How a Foodie Got Duped and Seduced By Mass-Market Produced Fast Food

On a snowy, yet moon-driven New Year’s Eve, we drove south along two streams to our friends’ house for a late buffet supper and holiday celebration. The house was warm with a fire roaring in the grate, guests mingling casually between several rooms, and glass after glass of champagne to ring in the new decade. A few of the guests had gotten together to provide the dinner for all of us. There was a cave-aged Gruyere fondue, pate, deviled eggs and baked ham. There was a green salad, beets. There was fried chicken. There were fluffer-nutters, little elegant tea sandwiches with peanut butter and marshmallow fluff. This was a down-home buffet, a cozy and rather self-satisfied scene.

All the dishes were delicious, but it was the fried chicken that had everyone buzzing. "This is the best fried chicken I’ve ever had!" could be heard through the halls and bouncing off the corners of rooms. And it was true. It was the best fried chicken any of us had ever had. Spicy with plenty of black pepper and salt, maybe a dash of white pepper, it was juicy and crisp at the same time without being heavy. I grew up in a part of the country where fried chicken is served as part of the local cuisine. This was better than the chicken at the Hornet’s Nest, or Horsketters Tavern, or the Darmstadt Inn. It had umami, that elusive element that somehow makes flavor three-dimensional.

Our culinary hostess smiled, a bit wickedly and deliciously I might add. "It’s an old Kentucky recipe," she said. Earnest questions and exclamations followed. "Are you from Kentucky?" "Is your grandmother from Kentucky?" "This is delicious!" "You outdid yourself!" "Where did you learn to do this?"

"Oh, it’s just a little old thing I picked up," she said. "It’s Kentucky Fried Chicken, Original Recipe."

Sometimes it’s worth doing something for the shock value, to wake people up, to get them to think and respond. This revelation had a good-natured shock value among all the guests. While some were truly dumbfounded, others, myself included, laughed, and said, "I can’t wait to get my next bucket!"

But this clever party trick has caused some personal angst and questioning. I’m a restaurateur with a fierce devotion to local provisioning. We even grow a goodly amount of our own produce. I’m a sommelier of sorts with a fairly proficient nose and palate. How could I be duped, and then seduced by mass-market produced fast food? It’s enough to lose sleep over. Could it be that KFC is a fast-food anomaly and sources responsible, even sustainably? Could the food revolution really be infiltrating our fast-food nation?

Instead of laying awake at night counting chickens before they hatched, I decided to do some research about this relationship between the surface character of KFC, as revealed in its taste, and its inner character, the roots of its Original Recipe.

It turns out that KFC has been in the news quite a bit of late. There were the recent ads in Australia just pulled because there was an uproar that they smacked of racism. There is the ongoing smart market campaign that places the chain in a warm and fuzzy light with an honest interest in beefing up our infrastructure: Last year, KFC provided the funding to fix the potholes in four cities in exchange for visual marketing. Every covered pothole was branded with the KFC logo, which only lasted a short time due to the instability of the inks in inclement weather. (This year they will replace fire hydrants and hoses for city fire departments -- KFC will appear on the hydrants themselves. All in the interest of bringing attention to their new Fiery Chicken Wings.) Last year, KFC also built the first LEED-certified location in Northampton, Massachusetts in order to show the world they are moving along with the current of the times and making valiant efforts at being "green."

Some of these are good things, and large corporations always have a few people or a department devoted to doing good things. But nothing is black and white, maybe most especially in big, global and standardized commerce. And KFC, despite its homespun origins, is big, global and standardized commerce. The chain is owned by a larger conglomerate named Yum! Brands, which also owns Long John Silver’s, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and A&W.

KFC has not always enjoyed positive press, and has long been the subject of many an uncomfortable truth, as well as urban myth. From fried cats to genetically modified monster chickens without heads and huge breasts, to poor living conditions for those same engineered animals, to low-wage labor issues, KFC has had a tough row to hoe. But it keeps millions of people in the United States, Europe, and now China, coming back for more. A news story is a news story, but when confronted with the mouthwatering good taste of the Original Recipe who are you going to believe? Your own tastebuds or what you read in the papers?

