rebecca is a food critic now

KFC’s Jack Harlow Meal Is Finger-Lickin’ Mid

Photo: KFC

The following is a list of literally everything I know about recording artist Jack Harlow:

  • Curly hair
  • The kind of cute way he says “I’m still out here gettin’ cuter” and rhymes it with “computer” on “Industry Baby
  • He’s from Kentucky

That’s it, that’s the breadth of all my worldly knowledge of this man. (For what it’s worth, it’s still more than everything he knows about Brandy.) I couldn’t tell you the name of one song he’s in besides his Lil Nas X feature, who he’s dated/is dating, or his age. The only reason I know Fact No. 3 is because he made it very clear in a December 2021 commercial for Kentucky Fried Chicken. The ad had a tone that was oddly serious for the brand, with color-saturated drive-by shots of Louisville and narration from Harlow about how he “manifested” this moment of slingin’ chicken. It ends with him in a red-and-white KFC-bucket-striped room, only him and enough food for at least ten Jack Harlows. Just as his suit matches the room matches the bucket, so too does his mop of light brown hair resemble the surface of a piece of fried chicken, the way some expensive poodle-mix dogs do. The shot leading up to this sequence shows him getting out of a car in front of Louisville’s Palace Theater; is the chicken pile meant to be his tour rider? If so, I worry for this boy!

Harlow was radio silent after this ad. Not literally radio silent, but silent on the brand collab — until KFC finally announced the “Jack Harlow Meal” in June. While Taco Bell was staging drag brunches for Pride month, KFC was … releasing a combo meal with a guy who was featured on a Lil Nas X track, which for KFC is probably radical. “When KFC asked me to create my own meal,” said Harlow (or at the very least his publicist, in a press release), “I knew it couldn’t be just any meal. My meal brings together my childhood favorites from growing up in Louisville, the KFC Mac & Cheese, with my new go-to Spicy Chicken Sandwich (with plenty of ranch), Secret Recipe Fries, and lemonade — it doesn’t get much better.” It’s cute the way he says it “couldn’t be just any meal” and then it is exactly that. Quaint, almost. The press release calls the collab “the perfect amount of nostalgia — old school (KFC) meets new school (Jack Harlow),” telling language revealing a legacy chain in the throes of a true identity crisis, like a dad on a longboard.

KFC is a musty brand. Its bucket-based serving sizes imply minivans. Its mascot is literally an old man. Its last major innovation was probably the Famous Bowl in 2006, which was more of a feedsack than a dish, resembling a Hungry-Man frozen dinner all slid off its plastic tray into a big bowl. If you want to be cheeky, you can say it foreshadowed the bowls trend that would ensue in the following decade of takeaway chains. Only Sweetgreen won’t put brown gravy on my order no matter how nicely I ask. The year after it came out, Patton Oswalt roasted the Famous Bowl in a comedy special. The one time I ordered it, I brought it to a co-worker’s birthday as a gag. It was the last time I had set foot in a KFC, until this review.

After the release of the famed Popeyes sando, fried chicken began gaining on burgers as the nation’s fast-food sandwich of choice. But it took KFC — still the largest chicken chain in the country by far, with around 1,300 more domestic locations than its closest competition — a year and a half to catch up. But Popeyes and Chick-fil-A drive the fried-chicken conversation, for good (Megan’s Hottie Meal) and ill (Chick-fil-A’s whole deal religiously). These are establishments that, like the celebrities in this column, generate a passionate reaction in their customers. People project their identities onto them, tweeting in-jokes about dry biscuits and Sunday closures. Meanwhile, smaller American chicken chains foster regional allegiances, whether they’re old favorites (Church’s, Bojangles) or growing disruptors (Raising Cane’s, Dave’s Hot Chicken).

