The 10 Biggest Pop Culture Food Moments of 2019
From chicken sandwiches to throwing cheese on children.
If there was ever any doubt as to how deeply ingrained food is in our popular culture, look no further than The Sandwich, a fried chicken phenomenon that divided the country into two distinct camps: steadfast Chik-fil-A fans and newly fryer-baptized Popeyes devotees. The Sandwich made headlines, talk show monologues, and started social media wars between brands. (Meanwhile, the folks over at Kentucky Fried Chicken didn't seem too concerned about their competition, probably because they were too busy creating a dating video game, hot tub, and bearskin rug with the Colonel to care.)
Here's a look at the ten food stories that dominated our feeds in 2019 (in no particular order):
1. Popeyes started a nationwide frenzy over fried chicken sandwiches.
It's long been an open secret that chefs love Popeyes. Or as Hugh Acheson once admitted, "I eat at Popeyes. I ain't embarrassed at all. We build a healthy meal around their eight-piece fried meat. Yum." Said cult following became more of a mainstream situation this past summer when the beloved chain unveiled its own fried chicken sandwich, sparking months of speculation-fueled shortages and maddening sold-out signs. Now that the breakout hit is "back for good," Chick-fil-A is making moves to avoid future boycotts and McDonald's is busy testing a potential competitor in Houston and Knoxville, with plans to expand its butter-enhanced counterattack sometime next year.
2. Glenlivet put Scotch whisky in pods and people lost their minds.
Standing in stark contrast to Glenlivet's slight label reboot, the distillery's "Capsule Collection" revealed a bold collab with the London bar Tayer + Elementary during the city's Bar Week. The pair's "glassless cocktails" piped Citrus, Wood, and Spice blends into "fully biodegradable" packaging from the British startup Notpla—a sterling example of a sustainability effort using seaweed extract—albeit one that could easily pass for Tide detergent pods. Or as Stephen Colbert said in a sly Late Show bit, "This is a real step up from the do-it-yourself home version: sucking gin out of a damp rag." Twitter's response was also swift and merciless, with Roxanne Gay writing, "Just put it in an IV bag. Let's get to the inevitable conclusion."
3. Fleabag inspired a canned G&T craze.
Marks & Spencer credited a scene in the second, and sadly final, season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge's award-winning TV series with a 24-percent spike in portable cocktail sales last April. Namely the "Gins in a Tin" favored by a certain Hot Priest. Since M&S is a British retailer with zero distribution in the states, our intrepid office whittled 17 domestic sippers down to seven of the very best vodka, bourbon, and vermouth drinks. (Oddly enough, nothing gin-related landed on the final list.)
4. Skittles presented a matinee performance like no other.
Having already outdone themselves with last year's Super Bowl stunt—a commercial aimed at one single, solitary Los Angeles teenager—Mars, Inc.'s marketing department set its sights on Manhattan's theater district with Skittles Commercial: The Broadway Musical. The self-aware spectacle starred Michael C. Hall as Michael C. Hall; in a cat costume, of course. Critic Louis Peitzman actually dug the absurd display, comparing its meta storyline to SpongeBob SquarePants ("one of the most innovative and exciting new musicals in years") and saying, "Forget 'purity': Give creative people the opportunity to stretch their imaginations, and great art can come from the least expected places."
5. Pringles went viral for all the wrong reasons.
When a cart-riding Walmart shopper in Wichita Falls, Texas, was reportedly banned for drinking wine out of a Pringles can in the parking lot at 6:30 a.m., The Internet didn't just declare her a hero. One Etsy-based entrepreneur (a.k.a. The Cup Artist) created a custom tumbler modeled after her makeshift 'glass'. Meanwhile, Food & Wine's own Mike Pomranz found out what happens when you go the Wavy Fire Roasted Jalapeno route with a bottle of Malbec. His takeaway? "Look, I am not going to tell you to drink wine out of a Pringles can: The aroma alone is off-putting enough that it's truly a last-ditch solution. That said, as last-ditch solutions go, a Pringles can has suddenly and unexpectedly shot up the mental list I didn't even know I had of things to drink wine out of in a pinch."
6. Stranger Things brought the biggest beverage flop of the 1980s back from the dead.
The ill-fated launch of New Coke lasted just 74 days in 1985, but the Coca-Cola Company didn't let that keep it from rescuing the divisive recipe from history's trash heap for the latest season of Netflix's biggest sci-fi show. Other priceless Stranger Things promos included an Eggo-inspired batch of Baskin-Robbins ice cream entitled Eleven's Heaven, a butterscotch-forward Scoops Ahoy special, and a literal upside-down Whopper at Burger King. Hey, when you're a child of the '80s, there's nothing more nostalgic than branding.
7. Taco Bell checked into the hotel business.
It took just two minutes for The Bell to fill its five-night Palm Springs residency, a "tacoasis" that promised a slightly elevated food program (Avocado Toast-ada, anyone?), pool floats in the shape of hot sauce packets, and plenty of Instagram bait—Not to mention the obligatory gift shop for anyone looking to score branded water bottles, sunglasses, blankets, and bikinis. It confirmed something we all knew deep down: Taco Bell isn't a restaurant, it's a lifestyle.
8. Game of Thrones aired an accidental Starbucks commercial.
All of the Mountain Dew, Oreo, and whisky (so... much... whisky) tie-ins in the world can't top what happened with an errantly-placed coffee cup in Game of Thrones last May. Episode four of the show's eighth season had what may or may not have been a caramel macchiato hiding in plain sight—subliminal advertising at its finest, even if unintentional (and not actually a Starbucks cup). Several cast members blamed one another for the mishap, including Conleth Hill, Sophie Turner, and Emilia Clarke. Whatever the case may be, HBO wiped its blooper reel clean for future airings and taunted viewers with a Twitter message: "News from Winterfell. The latte that appeared in the episode was a mistake. #Daenerys had ordered an herbal tea."
9. A couple of bananas fetched $120,000... because art.
In what may have been the most audacious food-based art project of the past decade, Maurizio Cattelan slapped a banana (actually, multiple bananas) on a wall with gray duct tape at Miami Beach's Art Basel and called the conceptual works Comedian. It's hard to know who's laughing now that one of them has been eaten and another 'edition' is headed to a proper museum for the princely sum of $150,000, but we can't blame the world-renowned Italian artist for highlighting the inherent absurdity of contemporary pieces that cost more than the down payment on a decent house. On multiple levels, Comedian is pretty funny.
10. Parents waged a cheese-based war against their own children.
Memes don't get much stranger than the short-lived #cheesechallenge that captivated most social media channels—Twitter, especially—in early 2019. With a Michigan dad reportedly leading the way, thousands of parents began tossing processed cheese slices at their babies. Pop stars and prank war champions followed suit for the next few weeks, leading The Washington Post to write an entire story about the phenomenon. And it's unexpected stories like this that remind us we have no way of predicting what awaits us in 2020.