For the Birds


Portions of this article have been updated.

“Chicken will never be the same.”

This suspicious declaration is the concluding line of Burger King’s promotion for its sickest creation since the Enormous Omelet Sandwich: Chicken Fries.

Chicken has really been through the ringer over the past few decades. The birds themselves have been bred for maximum dryness and ultimate blandness—that is, bloated white meat. And, as we all know, society’s weird beauty standards are never reached easily. The hormones used in some countries to achieve the desired white-to-dark meat proportions have been blamed for a slew of unhealthy side effects, including lowering the age girls begin puberty. Poor chicken. It never asked for breast enhancements.

But worse than the fact that thighs have been underappreciated is the twisted fact that breasts, which only became popular because they’re lean, are so boring to eat that they have been manipulated by scientists through a series of increasingly fatty food inventions. Enter the chicken fry.

In a way, Burger King’s simplicity is refreshing. Others have bent over backwards to win the prize for originality—Ruby Tuesday’s Crispy Buffalo Wontons have garnered a ridiculous amount of attention, for example. But BK just modified the chicken tender or nugget to be less chicken and more fry. The meat, so bragged-about by fast food purveyors for its purity (is “whole white chicken breast meat” really that impressive?) is now just a steamy sliver encased in a thick cocoon of heavily flavored batter. The flesh itself is a mere casualty, its lack of taste obscenely overcompensated for by a ton of salt. A small order (six pieces for $2.05) contains 15 grams of fat; the nine-piece version has 23. Granted, that’s nothing compared with the 47 gram omelet sandwich, but it’s a pretty hefty snack.

I visited a few Burger Kings around town to experience the end of chicken as we know it. I cannot think of a more appropriate place for mourning any food than the BK on Sixth Avenue between 34th and 35th streets. (Oh, wait—actually, the one under 50th street on Fifth Avenue—in the subway station—maybe wins the prize.) BK 50th Street was almost empty when I got there in the early evening, save for a few homeless people, a table of scared-looking tourists, and some very troubling teenaged girls.

To be sure that taste buds are sufficiently assaulted, the fries come with your choice of six dipping sauces. Six! Finding this choice a bit overwhelming, I pretended I was at a restaurant and asked the woman behind the counter whether she had a favorite. From the look she gave me, I realized that I had clearly just outed myself as a nonfunctioning adult. It wasn’t scorn, but straight pity. “You can try them all if you want to,” she told me in a preschool teacher voice.

I didn’t really want to, but I did try them all. Along with the traditional sweet ‘n’ sour, honey mustard, and barbeque (updated to Spicy Honey Barbeque sauce, which an employee explained to a customer: “tastes better than barbeque”) there are three newcomers. Two of them, ranch and buffalo sauce, are predictable. But the showstopper is something called “ZESTY Onion Ring Sauce.” What’s onion ring sauce? Well, kids, it’s soybean oil, water, horseradish, vinegar, more water, a lot of salt, more soybean oil, some artificial flavors, thickeners, lemon juice, sugar, and more. The end result makes me crave horseradish mayonnaise.

As I sat slumped in my plastic BK chair, I felt depressed: chicken’s demise seems to reflect a schism in the way Americans eat. While tortured breasts appear in all kinds of elaborate disguises in fast food restaurants, a strong market has emerged for poultry distinguished as organic, naturally-raised, hormone-free, grain-fed, free-range, etc.

So, dear consumers, you’ve got a choice. You can eat real chicken, such as a natural, hormone-free breast from Murray’s (at supermarkets for around $4-5/pound—thighs are even less). Or you can follow the path to chicken devolution, which leads underground to 50th Street, where you’ll find a stick of fatty, salty something dripping with ZESTY sauce.