The Artisan Chicken Sandwich Eater's Dilemma


In his review of David Chang’s fried chicken joint, which has expanded to two locations within two months of launching, Ryan Sutton notes, for context:

Chang isn’t the only high-end chef to try his hand out in the fine-casual space — the Danny Meyer term for elevated fast food. Del Posto’s Mark Ladner has his gluten-free Pasta Flyer and Brooks Headley has his vegetarian Superiority Burger. Part of the lure is surely the desire to become the next billion dollar empire, the next Shake Shack. And that’s not a bad thing. Why not displace commodity chains in suburban America with more creative and noble-minded institutions? Why not convince entry-level eaters to pay a little bit more for their food, with prices that are higher than Wendy’s yet cheaper than Applebee’s, with meats sourced from humanely raised animals, and with happier employees who (let’s hope) work better better schedules for better pay?

The reasoning behind eating this kind of fast food is seductive: You are not merely choosing to eat an eight-dollar chicken sandwich or a six-dollar hamburger because you have the good taste to fully appreciate why it is a better culinary experience than a three-dollar chicken sandwich or a one-dollar hamburger (and they really are, if you can afford them!), but you are making a moral and ethical choice that is superior to someone who eats a Southern Style Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Sandwich from McDonald’s or a Whopper from Burger King, products of the vast animal protein industrial complex.

Fast food that the affluent can eat while simultaneously absolving their various levels of guilt over eating it — and that can be used to loudly point to their conscientiousness and guiltlessness — allows it to at last be smoothly folded into the grand tradition of the middle class and the rich shaming the poor for making ethically compromised choices: They don’t merely eat too much fast food, polluting their bodies; they’re eating “inhumane” fast food that is harmful to animals and the environment, even though there are now perfectly good and humane and moral and healthy(ish) options are available. This seems like an extreme reading for a values judgment that is largely implicit (for now). But the throughline from Alice Waters admonishing the poor to “make a sacrifice on the cellphone or the third pair of Nike shoes” and Michael Pollan suggesting that, in the context of his dictum to “pay more, eat less,” while “eight dollars for a dozen eggs sounds outrageous,” it’s “really not that much when we think of how we waste money in our lives” is relatively short — particularly when you consider that much of the rhetoric around this type of high-end fast food is grounded in a logic of wide accessibility. (Even though it, by definition, necessitates many of the industrial processes that its progenitors previously shunned, which is perhaps why they’re so insistent on how humane it is, really? Hmm.)

But the ethical quilt of eating an animal that was “humanely raised” (whatever that means!) before your desire to eat a burger got it killed was always threadbare — if you believe thoroughly enough in a pig’s agency to feel that it deserves a good life, and care that it does, why do you still eat bacon? — more completely unravels when placed inside of the capitalist logic of fast-food chains that are designed to scale ad infinitum, because “sustainable meat” simply doesn’t. (Expect many, many more of these Volkswagen-like stories of “humanely raised” meat that it turns out is not really!) Moreover, if the absolution people feel about eating feel-good meat drives people to ultimately consume more of it — because they can afford it! — ecologically it’s a net loss.

This all just to say that it’s okay to eat an eight-dollar chicken sandwich simply because it tastes really good. But don’t mistake the delicious burn in your mouth for the taste of selflessness.

Photo by Momofuku

P.S. if you enjoyed this #content you will perhaps enjoy tomorrow’s episode of the Awl podcast.