It’s no secret that unchecked capitalism has been a failed experiment. Rapidly rising wealth inequality, corrupt politicians eating out of the hands of corporate lobbyists, the mere existence of Dave and Busters: It’s clear that we’ve taken a wrong turn as a society. But if there’s one thing that capitalism’s gotten right, it has to be the KFC Famous Bowl.
For those who’ve been living under a rock for the past decade (or those who just have a better diet than I do), the KFC Famous Bowl is one of the chicken chain’s all-time greatest inventions. It all starts with a layer of thick, creamy mashed potatoes, which are then blanketed with a layer of corn, chunks of fried chicken and rich “home style” gravy. Industrialized shredded cheese adorns the top of the dish, melting into the other layers. It’s what you order when you don’t know what else to get, when you can’t decide which sides will best complement your eight-piece bucket.
Admittedly, yes, you could easily make this same dish at home. But the fact that you can get this amalgamation of foods in a single plastic bowl, through a drive-thru, no less, is a testament to this broken country’s prowess at convenient feasting. You don’t even have to obtain a real dish to indulge in the gravy-soaked goodness that is the Famous Bowl. You just have to park your car, pull out your plastic spork and dig into the mushy goodness while staring out onto the empty expanse of the suburban parking lot.
Just to be clear, I don’t think KFC has the best fast food fried chicken on the market. I feel like I’m qualified to make this assessment because for a year after college I lived a block away from a Popeye’s, and every day that I was depressed about not finding a viable “adult” job (English major things), I would find myself wandering to the small building belching chicken-fried steam into my neighborhood to snag myself a three-piece spicy wing combo; through countless taste-tests, I think it’s fair to admit that Popeye’s chicken is better. You’d never catch me publicly supporting Chick-fil-A, of course, but let’s be real: Those homophobic nuggets are shamefully good.
By contrast, KFC’s chicken is just kind of… there. Similarly, the combination of textures and flavors that come together to create the Famous Bowl is a bit bland as well. There’s a lot of fat and a lot of carbs, but there’s not much acidity to break up all those flabby flavors, and there’s absolutely no spice to be had. (Blessedly, they added the spicy Famous Bowl onto the menu a few years ago, but be warned: It’s not actually that spicy.) That being said, something about all those bland, fat-infused flavors coming together really, really works.
The mashed potatoes themselves are tragically under-seasoned, but the crunch of the crispy chicken offers a nice contrast to the nothingness of the potatoes. The gravy is seriously the star of the show, adding some much-needed moisture to the otherwise super-dry dish. When they pour that hot gravy onto the rest of the dish, the shredded cheese starts to melt, adding another layer to the sauciness of the gravy. As for the corn? I don’t really know why they felt like they had to add that in; I guess if you’re going to pass of a big bowl of mashed potatoes as a meal, you should probably add some vegetables to it just for the sake of appearances.
When you receive your Famous Bowl through the drive-thru window, it’s important to mix everything up so the gravy and the cheese are well-incorporated throughout the dish. The end result is a dish that’s surprisingly comforting, and not even in the fast food way—instead, it feels like something you’d normally only get to indulge in from the comfort of your own home.
Perhaps the KFC Famous Bowl feels like such a treat because it’s a departure from the average fast food fare—you aren’t forced to subject yourself to a sub-par burger once again—while avoiding the gimmicky nature of most fast food specials that dare to venture outside of convention. (We won’t force you to relive the horror of KFC’s Double Down, a sandwich that inexplicably replaced bread with two slabs of fried chicken.) The Famous Bowl is supremely simple and supremely comforting at the same time. As we venture into drive-thru season (I’m not leaving my car if it’s below 32 degrees), I hope you get a dose of the comfort a Famous Bowl affords.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.