Roadkill on the Information Highway

Screen shot of the promotional website described in this post, taken from the Daily Mail’s website. For  full story, see the Daily Mail link in the text just to the right of this image.

Kentucky made headlines in England a few weeks ago—while I was in Kentucky, as it happens.  I saw the story in the Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader, but it made the Daily Mail in the United Kingdom, too: the British public relations firm Gosh PR, hired to promote the state to potential tourists from Britain, created a website suggesting that the unusual number of dead animals and the wide variety of species you could see flattened on Kentucky roads was a big draw for visitors.  They recommended that tourists play “roadkill bingo” while driving along listening to the “jingle-jangle of the banjo” from bluegrass radio stations.   (Stereotype much?)

The website did suggest visiting bourbon distilleries, and the horse farms of the thoroughbred industry, but also invited tourists to come see “Hazzard County – home of Boss Hogg and the Duke boys”, with a photo of the actress who played Daisy in The Dukes of Hazzard; unfortunately Hazzard County is a) fictional, and b) supposed to be in Georgia.  Oops.  The contract with Gosh PR—which had garnered nearly 2/3 of a million Kentucky tax dollars over the years—was cancelled and the government official responsible resigned.

A postcard showing “Sanders Court and Cafe” in its prime; the caption on the reverse reads (take it as read that [sic] appears every time you think it should): “Sander’s Court / Corbin KY. / Asheville, N.C. / Harland Sanders, Owner – Mgr. / Offer complete accommodations with tile baths, (abundance of hot water), carpeted floors, “Perfect Sleeper” beds, air conditioned, steam heated, radio in every room, open all year, serving excellent food.”

Looking into the story a bit more, I was surprised to find various websites not only saying that Kentuckians like to dine on roadkill (with squirrel supposedly being “something of a delicacy”), but claims that the Kentucky stew known as burgoo is a “traditional” recipe for eating up any roadkill that you find—unlikely, since references to the dish go back to the 18th century and the car wasn’t invented until the 20th.  Burgoo in Kentucky was less a recipe than a name for a stew of whatever you had on hand; if you came back from hunting with two possums and a rabbit, then that’s what went into the pot, with you here meaning Daniel Boone or someone of the sort.

In any case, we didn’t eat roadkill or burgoo when I grew up in Kentucky, nor did we eat an inordinate amount of fried chicken, though of course that’s the first thing my English neighbors think when they hear I’m from Kentucky: “Oh, where the fried chicken comes from!”  So of course, on vacation/holiday recently, when I realized I was near Colonel Sanders’s original restaurant, I had to stop in and take some snapshots to post here for you.

At the Harland Sanders Museum and Cafe in Corbin KY, you can have your photo taken sitting on a bench with the Colonel, or at least, a sort of resin effigy of the Colonel, which I found…decidedly creepy, actually.

British people sometimes ask me whether Colonel Sanders was a real person, and I can assure them that he was; we used to see him at state fairs and such gatherings, but as he was a benevolent sort of character, who wore non-standard clothes in a particular color scheme as a sort of uniform and sported trademark facial hair, I can see how people might be tempted to lump him in with Santa Claus (or, in a quote I ran across on the internet, “Father Time or Uncle Sam”).

The real live Colonel started with a gas station, added a café, later still adding a motel and renaming the place the Sanders Court and Café, and prospered.  By 1937, he’d expanded the place to the point it could seat 142 customers, but he found that people stopping in for gas and a meal didn’t order the fried chicken dinner as often as they might, because it took too long to prepare and they wanted to get back out onto the road.  So he invented a technique for frying chicken in pressure cookers.  (That’s an idea that makes me cringe; I’m scared of pressure cookers at the best of times, and what’s worse than an exploding metal vessel full of steam? An exploding metal vessel full of boiling oil.)

The Museum includes recreations of the kitchen at the original Sanders Cafe.


But when President Eisenhower’s system of interstate highways reached Kentucky, the Colonel found his restaurant bypassed.  Cars and diners stopped coming.  At age 65, he sold the place to pay his debts, ended up broke, and with his first social security check hit the road to demonstrate to other restaurateurs how you could put together a tasty chicken dinner if you used his recipe, and do it fast if you used his method—and he’d show you how to make those chicken dinners if you promised to pay him a nickel every time you served one.