Chicken, or low-grade fast-food-quality chicken, at least, is a blank slate: a white (meat) canvas. It’s less about the meat than what’s projected onto it: coatings, spices, sauces, yes, but also branding and vibes. If KFC has fallen behind on the innovation front in the kitchen, it’s at least had a pretty good run of celebrity advertising. In 2015, it started stunt casting celebrities as its instantly identifiable mascot, Colonel Sanders. (Harland Sanders was, let us remind you, a real person, imbuing these ads with themes of resurrection and immortality, as if Colonel Sanders is America’s eternal Chicken Jesus.) Vincent Kartheiser, Jason Alexander, Darrell Hammond, Norm Macdonald, Mario Lopez, Billy Zane, Jim Gaffigan, and Ray Liotta are among the actors who have stepped into the role, as though it’s the American answer to Hamlet or Lear. Best of these was Reba McEntire in Colonel drag, singing “I swear I’m not a famous woman,” the advertising equivalent of Cate Blanchett doing Dylan in I’m Not There. 

In light of those ads, a plain old celebrity endorsement feels like a downgrade. Couldn’t they have put Harlow in a little white suit and goatee? Assimilated him into the Colonel-Borg? Past attempts at capturing the attention of a younger demographic kept up the cheeky tone of the celebrity Colonels; these included an anime Colonel dating sim and a Lil Miquela–style virtual-influencer Colonel.

The playing-it-straight Harlow campaign suggests, to me that the original strategy wasn’t working the way KFC was hoping for. While it may be the largest of the chicken chains, it’s the runt of the Yum! Brands litter, falling far behind its top-ten siblings Pizza Hut and Taco Bell (think about it: Das Racist never rapped about a combination Pizza Hut and KFC). The brand is now caught between worlds: on the one hand, it just rolled out throwback packaging with a font that harks back to the original 1950s logo, while on the other, it’s trying to make forward-thinking decisions, like new Beyond Meat menu items. Which of these impulses would the Jack Harlow Meal trend toward? The only way out of this quagmire was through my mouth.

The weekend before the promo launched, Harlow promoted the campaign by working a KFC drive-thru in Atlanta. Fan accounts posted phone footage of Harlow leaning out the window, fielding requests, wearing a KFC uniform. It’s something these previous celeb fast-food collaborations haven’t come close to — the sort of thing we usually only get to see in “Nicki meal” meme edits by feral Barbs, visor and everything. It didn’t exactly line up with the whole Louisville-centric hometown-boy bent of the initial ad campaign, but felt like something directly influenced by fan-generated content.

I didn’t have a drive-thru, Harlow-staffed or otherwise, through which to pick up my meal on the Monday it launched, but I’ll say this: KFC makes it very easy to order through the site. The Jack Harlow meal was front and center on the homepage, and a couple clicks later I was told — at 1:21 p.m. — that my order would be ready for pickup at 1:26 p.m. I walked down the block to the restaurant, and it was fresh out of the oven Mars-colony-grade rehydrator. Now, I’ve seen my fair share of distressing fast-food restaurants, but this KFC was a new level of condemned: peeling, bleak, and gray, a set-up that made it resemble a check-cashing place in a postapocalyptic video game. The people who work and eat here deserve better than this! In Australia, the KFCs have tasting menus.

The most unsettling thing was the smell. I can rely on a McDonald’s, Popeyes, or Cinnabon to smell better than it ultimately tastes. Even Subway smell can be comforting in a fucked-up way when you’re in the right mind-set (which is to say teetering on the absolute mental edge). KFC smelled wrong, industrial, and unclean, and not in a way that reminded me of food at all (at best, it was just the scent of unchanged fryer oil). I thought about the “deep-fried rat” meme that went around a few years ago and triple-checked that it was a hoax. I picked up my food and booked it out of there faster than you can say “yuh.”

