Driving back to Washington early one Monday morning, I stopped into a Royal Farms Store on Route 16 for some gas, a second cup of coffee, and a little something to eat.
While cruising the Krispy Kreme rack, I was caught off guard by a whiff of what I thought was fried chicken. Surely not at 6:30 in the morning? I sniffed the air. Yep, there it was again. So I followed my nose from the doughnuts past the coffee bar and right up to a display of – gasp – chicken sliders.
There were dozens of ‘em, lined up in neat rows under a warming light, brazenly displayed on a special cart beside the checkout register. Don’t get me wrong, I love fried chicken. But who in the hell, I wondered, was eating it for breakfast?
Construction workers, HVAC repair men, painters, and landscapers, that’s who. I watched people grab the sliders by the handful, along with jugs of sweet tea and packs of cigarettes. I asked one young guy with big biceps and a stocking cap if the sandwiches were any good. He nodded and said they didn’t crumble up on him in the truck.
I’ve seen a lot of inventions and advances during my fifty years on the planet, things I could never have anticipated when I was young: smart phones, screw caps on good wine, a black President, gay marriage, and Louisville joining the ACC. But never in my lifetime did I expect to see people eating fried chicken for breakfast.
Christopher Kimball, the founder of Cook’s magazine and the man some call the country’s first food journalist, says the American breakfast is constantly evolving. We inherited the Victorian-era British-Irish breakfast of bread, eggs, and pork because that meat could be cured and stored. Cereals became popular at beginning of the 20th Century. The pancake had its origin in ancient Greece. German and French immigrants brought it here. Doughnuts were served to soldiers during WWI, but they didn’t become a breakfast staple until the arrival of Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Donuts in the 1940s and 1950s. Bagels started showing up for Sunday breakfast in cities during the 1950s and 1960s. Yogurt became popular in the 1970s. Muffins were chic in the 1980s and 1990s.
Fried chicken, Kimball says, was never popular for breakfast.
What about chicken and waffles, you might ask? The exact origins of the now trendy dish are unknown, but it is generally attributed to the African-American community. Many say it migrated north with black Americans. The soul food dish achieved notoriety at Harlem’s Wells Supper Club in the 1930s and 1940s. After nightclubbing at the Apollo or the Savoy Ballroom, revelers would head to Wells in the wee hours of the morning for the late dinner-early breakfast specialty.
Most fried chicken for breakfast is served as a sandwich, either on a muffin, biscuit, or croissant. Bojangles, a chicken chain out of North Carolina, appears to be a pioneer, serving fried chicken and biscuits in the late 1970s. Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A followed in 1986. McDonalds, the company that introduced the first mass market breakfast sandwich way back when, got into the chicken for breakfast game relatively recent, in 2008.
Despite some serious misgivings, I decided to give it a try. On my next morning commute back to the city, I whipped through McDonald’s drive through, figuring the Southern Style Chicken Biscuit would be a good start for my taste test. Note that the Rehoboth Chick-fil-A wasn’t open or I would have hit it too, as fried-chicken-for-breakfast aficionados clam it’s the best. (I can’t believe I just wrote those words.)
I choked it down, burning the inside of my mouth with hot coffee, it was that dry. A slab of unadorned boneless fried chicken on a plain biscuit. No condiments offered. Hey McDonald’s, if you’re listening, a little honey would have been nice. Peach jam or pepper jelly would have been better, but I suppose that’s just too much to expect.
A half hour later, I stopped at the Royal Farms store in Ellendale where I picked up a chicken slider and a sausage, egg, and cheese croissant too, just for the comparison. Well, I almost wrecked the car trying to open the foil wrapper and extract the croissant. The melted cheese was like super glue, a hazard worse than texting while driving. I shook the wrapper so hard that the croissant eventually flew across the car and got wedged between the passenger seat and the door.
The slider, however, opened up easily. The bread was soft, the fried chicken well-seasoned and moist. My favorite part was the little dill pickle slice which gave the sandwich a pop of unexpected flavor. No fumbling. No crumbs. Finger licking good. I stopped in for another one in Greenwood.
Later that morning, I was sitting in an editorial board meeting at work when I noticed a faint, familiar aroma. Oh no… it couldn’t be. I discretely sniffed my shirt. It was! Like a smoker unaware he reeked of cigarettes, so too did I smell like fried chicken. It was plain tawdry. And to make things worse, a very visible and very red zit had started to form on my nose, from the chicken grease no doubt.
Fried chicken might indeed have a place on America’s breakfast table and in its automobiles. But until it comes with an air freshener condiment, I’ll just stick to doughnuts. And the occasional slice of cold, leftover pizza.