A bronze bust of the Colonel, made by his daughter. He didn’t ordinarily stay in one place long enough to sit for a likeness, but he was snowed in at the time and had no choice. From his expression, I’d say he was pretty peeved.

The rest is history—history you can see today if you visit the Harland Sanders Museum and Café.  It’s in Corbin, Kentucky, on the Whitley-Knox county line, rather than in London, Kentucky, in Laurel County—that’s another little detail that tripped up Gosh PR. Their website also suggested that tourists might go see the Kentucky Derby at Keeneland in Lexington; you can go to Keeneland for Derby Day if you like, but you’ll watch the race on a big screen, because the horses will be running at Churchill Downs in Louisville, as they always have.  Louisville, by the way, was important in the story of Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition to see how far west the North American continent actually extended, but Gosh PR, alas, referred readers to the expedition of Louis and Clark.

Gosh personnel could have nailed down a lot of those niggling details with just a quick look at Wikipedia; okay, it’s hardly an authoritative source, but it would have been better than nothing. To be fair, though, when the Kentucky tourism commissioner resigned he admitted that he had approved Gosh’s website, so he didn’t know any better, either. 

It would be nice to think that British people might visit Kentucky, if only because I might hear “Oh, where the chicken comes from!” less often if my neighbors knew more than one fact about Kentucky, but that may be expecting too much. England was the first country overseas to get a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, and there are an awful lot of them here. But while Colonel Sanders may still be a famous face, his popularity is slipping.  A 1976 poll apparently showed Colonel Sanders to be the second most-recognized celebrity in the world (after fellow-Kentuckian Muhammad Ali) but a survey in 2011 found that only 6 in 10 young adults recognized the Colonel, and over half of those surveyed thought he was a mascot only, not a real person.

Sounds like the KFC company needs a better PR firm.  D’you think Gosh would bid for the job?

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12 Comments

Filed under Current events, Food, Travel

12 responses to “Roadkill on the Information Highway

  1. M. Ross-Macdonald

    Click and Clack at CarTalk once invented a Roadkill Cafe (You kill it–we grill it … You’ll eat like a hog when you taste our dog … etc). Full details at http://www.cartalk.com/content/roadkill-cafe-0. But this association-by-howler is two-way, you know. Back in the forties there was an English pop song, written (I think) by a nostalgic ex-GI who just loved the name, that ran:
    Ashby-de-la-Zouche, Castle Abbey / That’s the only place that I long to be. / Where the skies are full of blue, and the cows are full of moo, / At Ashby-de-la-Zouche by the sea.
    The only thing wrong with that is the A-de-la-Z is pretty close to the dead-centre of England. There’s something similar about Bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover, which definitely was written by two nostalgic ex-GIs, Walter Kent and Nat Burton: There never have been bluebirds over any cliffs in Britain unless they were storm-tossed. (Incidentally, the tune is a good descant to Somewhere over the Rainbow–the previous year’s #1 hit. Coincidence?)

    • Yes! It goes both ways. Since the blog is about enjoying or at least being entertained by US/UK differences, it just gets boring if I add to every remark that, of course, it goes both ways. On occasion, I’ve pointed out some of the many contexts in which Americans know far less about Britain than Britons know about the US; I’d like British readers not to feel burdened by the need to defend their countrymen!

      In this case, though, I see a big difference between a PR company selling its services and supposed expertise for hundreds of thousands of dollars to do a job and then doing it so badly it’s funny, and Tin Pan Alley songwriters writing giving Ashby-etc. a coastline as part of some airy nonsense about cows saying moo, written in the era of “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey”, and by the same songwriters (who also, by the way, wrote “Everything Stops for Tea”, mentioned in one of my posts about British tea-drinking: https://mefoley.wordpress.com/2011/05/27/tea-part-2/). One of the testimonials you can read at Gosh PR’s website says “they always know their clients and every aspect of the company they are representing”; er, obviously not in this case.

