When I was a kid, KFC – or “Kentucky Fried Chicken” in Olds English – held the secret ingredient for transforming a leaden summer day into fool’s gold. Like the A-Team, a KFC picnic could materialize out of nowhere and just in time to rescue you from a seriously dull afternoon. It usually went something like this:
Open on living room, Saturday afternoon. Kid is stretched listlessly across an ugly couch watching “The Price Is Right” re-run. Dappled sunshine spills through the windows.
Mom: What’re you doing?
Mom: Auntie Paula and Sarah are on their way over.
Mom: Want to get some KFC and go to the park?
Cut to our badly coiffed, late 20th century “new normal” family gathered on a blanket in Washington Park, laughing and teasing each other over soggy coleslaw, instant mashed potatoes with a hint of Styrofoam, and as many pieces of fried chicken from a bucket as you could handle. It was like a low rent Norman Rockwell painted on velvet in dayglo colors.
But my relationship with KFC eventually became about more than just a good time. In fact, Colonel Sanders came to be something of a role model for me.
For years whenever I experienced a crushing setback of the teenage variety – getting cut from the JV bowling team, being unable to master the chords to “Smoke on the Water,” not realizing that boys didn’t also curtsey after a dance – my mother would use my failure as an opportunity to trot out her favorite motivational story, “Colonel Sanders and the Quest of the Original Recipe.” In the story we invariably joined the Colonel shortly after he perfected his famous equation:
In the genteel tongue of the South, everyone for three counties told the Colonel that his poultry was the best damn thing they’d ever put in their mouths, and he soon began to dream of opening his own restaurant wherein he could serve his sumptuous victuals to what I imagined were the bearded, barefoot, family-feuding folks of the Bluegrass State. But sadly, the Colonel was just a simple country boy with no BMX bike and no authentic Polo shirts, hardships that sounded oddly familiar to me.
“So what’d he do?” my mother would ask incredulously. “Did he give up, shut himself in his room and listen to Echo and the Rabbit People records all day? Nope. He went on the road and started making his fried chicken for anyone and everyone who’d taste it. And you know what? He bombed around the country with a Fry Daddy in the trunk of his car for three years before Mercury got out of retrograde and he finally met someone who said ‘Son, you’ve got yourself a business!’ The rest, as they say, is history.”
I always figured my mom had made up the story, but it turns out it’s more or less true.
Sometime in the last decade a slick advertising firm re-branded the Colonel to resemble a cartoonish, avuncular type fellow who wouldn’t feed you a diabetes double down sandwich with a side of fries. Toward this end they re-worked his likeness so that he now sports an apron and a cockeyed grin. But I’ll always remember the Colonel as the taciturn grandfather who sat with his hands crossed over a cane in the framed black and white photos that used to hang in the old Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants. That tired and presumably slightly pissed Southern gentleman will always be more in line with my idea of a dude who had to sleep in his car for three years.