April 26, 2010

Warning: May Cause Nausea

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Unofficial nutritional estimates put it at 1,228 calories. 32 grams of fat. A few tons of sodium. Two slabs of fried chicken, two strips of bacon, two slices of cheese, a special sauce and no bun to cut the grease — this is the Double Down sandwich, the newest addition to KFC’s menu and, because of its ubiquitous advertising and sheer shock value, something of a cultural sensation.

On plate, however, it didn’t seem very imposing. In fact, it looked disappointingly doable. My two friends and I had driven 30 minutes to Cortland, the nearest KFC, on a misty Sunday evening, to test our gastronomic resilience and taste the Double Down. From all the hoopla (the blog posts, the newspaper write-ups, the radio reviews, the word of mouth buzz), you can’t blame us for expecting a more formidable-looking opponent. The chicken was hefty, sure, but the bacon was tiny, the cheese thin, the sauce only a dab and, of course, there wasn’t even a bun to contend with. This was it? The most ballyhooed addition to fast food in memory? The sandwich that would have run Kevorkian out of business? Please. It was barely bigger than the measly scoop of mashed potatoes sharing the plate.

Whatever the reason, the Double Down has inspired an exorbitant amount of navel-gazing from both Ordinary Joes and the pop culture coterie. (By the way, I mean navel-gazing figuratively here, but if we’re counting the hour I spent on the couch post-consumption literally gazing at my navel — more on the after-effects later — well, then, literally too.)

Critical reaction to the Double Down has fallen somewhere between disgust, bemusement, anger and fascination. A few samples from the media: “Is Chicken Instead of Bread Going Too Far?” (The Huffington Post); “What KFC’s Double Down Means for Society” (The Atlantic); “Angina on A Plate” (Fort Worth Weekly). Apparently, removing the bread from a sandwich makes people ask all kinds of questions —ontological ones, for instance (is a sandwich sans bun still a sandwich?) and existential ones as well (what does a sandwich without a bun say about us?).

But what I find dumfounding about the Double Down is not the no bun conceit but rather KFC’s inscrutable marketing strategy. Over the past decade or so KFC, along with many other fast food chains, has been trying to convince consumers that its products are, in fact, healthy. Probably a good call, given America’s zealous health food movement and the food and beverage industry’s recent obsession with cutting calories from even the most implacably calorific products (see: 64, MGD). KFC’s Grilled Chicken, unveiled in April 2009, was a step in the healthy direction.

So why then, the back-flop into the unhealthy with the Double Down? Makes you wonder what PR firm KFC was consulting when they conceived this monstrosity — or whether they were consulting anyone at all. It seems equally likely that the Double Down was envisioned by a KFC executive grabbing a bourbon or six after work with his pledge-mate from college. (Seriously, you know the guys in Thumpty had this idea 15 years ago.)

Business sagacity aside, if the name of the game is selling fried chicken, KFC might be onto something; after all, my friends and I drove 30 minutes to try, essentially, a mound of fried crap, and by an unofficial count, about ten other people were doing the same during our visit.

On the other hand, judging from my own experience, I seriously doubt many customers will look to double their Double Down experiences.

A few bites in, I realized I had severely underestimated the sandwich. I was still chewing, but the rest of my body was in haywire. First, I felt a rush to the head — the grease perhaps — mild, but disorienting. Then a stirring in the stomach, the ghosts of fried food past. Next, marked drowsiness, the sensation of viewing the world as though through a foggy window. Finally, my sandwich gone, the unmistakable (though thankfully never consummated) onset of nausea.

If the Double Down’s almost catatonic aftermath isn’t deterrent enough, the sandwich itself simply isn’t any good. There’s so much fried chicken that the bacon, cheese and sauce is indiscernible other than in the faint tang of the aftertaste. If I hadn’t had Pepsi and mashed potatoes to break the monotony, I don’t know whether I would have made it through the meal.

But make it through I did. A few moments after finishing, I looked to my friend, who had eaten about half of his sandwich and stopped.

“Halftime?” I asked.

He nodded, but I think he and I both knew the game was over. And really, I can’t blame him. If it’s double or nothing, I’m going with nothing. Give me a Crispy Chicken Sandwich any day.

Original Author: Liam Berkowitz