Popeyes sandwich strikes a chord for African-Americans

John Eligon, The New York Times

Posted at Nov 06 2019 09:50 AM

Popeyes sandwich strikes a chord for African-Americans 1
A Popeyes fried chicken sandwich is shown in this image from the fast food chain's Twitter page

KANSAS CITY, Montana — The videos of mind-numbing first bites and long lines, the celebratory memes and fawning reviews: The return of the Popeyes chicken sandwich Sunday has met with the same social-media frenzy that first greeted it last summer.

But embedded in many of the catchy memes and witty messages is not just an affection for spicy seasoning and crisp breading. There’s also a sentiment that Popeyes has struck a special chord for African Americans — specifically, that its celebrated sandwich tastes like something that could have come from a black home kitchen.

One Twitter user, @RocBoy_Mel, wrote Sunday that he did not know whose “grandma” made the sandwiches, “but I finally got my hands on one today and I was very impressed.”

In a video clip that went viral on Twitter after the fast-food sandwich was introduced in August, a white host on the news and entertainment show “Daily Blast Live” tried the sandwich, and her black co-host asked, “Does that taste like a neighborhood you’ve never been to?”

In a Facebook post in August, Nadiyah Ali, a nurse from Katy, Texas, compared the sandwich to a rival’s: Chick-fil-A’s version, she wrote, tasted as if it were made “by a white woman named Sarah who grew up around black people.” The Popeyes sandwich, she added, tasted “like it was cooked by an older black lady named Lucille.”

Black people were saying they liked the chicken not just for its taste, but also for the feelings of home cooking it evoked. It was the type of chicken they could take to a family potluck and not get a side-eye.

“You most definitely can take a bucket of Popeyes chicken, and nobody’s going to say anything,” said Los, 27, who declined to give his last name as he left a Popeyes in Kansas City, Missouri. “They’ll be like, ‘Ah, who cooked this?’ ”

Not everyone, of course, thinks Popeyes tastes down-home. Asked if Popeyes chicken reminded him of home cooking, Corey Thatch, 38, a friend of Los’, replied, “I ain’t going to say all that, because my grandma’s chicken was my grandma’s chicken.”

Still, even approaching authenticity is no small feat for a company that was started by a white man and is now owned by the conglomerate, Restaurant Brands International, that also owns Burger King and Tim Hortons.

It can be easy to misfire with dishes that have deep traditions among African Americans — I recall my wife’s gagging as she described biting into macaroni and cheese made by a white co-worker, and discovering that it contained corn. Then there was the moment in 2006 when Oprah Winfrey took an on-air bite of a chicken-and-spinach dish made by a white woman who had won $1 million for it in the Pillsbury Bake-Off.

“Did we add salt and pepper?” Winfrey asked with a befuddled grimace. (The woman had not.) “I think we needed salt and pepper.”

When the founder of Popeyes, Al Copeland, opened his first fried-chicken joint, Chicken on the Run, in a New Orleans suburb in the early 1970s, sales were underwhelming. He reopened with a new, spicier seasoning mixture, and Popeyes was born.

The South has its own well-known flavors, from the hands of chefs of many backgrounds. So it is unsurprising that the recipe trademarked by Copeland, who died in 2008, has resonated across racial lines.

“The heritage of the Popeyes brand comes from Louisiana, where many cultures come together to produce a unique and beautiful culinary experience,” Dori Alvarez, a company spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

But black people were at the root of many southern culinary traditions. Those traditions have traveled with African American families who resettled throughout the country. “Black hands were in that pot all the time, and still are,” said Omar Tate, the chef and founder of Honeysuckle, a pop-up dinner series in New York and Philadelphia that uses food to explore black identity.

Popeyes would not provide information about its customer demographics. But overall, African Americans, who are about 13 percent of the country’s population, buy more fried chicken than their numbers would indicate: nearly 30 percent of all fast-food fried chicken, and 15 percent of all breaded chicken sandwiches, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm.

Ali, who wrote the Facebook post comparing the Popeyes sandwich to Chick-fil-A’s, said she wasn’t suggesting that white people could not cook as well as African Americans — just differently. They seem to rely on precise measurements, she said.

“Black folks don’t cook like that,” she said. “Our recipes are a little bit of this, a little bit of that. We season until it’s right. That’s what Popeyes tastes like.”

Tate, the chef, said it was difficult to liken Popeyes to authentically black cooking. When he thinks of authenticity, he thinks of the techniques of someone like Edna Lewis, a pioneering black chef, who fried meats in lard and seasoned the fryer with smoked pork.

“That’s authentic. That’s what soul food is to me,” he said. “It’s one of those black magic things that can’t be reproduced.”

Popeyes’ inroads with black Americans may be as much about marketing as anything else. The company has made bald appeals to African Americans in its advertising, stoking criticism that it is pandering. When the chain introduced a fictitious black woman named Annie the Chicken Queen in its commercials about a decade ago, some people criticized it as racist. Alvarez, the Popeyes spokeswoman, declined to discuss the company’s marketing.

But those marketing decisions, and the location of many Popeyes restaurants in black communities, have given many African Americans a sense of connection with the menu, said Psyche Williams-Forson, the chairwoman of American studies at the University of Maryland-College Park and the author of “Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food and Power.”

“Black communities can say, ‘This is our own and it tastes like our own,’ ” she said. “You’ve got location. You’ve got taste. You’ve got texture. And you’ve got a food that people enjoy. You have a perfect storm there.”

If Popeyes has impressed African Americans, the hubbub over the sandwich has also raised questions of corporate responsibility. There have been demands that the chain invest in the black communities that have driven much of its success, and calls for better treatment of low-wage workers who have toiled to meet the heavy demand for the sandwich.

“We own the fried-chicken narrative,” said Nicole Taylor, who is black and the executive food editor at the website Thrillist. “Black people are turning it into a political moment.”

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