This piece is written as part of Eater’s Bowl Bowl series, a celebration of the Super Bowl... and bowls.
In 2006, KFC introduced its Famous Bowl, a name that served as an omen, or maybe just a wish, to what the menu item would become. Inside the Famous Bowl lived mashed potatoes topped with gravy, corn, cheese, and bits of fried chicken, a one-bowl combo that felt like madness at the time. We were obsessed with the why of it all, leading a KFC marketing executive to explain the concept of layering flavors. Still, the logic felt disgusting, to no one more so than comedian Patton Oswalt.
The Famous Bowl might not have lived up to its name if it wasn’t for Oswalt’s viral standup bit about it. It was, however, a mutually beneficial relationship. By 2007, Oswalt had been working for almost two decades, even landing a regular gig on The King of Queens and voicing Remy in Ratatouille. His was finally a star rising, something solidified when he released Werewolves and Lollipops, his second comedy album, with its standout riff about the Famous Bowl and how it represents everything depraved about the American psyche.
In the iconic bit, Oswalt describes a hypothetical genesis of the bowl, in which a KFC customer is recommended various items (the crunchy corn, the creamy mashed potatoes, the fun new popcorn chicken) and asks, “Can you take all those food items and pile them in a single bowl for me?” He then plays the confused KFC clerk: “Yes, we can pile that in a bowl, but we can also arrange it on a plate like you’re an adult with self respect and dignity.”
“That’s their most popular item,” Oswalt continues. “America has spoken. Pile my food in a fucking bowl like I’m a dog.” He jokes further that Americans would love their dinner blended and injected into their arteries (which sounds almost like Soylent, the nutritional slurry that hit the market seven years later).
For a time, to speak of Oswalt was an invitation for someone to quote his Famous Bowl bit at length, and any bowl could be dubbed a failure pile. In 2008, Oswalt even tried one of the bowls for the A.V. Club, writing that he almost hoped he was going to like it, but that it “slouched down [his] throat” and he could barely finish it. He continues to associate the concept of the bowl with depression (which Oswalt himself struggles with), writing “Shut-ins, people afflicted with Prader-Willi Syndrome, and manic-depressives” pile everything they want to eat into a bowl of slop, and “if you’re trying to make a fortune in the food and beverage industry, those are the three demographics to shoot for.”
With the rise of the desk lunch, Oswalt’s bit now sound dated. As he lists the ingredients and evokes images of filth and carelessness, all I can think is that a bowl sounds kind of appealing and I’m now hungry. His passion really should have obliterated the Famous Bowl from menus everywhere. But 13 years later, our ability to order KFC’s “failure pile in a sadness bowl” remains, and remains popular.
2007, when Oswalt released Werewolves and Lollipops, was a very specific year in food. It was the year Michael Pollan published The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the conversation about sustainability and the slow food movement went mainstream. Whole Foods was in the middle of an expansion, endless microbreweries were opening, and every restaurant was serving small plates made with organic produce. It was also three years after Supersize Me came out, and years before the pendulum swung back to the lowbrow and every chef would proudly crow about their love for Dominos. Fast food was both bad for you and a signifier of bad taste. So as a culture, we were primed and ready to hate on the bowl. Oswalt wasn’t the only one who condemned it. In Time, Lisa Cullen called it a “boffo, fat-assed, best-selling bonanza,” and attributed its success to the fact that Americans are “gluttons” and “what’s worse, we pretend we’re not.” It’s an assessment dripping with disdain.
But the diet that Pollan espoused was (and still is) out of reach for most Americans. Though the recession hadn’t officially hit yet, in 2007 economic pressures were influencing a second set of food trends that embraced “comfort” and affordable indulgence. The recession would bring forth the food truck movement and the ubiquity of loaded tater tots. The popularity of the Food Network inspired people to be more creative in their own kitchens, regardless of how meager the ingredient. And a certain kind of macho posturing, inspired by the view of male chefs as “badasses,” gave rise to “epic” food crazes that piled bacon on other meat, smothered it in cheese, put whiskey in everything, with nary a vegetable to be seen unless it was a fried pickle.
The bowl became the perfect vessel for both these prongs. On the Pollan side, fast-casual chains like Sweetgreen (founded in 2007) and Cava Grill offered bowls at the same speed and portability as McDonald’s, but with ostensibly healthier options. The bowl became synonymous with “healthy” — whole grains instead of bread, dark greens, seasonal ingredients, grilled chicken raised without antibiotics. More recently, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle served “bowl food” at their wedding, which BBC argued would be easier to eat standing than plated hors d’oeuvres. On the less sophisticated side, a hot bowl of starch and meat and cheese is widely recognized as satisfying, easy to make both at home and in a Chipotle kitchen. Oswalt was unintentionally right about their appeal. If anything, bowls signify comfort and ease. Even if you’re eating a $15 kale caesar out of one, it’s something you can hold close to your chest as you fork the food into your mouth, something that’s forgiving of plating skills and artistic arrangement. It is soothing, whether you need to be soothed because you’re depressed or you’re broke or you’re hungry or you’re busy.
“Self respect and dignity”? In this economy?