Last year, a few days before December 25, I decided I would grab buckets of KFC fried chicken for our Jewish family’s non-Christmas dinner. The idea isn’t unique: KFC “party barrels” on Christmas and the days leading up to it are a tradition in Japan, where the chain’s fried chicken has become the folkloric way to celebrate in a country not tied to Christian traditions. (In that spirit, I planned to make a trip to the closest Japanese market for plump ikura to pair with the secretly seasoned poultry pieces.)
The day of, it felt strangely good to pull up to a West Los Angeles KFC and wait in a short drive-thru line, anticipation heightening with every tire-inch forward. The cashier was nice, which made the experience even better, as did the instant satisfaction of tucking away a very large, very warm, very full plastic bag on the floor of my front seat. This sack of abundance held three whole buckets brimming with fried chicken (two extra-crispy, one original recipe), a smorgasbord of sides, and steam-creased boxes of those dense, almost cakey, buttermilk biscuits. It was a meal that could feed a family of 10 for less than $125. It was also familiar, a modicum of casual comfort as the omicron wave crested in Los Angeles.
Save the flat cardboard plane of a pizza box or the Chinese American oyster pail, perhaps no meal in America is as recognizable by its physical vessel as the fried chicken bucket. Consider the bucket’s design: the cylindrical shape, the waxy exterior, the white paper top with four small half-moon openings — there, ostensibly, to let air and moisture escape and keep the chicken as close to its post-fryer crispness as possible. The bucket’s chameleon skin can be altered with the branding of any bird-slinging business but always portrays one unequivocal message: Hot fried chicken in here.
For what’s essentially a molded strip of grease-resistant paper, the bucket is actually remarkable — a marvel, even, of modern engineering, its form intrinsically functional and elegant. The bucket is interchangeable for at-home, outdoor, or in-car eating. Measured by its capacity for chicken (10-piece, 12-piece, 16-piece, or more), most sizes can fit in the crook of an arm, balance on a lap, or be placed onto or below a front passenger seat. The bucket’s aesthetic appeal has made it a beacon of sorts: In Los Angeles’s Koreatown, a KFC building at the corner of Oakwood and Western is, itself, the shape of a bucket, a giant beige barrel that eclipses every other building on the street. Dinah’s Family Restaurant, also in Los Angeles, claims that the cement bucket sign shooting up from its roof predates the signs propped above most KFC locations. “We had the bucket of chicken out there [on the roof] since before KFC had it,” owner Teri Ernst told Eater LA in 2013. “Apparently, one of the former employees here back in the ’60s took the idea with him to KFC, and they started using it. But we had it first.”
In the cavernous fried chicken genre, KFC’s bucket looms large. It’s brought families to the table since its invention at a Kentucky Fried Chicken store in 1957, when not-so-nice-guy Colonel Sanders asked Salt Lake City franchisee Pete Harmon if he wanted to buy 500 paper buckets another store had purchased from a traveling salesman. The paper bucket, initially filled with 14 pieces of fried chicken, a handful of biscuits, and a pint of gravy, became a rapid success.
Other fast-food brands, like cult-favorite Filipino fried chicken chain Jollibee, have since adopted the chicken bucket. Jollibee’s buckets are squatter, their engine red exterior and beckoning bee face one of the simpler designs in the bucket kingdom. The first location of Popeyes in China, opened in 2020, supplemented the chain’s typical box-shaped carriers with orange-printed buckets (the Popeyes bucket is also available in the Philippines, but not in the U.S., where its nemesis, KFC, has mythologized the origin story). Harold’s Fried Chicken, a Chicago stalwart with 40 locations across six states (Chicagoans will assure you which are good and not good), has buckets for both its fried chicken and slabs of fried fish.
Unsurprisingly, fried chicken buckets permeate pop culture: Dinah’s bucket appears in the movie Little Miss Sunshine, a cameo that drove customers to the store for identical red-and-white buckets with the restaurant’s name printed in Googie-style lettering. Buckethead, the guitarist who played for Guns N’ Roses from 2000 to 2004, wears a KFC bucket on his head onstage, his hair flattened by the ghost grease of his bucket’s chicken past. Fried chicken bucket-shaped hot tubs and Polaroid cameras have manifested as KFC continues to market the paper pail as its hallmark contribution to the universe. “Vintage” unused KFC buckets sell on eBay for $125; a used bucket purportedly from the 1950s, its interior imprinted with drumstick-shaped oil stains, sells for closer to $200.
It’s perhaps this cultural resonance that contributed to the bucket’s pandemic proliferation. In the throes of the first and second waves of COVID-19 in 2020, fried chicken — the ultimate comfort food that inspires thousands of food writers to overuse the word “craggy” — became a business boon for chefs who needed to figure out something that would consistently sell during a crisis. Taku in Seattle served its bonito-dusted karaage out of sharply designed handheld buckets; a large offering, called the “Fuck It Bucket,” features three pounds of karaage in its depths. Oakland diner Hopscotch doubled down on its fan-favorite bucket loaded with eight pieces of buttermilk fried chicken to pair with soba biscuits and fried sunchoke. Han Oak, Portland’s Korean fried chicken temple turned hot pot restaurant, sold six-piece buckets of chicken: double-fried drumsticks and wings seasoned with the “essence of instant ramen” and nestled next to bread and butter daikon pickles.
And while they so often are, buckets don’t have to be beautiful. Addendum, Thomas Keller’s “casual” dining destination in Kellerized Yountville, serves fried chicken in nearly all-white buckets (when Addendum was in COVID hibernation, buckets of its fried chicken could be ordered from Ad Hoc). Los Angeles’s Lucky Bird and La Lucha in Houston serve fried chicken in similarly plain barrels. While the bucket itself can be a novelty, the more austere iterations show that it’s less about form than function. If the bucket’s ultimate purpose is to feed groups of people easily, it can look like exactly what it is: a sturdy paper drum.
Maybe most of all, buckets have come to signify family mealtime and community gathering. Family-size fast-food meals were a way to feed children and parents quickly and cheaply; the bucket’s meteoric rise seemed to speak to mothers resisting confinement in the kitchen. Over time, the bucket gave takeout dinners a familiar, totemic form and a way to make the meal communal (down to the rush of hands grabbing for the last piece of chicken). A friend told me that when she was growing up in Texas, a group of moms would take their kids to a park after church on Sundays, with a stop at a nearby KFC for buckets of fried chicken to picnic on. The feel-good memory of after-service buckets remains for her to this day, though she is no longer a member of any church.
I have the same feeling about the time KFC saved my family’s dinner in December. That night, people left the salmon and flying fish roe mostly untouched; what mattered most was in the bucket.
Naomi Otsu is a graphic designer and illustrator based in New York. Her work features a colorful array of elements inspired by the cities and cultures she grew up in.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein