It has been 562 days since Popeyes fired the first shot in the Chicken Sandwich Wars, and for 561 days, the world has been anxiously waiting for McDonald’s to retaliate. When an internal McDonald’s chicken-sandwich-centric email leaked to the press in January 2020, it became a major news story on a day when Delta Air Lines dumped jet fuel on a school playground. While America quickly forgot all about those children they most certainly did not forget about chicken sandwiches, rejoicing late last year when McDonald’s confirmed it had at last engineered a chicken sandwich worthy of the McDonald’s name, and it would be offered in three varieties: classic, spicy, and “deluxe.” I have been counting down the days until I could finally lock myself alone in my room with all three sandwiches for some serious taste testing and the thoughtful reflection that occurs in the afterglow of such an occasion.
I began with the Crispy Chicken Sandwich, the plainest of the bunch, a naked fried breast with two pickle slices on a buttered, toasted potato roll. Is it any different than McDonald’s old Southern Style Chicken Sandwich, discontinued in 2015 because of a complete lack of interest from the general public? Since it’s been at least five years since I’ve tasted one I can’t really tell. The potato roll is excellent: it strikes the perfect balance between firm-enough-for-a-sandwich and soft-enough-for-a-pillow, with a gentle sweetness that becomes all the more pronounced once toasted and schmeared with salted butter. I would gladly buy one of these rolls for breakfast along with a strong black coffee, because I understand the heights to which a plain butter roll can soar. I can’t find much to complain about when it comes to the chicken itself, but I also can’t find much to celebrate. When stripped of its surroundings, a fried boneless, skinless chicken breast really isn’t all that much of a marvel, and it would take a lot more than two pickle slices and a bun to turn it into something worth talking about.
Next I tried the Deluxe Crispy Chicken Sandwich, which gussied up the base model with a smattering of shredded lettuce, thin slices of Roma tomato, and a slick of Mickey D’s signature mayo. Those are the three least titillating toppings in the fast food world, yet they miraculously transform McDonald’s decently edible Crispy Chicken Sandwich into something delightfully enjoyable. With the addition of a sauce, I was able to taste the familial bonds that connect the chicken breast to the greatest, holiest item on the McDonald’s menu: McNuggets. The tomatoes, whose pallid color implied they would be useless, added more to the sandwich than I believed they were capable of. Though they were perfectly serviceable, for my next sandwich I shall be swapping the tomatoes for pickles, which are a necessary counterbalance to the breading’s peppery bite.
There was such a huge level of improvement between the Deluxe sandwich and its no-frills sibling that I figured I must have missed something when reading the ingredients—is it really just a matter of adding mayo, tomato, and lettuce?—but then I remembered how my life changed when, at the tender age of 36, I tasted Duke’s Mayonnaise for the first time. I’m not sure if McDonald’s reformulated its proprietary mayo for this chicken sandwich, but I do know that when I licked a fat blob of it straight off the bun, it was wondrous. The McNugget-ness of it all made me consider a sandwich topped with McDonald’s Mayo swirled with McDonald’s Hot Mustard dipping sauce, and then I fainted from joy.
I ended my chicken sandwich flight with the spiciest variety, the Spicy Crispy Chicken Sandwich, which is simply the basic chicken sandwich (complete with pickles) smothered in a generous amount of Spicy Pepper Sauce. And it is truly spicy! Most fast food restaurants serve a PG-rated version of spicy, but McDonald’s dares to be bold and is pushing PG-13 levels of burn. However, as the Classic Crispy version didn’t go far enough, the Spicy Crispy Chicken Sandwich might go too far, as the sauce—as delicious as it may be—drowned out all the best qualities of the potato roll that has stolen my heart.
As I sat digesting all three sandwiches and their greater meaning, I wondered if I’d attached too much weight to this moment in history. I’d reasonably tempered all my expectations for the sandwiches themselves, because it’s stupid to get your hopes up for anything in the fast food sphere; if you set the bar low, anything good that happens is a splendid surprise. I had never asked nor expected McDonald’s to create a revelatory sandwich, and it didn’t. Enjoyable? Absolutely! But is it the sort of thing that will spawn a secondary market, snarl traffic for miles, or drive people to senseless acts of violence? It will not, and it should not, because JFC people, it’s a goddamn chicken sandwich.
So why did I care about this day so much? More importantly, when did I, or any of us, actually start caring about chicken sandwiches at all? Maybe it’s that we’d gotten so accustomed to that low bar, we forgot how good things could be when chains cared about making food that was as tasty as it was profitable. When Popeyes introduced the chicken-sandwich-heard-’round-the-world 18 months ago, it was not feeding a public that was starved for chicken sandwiches—it was feeding a public that was starved for respect. Popeyes, McDonald’s, KFC, and whoever else wants to play can win the Chicken Sandwich Wars, because it was never about chicken in the first place. It’s about remembering that people who buy value-priced food are valuable themselves. As long as the food is good, it’ll always taste like victory.