Colonel Sanders and the American Dream

Food for Thought: Summer Reading

Colonel Sanders and the American Dream

by Josh Ozersky (UT Press, $20, 130 pp)

According to Josh Ozersky, youth of today have no clue that the figure on the bucket of chicken was an actual person, not just a fictitious character like Betty Crocker or the Jolly Green Giant. But, as old-timers over 40 remember, the guy with the white goatee and string tie was Harlan Sanders – developer of "original recipe" Kentucky Fried Chicken, founder of the chain, and a real colonel (an honorific bestowed by the governor).

Sanders grew up in rural poverty, leaving school at 10 for farmwork to help his widowed mother. But thanks to relentless drive and talent for salesmanship, he pulled himself into the middle class. By 1925, he was running a gas station in Corbin, Ky., and selling hot lunches. This morphed into a prosperous cafe/motel, his food and service developed a national reputation, and he assumed the persona of the patrician, white-suited colonel. When Sanders was 65, the highway was rerouted and his business collapsed overnight. But he started over, taking his persona, his pressure cooker, and his secret recipe on the road, selling franchises across the country.

The book is primarily concerned with developments after Sanders sold Kentucky Fried Chicken at age 75 to a food conglomerate. He was kept on as goodwill ambassador, the literal face of the company. But it was a bitter and negatively vocal old age; as a powerless adjunct of his former creation, he watched the company expand exponentially as the food quality diminished. Ozersky waxes eloquent on the fraught and difficult relationship between the living mascot and the corporation who owned him. Not a pretty picture of the American Dream.

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