me, head to Willa Jean for their version, and tell me I'm wrong.

I dare you.


Native New Orleans food writer Scott Gold, author of The Shameless Carnivore, has written for Gourmet, The New Orleans Advocate, Gambit, ThrillistEdible Brooklyn, Tasting Table, The Faster Times, and other publications. His Food Porn Friday column for NolaVie offers a weekly mouth-watering photo essay designed to start culinary conversations in the Big Easy. Find him on Twitter @scottgold.