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The KFC Famous Bowl: The enduring success of the ‘failure pile in a sadness bowl’

One food critic dubbed the dish 'the kitchen sink of KFC goodies.'


Phil West


Posted on Sep 21, 2023   Updated on Sep 21, 2023, 10:07 am CDT

KFC—the fast-food restaurant formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken—launched its KFC Famous Bowl in 2006. It was immediately a success; in fact, QSRWeb.com dubbed the meal the Most Memorable New Product Launch of 2006, getting 24 percent of the vote among more than 1,000 people surveyed on a wide range of consumer products released that year.

The article noted that more than 81 million KFC Famous Bowls were sold in the first ten months since debuting in May 2006.

Its fortunes hit a pivotal point on July 10, 2007, when a famous comedian on the rise—Patton Oswalt—took on the Famous Bowl. But despite Oswalt’s merciless takedown of the dish, it’s endured over time—the Oswalt routine effectively sent both his comedy career and the KFC Famous Bowl on an intertwined upward trajectory, an unexpected symbiosis given the savagery of Oswalt’s observations.

What is the KFC Famous Bowl?

Let’s go to the source. According to KFC’s site, the dish features “creamy mashed potatoes and gravy, topped with sweet corn, our 3-cheese blend and our bite-sized, 100% white meat chicken nuggets.” Depending on what drink you get, the meal is anywhere from 590 to 950 calories.

A number of sites, including the Slow Roasted Italian, offer labor-intensive copycat recipes if you want to craft your own at home.

A lot of it, frankly has to do with the flavors. A BusinessWire article from 2014 used the KFC Famous Bowl to stage a debate. As it noted, “crispy chicken, corn, mashed potatoes, gravy and cheese taste great separately. But put those same foods in a bowl and you’ve got yourself a dish that creates a great debate: Should foods touch or not?”

That article also quoted a national food writer who dubbed the dish as “the kitchen sink of KFC goodies, a little of a lot of things, all smushed together in a big, action-packed ‘portable’ bowl.”

But it’s also the ultimate comfort food. Oswalt might have mocked the eating of it as overly simple—we’ll get there in a moment—but that is, for some, part of its appeal.

An 2022 article in Paste celebrating the bowl observed, “It’s what you order when you don’t know what else to get, when you can’t decide which sides will best complement your eight-piece bucket.”

It then added, “You don’t even have to obtain a real dish to indulge in the gravy-soaked goodness that is the Famous Bowl. You just have to park your car, pull out your plastic spork and dig into the mushy goodness while staring out onto the empty expanse of the suburban parking lot.”

Did Patton Oswalt really call the KFC Famous Bowl ‘a failure pile in a sadness bowl?’

Yes, yes he did. He did it in a routine appearing on the comedy album Werewolves and Lollipops, Oswalt’s first No. 1 comedy album, released on Sub Pop Records—best known as the launchpad for Nirvana, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, and other staples of the late ’80s and early ’90s Seattle grunge scene, though it, like the KFC bowl, still endures.

In his now-famous routine, Oswalt begins by running through an inventory of what’s good at KFC from the customer’s perspective, citing mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet and crunchy corn, and breaded chicken strips.

After assessing that, Oswalt’s KFC-curious character asks, “Can you take all those food items and pile them in a single bowl for me? And I’ll just eat them like a death row prisoner on suicide watch.”

He then posits, “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.”

But the character decides that the Famous Bowl is part of “giving up,” then wondering, “Is there a way that the bowl can play Pink Floyd’s ‘Great Gig in the Sky?’ While I eat it alone? In my apartment and two of the morning with all the lights off?”

He continues, “If there’s any way you could put my dinner in a blender and liquefy it and then put it into a caulking gun and inject it into my femoral artery, that would be even better. But I know you don’t have a lunch gun, so until you invent that, just make me a f*cking failure pile in a sadness bowl!”

Oswalt nodded to the routine in a 2016 anti-Donald Trump tweet, quote tweeting the then-candidate’s eating-KFC-on-a-private-plane tweet. “Just like in my bit,” Oswalt quipped. “A disgusting failure pile in a sadness bowl. And, on the left, some KFC.”

So, what does Patton Oswalt really think of the KFC Famous Bowl?

Oswalt actually tried it for The Onion’s arts and entertainment arm, the AV Club in 2008. Though the piece no longer exists on its site (though there’s a dead link in the site’s ‘Best of 2008’ roundup), several sites, including Grub Street, saved it for posterity.

Oswalt professed in the article that he wanted to like it, noting, “I wanted to eat my words. I like when things work out unexpectedly.”

Alas. From his review:

The gravy, which I remembered as being tangy and delicious in my youth, tasted like the idea of blandness, but burned and then salted to cover the horrid taste. The mashed potatoes defiantly stood their ground against the gravy, as if they’d read The Artist’s Way and said, “I’m going to be boring and forgetful in my own potato-y way!” The corn tasted like it had been dunked in fake-corn-flavored ointment, and the popcorn chicken, breaded to the point of parody, was like chewing a cotton sleeve that someone had used to wipe chicken grease off their chin.

How much does a KFC Famous Bowl cost?

According to KFC’s site, though prices might vary by location, a Famous Bowl by itself is $6.29, while a combo (bowl plus drink) is $6.79. But one TikToker tried to order a KFC bowl plus an 8-piece meal with two sides via DoorDash, and according to the Daily Dot’s coverage, she claimed that ran close to $70.

But, if you’re able to find your way out of your house for a Famous Bowl, it’s still one of KFC’s more affordable options—and arguably its most satisfying one.

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*First Published: Sep 21, 2023, 10:05 am CDT