This was a must. “I’m going to Corbin, Kentucky – the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken.” As soon as those words left my mouth, there was an understanding between me and my friend, Danielle, that this was something important. Anyone who really knew me would know this too.
I was heading to Cincinnati to shoot Danielle’s wedding and while we were discussing the different things that I could do in Cincinnati, she suggested I run to Kentucky. “Run over?” Turns out that was only a couple of miles, but I was indeed in Kentucky, which prompted me to pull up Google Maps. At that precise moment, the first thought that popped into my mind was Kentucky Fried Chicken. The next thought was how embarrassing it was I didn’t know the name of the town where Harland Sanders first started cooking his famous fried chicken. To be clear, I also know that the first KFC was opened in Utah and not Kentucky.
I’m not sure exactly when Kentucky Fried Chicken starting meaning so much to me, but I know that I’ve enjoyed it for most of my life. Growing up, my siblings and I mostly ate at home and our idea of eating out was McDonalds, Burger King, Hot Dog on a Stick and of course KFC. That’s what we could afford and amongst all the fast food chains, Hot Dog on a Stick was a solid contender for the top spot, but KFC was my favorite. The savory southern fried chicken, the smooth mashed potato and gravy and the sweet coleslaw. When we’d lift the lid off the bucket, I’d dive right for the first drumstick I could find and then I’d split a warm biscuit right down in half and alternate between a mouthful of each.
I’d pull the plastic lid off the mashed potatoes, lick off the bits stuck to it and then pull a spoonful out to dip in the delicious brown gravy. These were some of my earliest happy thoughts. Financially, we didn’t have much when we first arrived in America, but I never felt like anything was missing and my mom always bought us what we wanted to eat.
Even as my tastes have developed over the years, I still enjoy many things from my childhood like Eggo waffles, Velvetta “cheese” and of course KFC. I don’t eat it nearly as much anymore (the downside to eating healthy), but it was important to me to pay my respects to the Colonel.
So flash forward to the day after Danielle’s wedding and I’ve rented a car to make the 2 hours and 20 minutes drive to Corbin, KY. I had a vague idea of what to expect, for better or worse, thanks to the internet, and I knew that it wasn’t going to be anything extraordinary, but that wasn’t going to change anything.
Driving down the small neighborhood streets into Corbin, the lack of a build up leading to the parking lot, only made the arrival more special. There, I’d find a renovated building that used to be the Sanders Cafe with a completely modern KFC attached right next to the “museum”.
What was still there had little to do with my excitement, as was the case with most heritage sites: Stonehenge, the Hagia Sophia, or the temple at Luxor (am I actually comparing KFC to these places?). It wasn’t the structure or the physical ruins that captivated my interest. It was the idea that I was standing in the same place where some significant historical event had unfolded. And standing there, I let my imagination take me through the decades to guess at how things were.
So there I was, 142 minutes of driving later, standing outside the old Sanders Cafe and Motor Court. This was where he did it. This was where that delicious chicken from my childhood was first conceived in 1930 when Harland Sanders started serving food out of his service station in Corbin. Long before KFC, this entrepreneur was perfecting his “secret recipe” and the way he cooked his chicken here. That first franchise wouldn’t open for another 32 years and it would be opened in Utah of all places, but that didn’t matter. This was that special place and the one that mattered.
Stepping in, I am greeted by the Colonel and a perfectly modern KFC.
Please don’t ask me why that guy’s shorts are wet in the butt. To the right of the counter was a mini museum with memorabilia from the Colonel’s story. Old pictures, signs, menus, pictures, newspaper clippings, buttons. It was interesting to see some of their old marketing materials. And look at the prices. $4.95 for 21 pieces of chicken? Yes, please!
I would have loved to get me one of the original Mirro-Matic pressure cooker he used to cook his chicken, if it was for sale and not just a relic of history. This was a genius of a thing at the time, because it allowed Harland to cook up his fried chicken a lot faster than pan frying. How else can you make freshly fried chicken a fast food item? It’s also why the chicken is so moist.
I was pleasantly surprised to see the Colonel’s book, “Life as I have know it has been finger lickin’ good.” I have the same book sitting on my shelf at home and its awesome. I loved seeing the most random things that survived time, like the recent acquisition of a unused KFC napkin from the 60’s and whatever the hell that is to the top right of the picture below.
The other half of the rebuilt restaurant showed the restaurant the way it used to be with a replica of this office, kitchen and model motel room.
According to the sign, the Colonel was pretty creative with his marketing. Since he had an adjoining motel next to the Cafe, he promoted it by including an entire model room in the cafe so that his customers could check it out while they were dining. Clever one.
I especially love old vintage machines, so this old cigarette vending machine was pretty neat. Does anyone remember when you could smoke in restaurants? Fried chicken and a pack of Camels goes together like…friend chicken and mashed potatoes?
With my “tour” complete, it was time to eat. I was starving, so I ordered a 7 piece meal. All original recipe. Biscuits, mashed potatoes and cole slaw. Of course. If you’re going to do something, do it right, said everyone ever.
Look at how happy I look with the bucket of chicken and happy childhood memories in my hands.
And with that I checked another item off my life list. I’ll always look back on this day with fond memories and perhaps I’ll return one day and share this with my own kids. Until then, goodbye Corbin, Kentucky.