May 13, 2011

Egypt, Fried Chicken, And A Little Kentucky History

In the early days of Egypt's anti-government uprising this winter, some journalists attempted to label it the "Koshary Revolution" after Egypt's traditional dish of rice, lentils, macaroni, and fried onions. But Hosni Mubarak's embattled regime was hoping to tie the protesters to a more sinister foodstuff: Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Reports on state television described protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square munching on free buckets of KFC, seeing them as proof of subversive foreign influence, though independent journalists at the scene couldn't find a particularly high number of KFC eaters. The U.S. chain has about 100 restaurants in Egypt, compared with fewer than 60 for McDonald's, but the price of a meal, which can be up to three days' wages, makes it a rare delicacy for most Egyptians. There were also reports of the government paying its thugs with chicken dinners, and street vendors jokingly began shouting "Kentucky" to hawk everything from popcorn to falafel.

Surprisingly, this wasn't the first time that KFC has been cast as the enemy in the Muslim world. In 2006, Pakistani rioters burned down a KFC in response to the Danish Mohammed cartoons controversy. This followed another -- and seemingly even more random -- burning of a KFC one year earlier by a mob angered by a suicide bombing at a mosque in Karachi.

What's so Kentuckian about KFC, anyway? They're headquartered in Louisville, if that means anything, but then so is Papa's Johns Pizza and Texas Roadhouse (yes, Texas Roadhouse). So here's more. The company was founded by the jovial Colonel Harland Sanders in 1952, though he first served his fried chicken in 1930 in the midst of the Great Depression at a gas station he owned in North Corbin, Kentucky. The dining area was named Sanders Court & Café and was so successful that in 1935 Kentucky Governor Ruby Laffoon granted Sanders the title of honorary Kentucky Colonel in recognition of his contribution to the state's cuisine.

The following year Sanders expanded his restaurant to 142 seats, and added a motel he bought across the street. When Sanders prepared his chicken in his original restaurant in North Corbin, he prepared the chicken in an iron skillet, which took about 30 minutes to do, too long for a restaurant operation. In 1939, Sanders altered the cooking process for his fried chicken to use a pressure fryer, resulting in a greatly reduced cooking time comparable to that of deep frying. In 1940 Sanders devised what came to be known as his Original Recipe.

Sanders sold the entire KFC franchising operation in 1964 for $2 million, equal to $14,161,464 today. Since that time, the chain has been sold three more times: to Heublein in 1971, to R.J. Reynolds (the tobacco company) in 1982 and most recently to PepsiCo in 1986.

What about that secret recipe? They now keep a handwritten copy of spice mix in a vault in corporate headquarters, though there have been some leaks in the past. Following the buyout of the company in 1964, Colonel Sanders himself expressed anger a new owner, saying:
"That friggin'...outfit...they prostituted every goddamn thing I had. I had the greatest gravy in the world and those sons of bitches--they dragged it out and extended it and watered it down that I'm so goddamn mad!"
(via,, and The McDondaldization of Society)

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