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.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.
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.)
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. 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?