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Can you lick your fingers after eating grilled chicken?

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By Steve Doyle

 

Don’t you just love the new marketing campaign for KFC? You know, the one challenging you to think of the restaurant’s grilled chicken as a great healthy meal. Doesn’t the whole idea have a lot of pluck?

First the word “fried” is eliminated from the company’s name, and now we have the franchise chicken itself removed from the advertising in that wonderful, backhanded way of marketers.

It just all seems so otherworldly and even a bit sad.

If you ever shopped at Lawson’s or dined at the Halfway House, you remember when it was not surprising to see the honest-to-goodness Colonel Harland Sanders around Shelby County, not the impersonator who is the habitué of his old haunts.

You may have had to explain to your children, grandchildren and assorted newcomers that the statue at Jewish Hospital Shelbyville is a likeness of a real person, just as the image on the boxes and barrels of chicken were taken from a man who used to walk among us, a man who lived in that old white house in front of Claudia Sanders Dinner House.

Not many will believe that a guy with white hair and goatee, a white suit and a string tie actually was more than an actor, but Sanders, as those of you who truly knew him would attest, was a marketing icon a bit too shrewd for even Madison Avenue to have perfected.

He had his slogan, “finger-lickin’ good,” his image, his famous recipe and, by golly, when it was all over, his millions. The man deserves to be in bronze and indelible print if for nothing more than his genius.

But his real legacy is his chicken, and you might not feel that’s so golden.

Since the Colonel went to the Great Restaurant In The Sky, KFC has become controversial for health, environmental, ethical and, well, culinary issues.

Some folks swear by that chicken and its down-home side dishes, but some of you are more inclined to picket it. Still, there’s no denying that this chicken has, well, legs.

In my youth, we ate a lot of fried chicken, but it came largely from animals raised in our henhouse and cooked with the “famous recipes” of my grandmother and mother. And I will state with all conviction that there never has been any chicken fried anywhere that was better. Anyone who ate it knew that.

But on occasional visits from the city (read: Louisville), my aunt and uncle would bring a barrel of the store-fried stuff, just so we country folks could see what the cultured world then was getting to know, including the coleslaw, mashed potatoes and rolls. It wasn’t bad – a decent alternative – but it wasn’t Mammaw’s, you know?

To some folks, though, when it came to chicken, the Colonel was The Man. His chicken ruled their world.

The story goes that a corpulent coach I knew in Mississippi bought himself a barrel of chicken one night and proceeded to eat it by sticking an entire leg into his mouth and pulling it out completely clean, then and chasing it with a gulp of gravy.

Just pause, reread that sentence and do the mental picture. I am not kidding. I have eyewitnesses.

And then there was my family’s visit on Christmas Eve to a 5-story Walmart in Nanchang, China. We were there with other American couples in a store mobbed with holiday shoppers, as if it were right here in the U.S.

So where did we rendezvous? The KFC right near the cash registers. It was busy, too.

I didn’t eat any that night, because I have this theory that grew from those early experiences of eating the chicken right here: The farther you were from the Colonel’s house, the worse the chicken seemed to be. I’ve had some bad batches in outlets around the country.

Yet, I still feel ownership and defensive of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

This is a piece of us, a calling card, a part of Shelby County’s DNA that predates most of the Saddlebreds and McMansions and ritzy golf clubs about which we now brag.

And so I have to offer a rueful smile at this new marketing campaign, though fully embracing the why of it all.

The Colonel, though, probably is turning over in his grave, or at least he has stopped licking his fingers.