To recap, the Jack Harlow meal consists of: a spicy-chicken sandwich, secret-recipe fries, macaroni and cheese, lemonade, and a side of ranch. The “secret-recipe fries” are apparently a new thing KFC launched in 2020, the idea being that they’re seasoned with the Colonel’s “secret recipe” of 11 herbs and spices used in the chicken. According to a bit of culinary forensics by the Chicago Tribune in 2016, the recipe goes heavy on the paprika and white pepper, and the version sold in stores has a secret 12th flavor enhancer: MSG (this column, for the record, loves the stuff and will not tolerate any MSG slander). The spicy-chicken sandwich is also a fairly recent edition, a veteran of the Chicken Sandwich Wars. It was disappointing that Harlow’s meal didn’t have any new or interesting items in it — couldn’t they have remixed a Famous Bowl? — but it did come in some of the best packaging I’ve ever seen for a celebrity fast-food promotion, featuring line drawings of Harlow where Harland would normally be. This is probably tied with McDonald’s BTS dipping sauces for best graphic design.

The ranch-lack: palpable! Photo: Rebecca Alter

My other biggest disappointment was that they forgot to include the ranch, which, it turns out, is absolutely necessary, because those fries are not great on their own, or even with ketchup. Up until last year, KFC was a potato-wedge place. They were delicious and added to the biodiversity in the fast-food fry game, alongside Arby’s curly fries and Chick-fil-A waffle fries. Now they’re just another spud dud.

Feeding Jack a fry. Photo: Rebecca Alter

The mac ’n’ cheese is a first for a celebrity combo. It came in a container that gave the whole thing a hospital-food vibe, but I’m a freak who gets a kick out of a mushy-soft fast-food mac, and I didn’t mind it at all. It was baby food for a Baby-Man’s Meal.

Unfortunately a texture I love. Photo: Rebecca Alter

The spicy-chicken sandwich is the one item I was really looking forward to, because last year, my housemates and I had a blind fast-food-chicken-sandwich taste test (with scoring cards and everything) from which the KFC sandwich emerged as a dark-horse winner. This caused a huge scandal, and we chalked it up to a fluke, but I remember really appreciating the seasoning at the time. So I was disappointed in the quality of the sandwich in the Harlow meal, which was simply un-delicious. Nothing about it convinced me to keep eating beyond the first bite: The pickles had no personality, the bun wasn’t fluffy or buttery, and, in the greatest crime of all, I couldn’t pick up on that unique KFC “Colonel’s recipe” flavor. My roommate said it tasted “dirty,” and she didn’t even see the hellhole from whence it came. The only way to salvage any of it was to use the sides as sandwich toppings. The mac lent the sandwich moisture and the sandwich gave the mac structure.

The side of the take-away bag says the chicken is “antibiotic free, no added hormones or steroids.” Maybe some hormones and steroids would have given it FLAVOR, jk jk. Photo: Rebecca Alter

I’ve seen conflicting reports that KFC uses either Tropicana or Dole for its lemonade, but it was too sweet either way. This is expected of basically all fountain lemonades; the best thing you can do is have access to the fountain yourself and cut it with Sprite. But that would go against Jack Harlow’s direct orders.

Now see, this is how they should’ve sold it. Photo: Rebecca Alter

I had zero desire to finish any of the food, nor did this experience make me want to go back to KFC anytime soon. “First Class” dining this was not (this song is now the fourth thing I know about Harlow). Also, this thing was $9.79. Do you know how much Taco Bell you can get for $9.79? Mas. The initial rollout for the meal promised a line of Jack Harlow x KFC merch, but it’s been weeks since the launch and there’s no merch to speak of. The only trace of it I could find online were photos of T-shirts and chicken-sandwich pillows, but it doesn’t appear that fans have been able to get their hands on them. It all adds to the sense of this campaign sort of fading into the background, which actually isn’t what I expect from a Harlow feature. I get the sense that Harlow is a lot of people’s favorite white boy after Post Malone, but judging solely on flavor, the seasoning just isn’t there.

As for KFC’s potato wedges: Come home, the kids miss you.

KFC’s Jack Harlow Meal Is Finger-Lickin’ Mid