This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in December 2017.
Come Christmas Day, each member of your family probably has a designated job in the kitchen. Maybe Mum roasts the turkey, Dad glazes the gammon, your weird uncle conjures his “famous” roast potatoes, and the visiting cousin from Australia does honey-glazed parsnips with caramelised (burnt) tips. Oh, yes, and don’t forget Grandma’s gravy, which is always rich and boozy thanks to her 102-year-old recipe. There are also homes, come Christmas, in which only one of the brigade takes charge. Grandad won’t let anybody touch his stuffing balls. All other attendees are banished to sit by the fire in their slippers, nibble on Kettle chips, and sip real ale and Chenin Blanc. And then, just as the Champagne is on the verge of becoming unacceptably warm, in the old man bursts, holding aloft the majestic bird.
Then there are the families who go to KFC.
We’re not talking the whole shebang, here. No, this isn’t Japan, where every year, sitting down to Kentucky Fried Chicken on December 25 is a ritual (an estimated 3.6 million Japanese families enjoy the American fast food on Christmas Day). We’re just talking KFC gravy. Under £2 a pot, available in small or large.
For a sizeable number of British families, nipping to KFC on Christmas Eve for a pot of the sauce has become a festive tradition. All other food is cooked at home, but rendering down fat and scooping up turkey juices, preparing a deep stock to bind and lubricate the mishmash of ingredients together—all this is a step too far; a job unnecessary and better performed by a company that makes about a million-and-a-half tonnes of the sauce every year.
As with all fast food (is there anything that marries sugar and salt like a Big Mac?), KFC gravy has a distinct flavour. But does a gravy designed to compliment fried chicken work with acidic Brussels sprouts and sausages wrapped in bacon?
“It works with Christmas dinner,” 22-year-old Jack Pendlebury, from Bolton, assures me. His dad bought gravy from KFC for Christmas last year and they plan to do the same again this time.
“It can change in consistency and taste from branch to branch, but it’s always delicious. We like it with Christmas dinner because everything’s better with gravy, and KFC’s is the best,” he continues. “We make everything else—it’s the only thing we outsource. We only get it with Christmas dinner, not every Sunday. Although I do always order it if I’m having a KFC.”
Jodie Avis-Smith, 21, from Uckfield, comes from another family of seasonal KFC visitors: “I think the gravy brings a zing to the turkey. Everything is else is homemade. I’ve tried to recreate it, but it’s never the same. It’s just a festive treat for the family. I only eat KFC about once a month.”
I start to wonder whether all this might be a subtle KFC marketing campaign. Given the corporation’s previous PR stunts, it's not outside the realms of possibility for it to ask a handful of willing fans to trumpet the wonders of its gravy, a menu item that rarely features in UK advertising. But a quick search on Twitter uncovers rafts of Brits (and some Americans), who deploy the tactic, and have been doing so for some time.
“I think KFC gravy brings a zing to the turkey. Everything is else is homemade. I’ve tried to recreate it, but it’s never the same.
Harry Barnes, 22, from Coventry, tells me: “It’s become a tradition in our family since my brother came home with some on Christmas Eve in 2013. He moved out in 2014 but we’ve continued it. I forgot last Christmas and turned up to the Bermuda Park KFC in Nuneaton on Christmas Day to find it closed. I was gutted!”
He adds: “My mum makes Christmas dinner every year but it is just the two of us now and she doesn’t seem to embrace it. She doesn’t know it yet but we are definitely having KFC gravy this Christmas.”
You may recall, in 2015, the BBC One documentary series Billion Dollar Chicken Shop. Millions watched. In it, the broadcaster was allowed unprecedented access behind the scenes at the fast food chain, visiting branches across the country. Although KFC’s “secret blend of herbs and spices” remained a mystery, the company revealed how its gravy is made: scooping up the leftover, very crunchy, very greasy pieces of chicken scraps from its rapeseed oil friers after each five-day run, and combining them with stock and boiling water.
Senior brand and innovation manager for KFC UK and Ireland Marcus Buck tells me that the company calls it “chicken crackling,” and that a lot of “love, care, and attention” is put into its “harvesting.” Buck says that a million pots are sold in the run up to Christmas, which is a 20 percent increase from the rest of the year.
“Christmas is our busiest time of year, and gravy is part of that,” Buck explains. “We sell about 800,000 pots in a standard month, but that increases to approximately one million in December. I find it funny that people use our gravy—partly because we’re such an American brand but roast dinner is such a British thing. People seem to think they’re in on a secret, that it’s their family tradition. There’s pride to it. But in reality, lots of people do it.”
He speculates on the gravy’s popularity: “I think it’s because it’s a time-saver, and they know what they’re going to get. Gravy is actually one of the hardest parts of a roast, it’s so easy to mess up. And as Christmas dinner is such an indulgent meal, it fits.”
While Buck is all too willing to discuss harvesting chicken crackling, which sounds a time-consuming, arduous task I wouldn’t wish upon anyone, the gravy has other components. The stock, for example. Where is it from and what is it made of?
“It’s not dissimilar to the stuff you buy in the supermarket,” Buck says. “There’s onions in there, celery, spices. We mix it with boiling water in our stores and add the chicken crackling, then sieve it all down.”
I push for the specifics—stock is vital to gravy.
“It’s your typical stock cube,” he says. “It contains ingredients like black pepper, chicken extract, salt, flour, etc.”
Although Northern Ireland is the UK region in which most KFC gravy is consumed, closely followed by the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber, it is London (the least popular area), where I try KFC gravy for the first time.
I pick up a pot from my local shop in Tooting, an area of the capital synonymous with chicken shops, though usually local chains like Morley’s. Staff look at me a little quizzically when I mooch in and only buy gravy. I feel embarrassed so ask for a portion of chips too.
But the gravy is not for my chips, however promising a proposition that appears to me at the time. Instead, I take it home to my kitchen, where a bird is roasting with goose fat potatoes and a hazelnut and apricot stuffing.
The gravy is palatable—and works with roast dinner, no question. The consistency is thick, the colour dark, and the flavour offers spice and the savoury notes you need. It is, I suppose, a decent substitute. But I’ll be leaving it on the bench come Christmas Day. Nothing compares to the real deal.