An article written for The Sunday Times AA Gill Restaurant Review Competition
To be named as a ‘Kentucky Colonel’ is a big deal in the Bluegrass State. It’s an honorary title in a similar vein to a British OBE that was instituted in 1813 and formerly awarded to people with esteemed reputations for high moral standards and a record of ‘good works’, often related to their chutzpah in the American Revolution.
When the Kentucky Militia was deactivated following the war of 1812, a Governor named Isaac Shelby commissioned his Aide de Camp with the honorary rank of Colonel. The moniker stuck, and latterly an array of esteemed men ranging from Fred Astaire to ‘The Price Is Right’ host Bob Barker have been recipients.
However, no Kentucky Colonel is more famous than ‘Colonel’ Harland David Sanders, the man who perfected the art of flouring chicken in eleven herbs and spices and flogging it to the masses as ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’.
The Great Depression takes a lot of flak, and deservedly so, but perhaps there is no more infamous legacy of the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialised world than KFC. Young Harland was mumbling along as an everyday Joe insurance salesman when the crisis hit and the Dollar tanked. Forced to reconsider his options, he experimented with fried chicken strips in a roadside café. After a few false starts he perfected his recipe, shot a rival and latterly created the franchise model, opening the first of many identikit Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1952.
One of the most recent, numbering somewhere around eighteen thousand and seventy in KFC’s global hen house sits on Garrett Lane, Earlsfield – well within smelling distance of my front door.
KFC’s characteristic aroma has been one of its key customer acquisition tools. On high streets across the UK and around the globe the famed spice concoction coated on deep fried chicken limbs sifts up the nostrils, tickles the prefrontal cortex and influences the decision making of over 12 million customers per day. Somehow this bearded cuckolding cock broiler managed to take salt, garlic salt, thyme, paprika, basil, oregano, celery salt, black and white pepper, dried mustard and ground ginger to create his magic coating and cook up a fortune.
It sounds simple enough, but if you want to replicate his chimerical coating’s flavour in full, you’re only halfway there. You’ll have to dunk your thighs, legs and breasts in buttermilk before jiggling them in white flour and frying them in canola oil with (reportedly) TBHQ and Citric Acid (added to protect the flavour) and dimethylpolysiloxane (an agent that stops things frothing).
Popular with pubescent teens with taste buds dampened by social media, youthful cynicism and industrial quantities of Monster Pipeline Punch, the new KFC near my house has had one immediate impact on my sanity unrelated to addictive smells: – rubbish. More precisely, industrial quantities of Kentucky Fried trash strewn liberally and recklessly down our street, billowing in the breeze like a post-apocalyptic version of American Beauty’s arthouse bag scene. Except I get no visceral benefit from this drifting crap-cloud. Instead I get accosted by the leering visage of a monochrome pensioner – a licentious cad wearing a suspiciously thin Kentucky Gambler bow tie stamped on a hundred boxes, bags and cups - every single day.
I fucking hate that old man.
For the life of me I couldn’t fathom the appeal of a meal so greasy that you’re left unable to gain purchase with your fingers days after a late night, alcohol inhibiting binge. For youngsters yet to grow a thick enough shield of self-preservation, the Colonel’s hunger-inducing packaging colours are designed to fool them with astute branding. It’s the biggest PR swizz since the Big Bad Wolf crept under the censor’s radar via the medium of nursery rhymes and into the bedrooms of a million kiddywinks, first as a mass murdering, granny impersonating cross dresser and latterly in a triple porcine genocide.
As with any adversary, the only way to beat the enemy was to know him. So on a rainy Friday at the wrong end of closing time with everywhere else closed and my family safely decamped to another county, I tentatively stepped under the Colonel’s ducktail beard, past the cacophony of Grime emanating from multiple phone speakers and into culinary Hades. It felt about as welcoming as a Mumsnet forum.
I made my selection hastily and without emotion – although having not ordered fried chicken since the worst date in history™ in the late 2000’s I felt compelled to stick to ‘the Classics’. Furtively clutching my moistening bag of matter I skulked back home, decamped to the basement and bought Point Break on Pay Per View hoping to make the night a fully integrated festival of guilty pleasures. As Bodhi slow-motioned his way across the credits I opened the first in a series of Pandora’s boxes. My findings were as follows: -
The Zinger Tower Burger - you know you’re in trouble when your dinner is sold on the merits of its tongue-stinging heat and altitude rather than more conventional metrics of taste and quality. With the structural integrity of Jenga in an old people’s home it collapsed after the first bite leaving me holding an atomic chicken breast in mayonnaise-coated fingers.
Popcorn chicken - with a delicacy apparently named after a K-pop band (and with the same grease to weight ratio) I wasn’t expecting very much at all, and yet I was somehow underwhelmed. Describing these lightweight taste vacuums as a medley of Holiday Inn shower tray remnants seemingly devoured, masticated and shat out by a leprous boar would be a positive PR spin on their actual rankness.
The fries - It’s hard to cock up a chip. Sliced spud, oil of a temperature capable of incinerating a Medieval heretic, time and salt are pretty primitive ingredients and yet the flaccid, lukewarm digits that barely filled the Colonel’s paper scrota were useful only as sponges to mop up the chicken grease coating my inner cheeks. The soft palate on the roof of my mouth wasn’t so fortunate as it took a couple of days of rabid strokes with a high-powered Oral B to bore out the unctuous matter.
The drink – KFC serves Pepsi (their former owner) - Coke’s backwards cousin. Even in soft drinks, KFC is second best.
By late 2018 there were 18,875 KFC outlets across 118 countries with 4,563 in China alone, KFC's largest market and home to their biggest poultry paradise.
At least I don’t have to live cheek-by-jowl with this blight on society. The three-story behemoth is KFC's largest fowl up with seating for 500 batter-faced gluttons just a short distance from Tiananmen Square.
In the land where duck’s tongues are considered a delicacy, KFC is a clucking success. Perhaps they’ll focus all their attentions over there in the future and my street will be left wrapper free with just the faintest whiff of fried flesh in the air as a slovenly reminder of a less enlightened time.
Like their hungover customers the morning after a Bargain Bucket binge, all that’ll remain will be the nauseating sense of regret and palpable shame.