Young and Hungry

Lutheran Confessions: What’s the Real Origin of ChurchKey’s Chicken-Doughnut Sandwich?

Prolific chef Erik Bruner-Yang may have touched off a local comfort food controversy when discussing the origins of the unusual "jelly belly" pork-doughnut sandwich at U Street Music Hall.

In a recent interview with Young & Hungry correspondent Marcus Dowling, Bruner-Yang credited collaborator and U Hall co-owner Jesse Tittsworth with creating the concept in response to another eclectic D.C. meat-doughnut hybrid:

[Tittsworth] was at Birch & Barley/ChurchKey one day and he wanted the kitchen to make him a fried chicken-doughnut sandwich. They ended up putting it on their menu and not giving him any credit. So he's sort of reclaiming it with this.

Bruner-Yang was referring to the "Luther," ChurchKey's popular off-menu fried chicken and bacon served on a brioche doughnut glazed with maple chicken jus and sprinkled with candied pecans.

ChurchKey pastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac, meanwhile, describes the history of the "Luther" a bit differently.

"The 'Luther' was already a sandwich," MacIsaac tells Y&H. "We can’t take credit for putting the meat between the bun."

According to one account, the original sandwich, featuring a burger sandwiched between two slices of glazed doughnut, was created at Mulligan's Bar in Decatur, Ga. and named for late R&B crooner Luther Vandross, who reportedly enjoyed it. One health-food blogger somewhat humorously called it "the sandwich that killed Luther Vandross."

"We had always joked about how gross it was," MacIsaac says. "And that was kind of where it started."

According to MacIsaac, she and husband Kyle Bailey, ChurchKey's head chef, tried to come up with their own spin on the "Luther," using MacIsaac's signature homemade doughnuts and whatever else they had on the brunch line. They settled on the fried chicken used in Bailey's chicken and waffles dish, which also incorporated the maple-chicken jus and candied pecans.

"A couple of months later," MacIsaac says, "we had a customer who came in that was like, 'You guys should make a fried-chicken-on-a-doughnut sandwich' and we were like, 'Uh, as luck would have it, we already have that.' We didn’t put it on the menu for a long time because Kyle didn't know if people were going to like it. I mean, it’s delicious, but it’s so fatty. We put it on the menu upstairs as just a sort of if-you-know-about-it item. And then it totally blew up. It was crazy."

For his own part, Tittsworth confirms that he "specifically asked ChurchKey to put fried chicken on a doughnut," during a visit to the restaurant some time ago. And, after some "back-and-forth's with the kitchen via our server, was served what I asked for," he says. "I had the receipt on my fridge for quite some time and the creation was listed very unconventionally on it.  Also, it was served with a side salad!"

Yet, he takes issue with the purported connection between the two rival doughnut sandwiches: "The 'jelly belly' is much closer to a sweet barbecue bun that you find in dim sum," he notes, pointing Y&H to this link in particular.

"I don't feel that I need credit for anything," Tittsworth says, "but I'm not so big on misinformation."

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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