Just over two weeks ago, on August 12, Popeyes – the iconic fast-food chain known for its tasty Southern cuisine – debuted its own version of a fried chicken sandwich. The public announcement, made via Twitter in the reliably unhappy brand speech that many companies use on social media now, detailed the ingredients : a crispy chicken breast chicken breast, topped with mayonnaise and jam, and served on a brioche bun ( as later published, there was a spicy option also available). The tweet sent the nation into a bout of delirium. Family members, friends, colleagues, people I didn't even know but overheard talking in sweaty Brooklyn streets ̵
The fried chicken sandwich was just the latest in an escalating trend among fast-casual retailers: Boutique restaurants including Danny Chan's Fuku and fast-food chains like Shake Shack help the market with their own spin on the gold bird. In its entirety, fried chicken is a strange compression of American history, capitalist self-interest, common identity, pop art and food nirvana. It rarely takes on air, including classic American fare. Apple pie, meatloaf, Caesar salad, hamburger – depending on my estimate.
Of course, fast food outlets – especially KFC, Wendy's & Chick-fil-A – have long served fried chicken sandwiches – to menu items, each with signature and secret ingredients. Chick-fil-A, which may have the most beloved iteration (despite the company's previous gifts for anti-LHBTQ causes; or perhaps because of that – we live in strangely regressive times), had the most franchise IP to lose . Very predictably, they replied, demanding the tide of publicity that Popeye's rides, with a tweet . Followed by Wendy's and then by Shake Shack . Identity policy is a messy business in America. This should never end well.
As a good part of American history, this one ends in tragedy. After two weeks of people crawling to the Popeyes – inconceivably long lines talked around the corners and stopped the impetus; a teenager in North Carolina even went in to register people to vote while waiting to order food, which endorsed by President Obama – the chain announced that it had run out of sandwiches. "You ate them all," a video announced. As I ventured into my local Popeyes late last week, in Bed-Stuy, I was greeted by a message, inscribed in black crisp, on a cardboard sign: "We're all out of chicken sandwiches."
Photographer Pat Greenhouse's photo outside a Popeyes on Brookline Avenue, near Fenway Park in Boston, captures a comparable sentiment. The picture feels awfully sad when taken: ghosts haunt the page. The lonely figure in the picture seems to be trapped in some bizarre universe where Popeye's fried chicken sandwich is pure mythology. The street is naked for movement. Looking at the shot from Greenhouse, there is a picture that challenges the chronology. It seems to come to us and stare at the flat, clear colors from a distant time, even though it's here with us now. The paradox of photography – perhaps of all remarkable photography; images that touch and transfix us – is that they want to give us what we long for, even if it can't.