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Notable Sandwich #35: The Chicken Fillet Roll
If you want to pick a fight with the Irish, tell them this sandwich was invented in America
Welcome to Notable Sandwiches, the series in which we trip merrily through the profoundly odd and ever-changing document that is Wikipedia’s List of Notable Sandwiches. This week, David writes about a confoundingly beloved Irish favorite: the chicken fillet roll. — Talia
From Newton and Leibniz battling over the invention of calculus, to Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray racing each other to file the first patent for the telephone, the concept of simultaneous invention has been a surprisingly common phenomenon throughout history. In the 18th century, oxygen was separately discovered by four different chemists; in the 19th, both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell developed the theory of natural selection; in the 20th, the Big Bang was theorized by Russian physicist Alexander Friedmann, in 1922, and then by his Belgian counterpart, Georges Lemaître, in 1927. In the 1830s, when the Hungarian mathematician János Bolyai learned that Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky of Russia was exploring similar ideas to his in the pursuit of non-Euclidean geometry, Bolyai’s father reassured him: “When the time is ripe for certain things, these things appear in different places in the manner of violets coming to light in early spring.”
Whether we’re talking about science or sandwiches, this tendency of inventions—to arise in parallel at the right time, among disparate minds—does not exclude their provenance from fierce contention. And so it was that the wrath of Ireland, wishing to claim first rights of invention, fell upon a hapless Florida Man in October, 2017.
Having just procured a Chicken Tender Sub from the Publix supermarket deli in Hialeah, the man dubbed “Lil Chicken Tender” (natch) shared a photo of his meal:
The response was swift, and devastating. “If ever Ireland had a reason to go to war, it’s to claim the chicken fillet roll,” wrote one commenter. “Stop stealing irish culture,” wrote another. “Michael Collins didn't die for chicken fillet rolls to be referred to as chicken tender subs,” added a third. Ultimately the the post was retweeted thousands of times, generated numerous headlines in Ireland, and inspired this meme:
As an American—and a Florida Man at that—Lil Chicken Tender could be forgiven for his ignorance. Until this week, I too was unaware of the Chicken Fillet Roll—and I have traveled in Ireland, lived for years in neighboring Scotland, and can claim at least some kind of sandwich authority (by virtue of editing this newsletter, anyway.) But this was a mystery to me. What was it about this sandwich that inspires t-shirts, memes, and poetic odes on Youtube? How did this particular comestible—a breaded, processed-chicken filet (as we spell it here in America), sliced up, stuffed into a baguette, adorned with various relishes—become a staple of Ireland, an island whose cuisine is best known for Guiness and potatoes?
To judge by the various tales scattered across the internet, the origin of the Chicken Fillet Roll is a myth as shrouded in mystery as St. Patrick and the snakes. A reddit thread exploring the history of the sandwich includes the following claims: “It was originally used as a club to fend off the Romans”; “Diarmait Mac Murchada tried to sell the recipe to the Sasanach when he landed over there”; “it originated around the time of the Norman invasion in the 12th century. The Normans brought the baguettes, the Dubliners introduced them to breaded chicken fillets and taco sauce.” The proprietor of “The Chicken Fillet Roll Review” on Facebook offered up this explanation: “St. Brendan brought the first CFR to Ireland on his return from his mystical journey around the Atlantic Ocean… 49 days into his journey all seemed lost for poor Brendo, until out of the salt-drenched sea mist a heavenly hand reached out and said ‘Be not afraid o child of Mine. Butter or Mayo?’ and the rest as they say are history.”
The truth, such as it is, appears far more prosaic.
Now ubiquitous, the modern “demi” baguette entered Irish cuisine sometime in the late 1990s, a development we addressed in our column on another strangely iconic Irish sandwich, the Breakfast Roll. According to Redditor “momalloyd”, around Christmas in 2002, Spar—the ubiquitous, Dutch-owned convenience chain—began filling the baguettes with sliced chicken filets, stuffing, and gravy as a holiday special. That recipe didn’t stick, but the basics of the sandwich did, and before long other Dublin delis and convenience stores were selling versions of their own. By 2008 and the Great Recession, the Chicken Fillet Roll was firmly established as a cheap, tasty, filling lunch (or late-morning hangover cure) for a peckish Irish public.