      The songwriters didn’t have, as Gosh did, the internet at their fingertips to check. The songwriters might actually have had to pick up a reference book—fancy!—but my guess is that they wouldn’t have bothered, as they only meant to write entertaining fluff. As for whether they—Al Hoffman, Jerry Livingston, and Milton Drake—passed through the UK as American soldiers—from what I can tell it seems that Hoffman was born in Russia, grew up American, worked as a songwriter from 1928 except for 1934-1937*, when he worked in musical theater in the West End; Livingston was American, but if he ever visited the UK via the military or otherwise, the NY Times didn’t mention it in his obit and nobody told Wikipedia; and Drake is pretty much undocumented.

      I leave you with an immortal line from there “Everything Stops for Tea”: Boom-a-lacka, zoom-a-lacka, wee!! 🙂

      *not 1934-1947, as the comment used to say; it was a typo, sorry!

  2. Candida

    In this household we can’t look at KFC because in our minds they are ineradicably, eternally, Kentucky Fried Lizard Parts. And the man they have to blame for that is Roger Zelazny, who was from Ohio – I don’t know if there’s any inter-state rivalry, like the Yorkshire-Lancashire thing over here? It’s not quite calling it roadkill, but it doesn’t help the mental image! (The reference is in the Amber books: driving from the everyday world we know through the shadows into the parallel world of Amber, Corwin knows he’s left the normal world on passing a KFLP. It sounds like one of those road trips where you stay awake far too long.)
    I think it’s sad how Sanders ended up feeling everything he’d done was literally watered down and cheapened after he was bought out. Does make me wonder what a REAL original KFC was like, like I wonder what real Coke, back in the days when it had real coke in it, was like.

  3. MFC

    KFC’s current parent company, “Yum! Brands”, has been doing pretty well. But, they’re doing it while offering a menu item called a “Mashed Potato Bowl”, which is described thusly: “We start with a generous serving of our creamy mashed potatoes, layered with sweet corn and loaded with bite-sized pieces of crispy chicken. Then we drizzle it all with our signature home-style gravy and top it off with a shredded three-cheese blend.” Good grief! what would the good colonel think of such a monstrosity?!

    • When they started selling that dish, the event was reported here, as part of the ongoing fascination with how fat Americans are. A subset of my countrymen here in my adopted country believe that all Americans are fat, and alas I can’t argue against the claim effectively, since I could be entered as an exhibit for the prosecution. But I have on occasion wanted to say “Right! All Americans are couch potatoes! That’s why we win so many Olympic medals, y’know.”

  4. DebWhit

    You get squirrel in Kentucky?? Well, dang. I thought it was all possums and such. Here in Californy we’re mostly stuck with dried up cats and the occasional raccoon, which is hardly better than eating at Jack in the Box. Let me know if you want recipes.

  5. I’ve been to Kentucky, but am a native Texan, and despite the good old Colonel and his fab chicken restaraunt, I think you are far more likely to find fried chicken throughout Texas than anywhere else. (We deep fry everything, even our Thanksgiving Day turkey and our Christmas Tur-Duck-hen, chocolate, ice cream, corn on the cob, and stuffed mushrooms – yes, stuffed, then fried. One of our staple food groups here is Chicken Fried Chicken, it doesn’t get any better than that. How funny that such an off article on misconstrued Americana would get published in the UK. It makes the girls we used to pick up from the airport fresh from Japan (College International Students) make a little more sense when they would appear in hot pink cowboy hats and say “We’d like to see your rattle-snakes!” Lived in Texas all my life and the only place I’ve ever seen a rattle snake was in Colorado! Its more water moccasins down here, and I don’t keep any on hand to play show and tell with at the airport.

    • I was always terrified of water moccasins as a kid, but never saw one. We also had copperheads, and we did see those occasionally. We kicked a ball into a bush in a neighbor’s back yard once, and the boy who went into the bushes to get it found a copperhead, which struck at the ball and left two little fang marks on it. Scary!

      I didn’t know until reading up on the chicken business for that post that Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken, a KFC competitor, was founded by Colonel Sanders’s nephew, Lee. And in any case, my favorite is Popeye’s Fried Chicken (though mainly because you can get red beans and rice as a side dish, and they have fabulous onion rings).

  6. The epitome of country… no mention of roadkill chow! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ScBTlz9-wE

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