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The pleasures of a chicken sandwich are no mystery; just last week we talked with Helen Rosner—doyenne of America’s poultry scribes—about 2019’s “Chicken Sandwich Wars,” and the joys of hot mayonnaise and a peppery, processed chicken patty. In “On Chicken Tenders,” a beautiful essay she wrote for Guernica in 2015, Rosner extolled the perfection of a foodstuff that didn’t even exist until the early 1990s. “They come from nowhere in particular—when you eat them, you could be anywhere,” she writes. “It takes more than one generation to develop the intricate root system of nostalgia that anchors the ballpark pastoral of hot dogs or nachos, the picket-fence vignette of fried bologna sandwiches, or the dusty-road Americana of a burger and an ice-cold Coke. Chicken tenders have no history, they have no metatext, they have no terroir.”
But if you chop up those tenders, stuff them in a baguette supplemented with lettuce, cheese, onions, and various condiments, apparently that intricate system of nostalgia can take root. That would certainly seem to be the case with the Chicken Fillet Roll, which has become an Irish icon in just two decades. Perhaps it’s a function of size: Ireland is physically smaller than South Carolina, with fewer people than metro Philadelphia. And in 2022, the Chicken Fillet Roll is to Ireland as the Cheesesteak is to Philly. In that context, one can begin to understand the vitriol Lil Chicken Tender inspired with his ill-conceived tweet. But as he pointed out to the Irish press, where he is from, the Publix Chicken Tender Sub is “a delicacy.” And as it turns out, the “Pub Sub” (as it’s been dubbed by fans) has a following nearly as passionate as the “CFR.”
In 2017, Bryan Dickey launched “Are Publix Chicken Tender Subs On Sale?” a twitter account that now has nearly 50,000 followers. In a letter to his followers, Dickey wrote, “Growing up in Florida, I knew there was one thing that connected all people- regardless of political affiliation, race, religion or gender…Publix subs.” As the Tampa Bay Times wrote in 2019, “it’s difficult to overstate the popularity of Publix chicken-tender subs… Entire discussion threads exist to debate how to dress up the regional favorite.” Another article from the same paper notes that “when you think of Florida food, you probably think of Florida subs.” (This is not true. I think of Key Lime Pie, stone crabs, and Cuban sandwiches.) Two years ago, Dickey’s site inspired a comment from a man named Dave Charls, who claimed to have been present for the invention of the Chicken Tender Sub…in 1997, five years before Spar introduced their Chicken FIllet Roll in Dublin. Then, the mystery deepened: Publix told the Tampa Bay Times (who really own Pub Sub beat) that their records indicate the Chicken Tender Sub first appeared in 1992.
“Although I have never visited Ireland, I can deeply understand the passion for the Chicken Fillet Roll,” writes Bryan Dickey in an email. “It’s hard to deny the deliciousness of crispy fried chicken on a freshly baked roll. I can’t blame the people of the island for wanting to claim ownership to such a great delicacy.”
As the renowned sociologist Robert K. Merton wrote in 1968, “sometimes the discoveries are simultaneous or almost so; sometimes a scientist will make a new discovery which, unknown to him, somebody else has made years before.” Indeed, the true origin of this particular sandwich may be a case of simultaneous invention, of multiple discovery—like calculus, the telephone, or the Big Bang theory. Good ideas are out there, floating like gossamer threads, waiting for someone to spin them into being. But given that the Pub Sub precedes the CFR by a decade, it seems that the people of Ireland owe Lil Chicken Tender a belated apology.
The Irish can claim the “Chicken Fillet Roll” as their own, and they do, loudly. But as Helen Rosner pointed out last week, the simple pleasures of chicken and bread—with mayo or lettuce or cheese or taco sauce (whatever that is) and anything else you’d like to add on—is fundamental and inalienable. Like violets arising in the spring, the pursuit of something a perfect as a proper chicken sandwich was an inevitability, whether in 20th century Florida, or 21st century Ireland. If necessity is the mother of invention, hunger would seem to be the father—a faithless beau, sowing seeds wherever he goes.