Everyone has the choice to choose what they believe. That’s the beauty of being a human rather than a lemming. But I, myself, am a firm believer that before we choose, we should know what we’re choosing.

A little navigating the Internet lets me know that there is so much food, and so many ingredients being delivered to the public through KFC, Long John Silver’s, Taco Bell and A&W that Yum! Brands created yet another company that is solely responsible for sourcing the ingredients for all its related franchises. This has been my question, or concern all along: where does this tasty chicken come from, not to mention all the other ingredients used in the KFC menu?

I discover a fair amount of information about UFPC (United Food Purchasing Co-op), Yum! Brands’ sourcing company -- the efficiency of the network, the standards for hygiene, the quality controls and the three U.S. locations (Louisville, KY, Dallas, TX and Irvine, CA) that act as clearinghouses for all these ingredients. But there is nothing that tells me anything about the farmers who raise the chickens, or grow the potatoes, or pecans, or the countless other ingredients that find their way into the public’s gullet via KFC. There are no links to “Meet our Farm Network,” or better yet, “Meet our Farmers."

So where is all this food coming from? Where is the transparency that would ensure my dining confidence at KFC? It's no surprise that I cannot find out any information about the farms from where these ingredients hail. I did find one link to a Web site in England, the Sun Valley Chicken Factory, which supplies the European outlets. I don’t think I really need to say anything about the one photo of the thousands of chickens above the photographer--neat, clean, in rows, hanging by their necks. I think the use of the word "factory" says it all. We should have no doubts that the chickens procured here in the United States will be processed in a similar fashion. Just the fact that we use the word “process” to describe the handling of such large quantities of food is another tip-off that the ingredients used in chains are industrial, rather than agricultural. This not saying anything new, but as it is important to know what we are choosing, it is just as important that we also understand what we are saying, and what it means.

In terms of the physiognomy of taste, the conundrum that KFC offers rings a historical as well as agricultural-cum-industrial note. KFC, and other fast food chains like it, are the food of the poor in our country. A family of four can eat out for $12 at one of the Yum! Brand franchises. On its Web site, Yum! Brands does not pretend to be a restaurant or provide a dining experience. In the Vision & Strategy section of the site, food and ingredients are never even mentioned. The goals--the only goals--are focused on building the brand and strengthening the franchise financially.

In older cultures the food of the poor is what has defined national cuisines. When Americans are fortunate enough to travel abroad, we know we are preceded by our fast-food chains. We are defined by McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut. In Italy, a country with which our own has a long-standing love affair, the best and most authentic food is based on what the poor could make out of nothing; the veritable stone soup, la cucina povera. Tough, old sources of meat (the hen who laid eggs for years, or the cow who supplied milk) could be rendered sublime by hours of slow-braising in house-made wine and herbs and greens growing in the wild. Of course, you knew where that chicken or cow came from because they scratched or grazed in your own backyard. In Sicily, the poor put stale old bread to use in finely ground bread crumbs that lushly coat rustic pastas when they had no cheese. Of course, poverty meant you had to grow or wild-gather for yourself.

The sourcing of one’s food was very personal, and very close to home. We in our uniquely American society, have forgotten that the poor of history also knew how to cook; they had to figure out how to make the sow’s ear palatable. How strange that this age-old reality has changed in the last century. Now our poor are in situations where they can’t afford to grow their own food, or cook from scratch, or are led to believe they can’t. We have created a society in which the best solution to having little money is to procure at chain supermarkets where an economy of scale provides affordability. It’s a rather surreal economy of scale.

KFC was not created out of thin marketing air in a meeting one day: "I’ve got it! This is what the people want!" No, KFC’s origins are truly humble and rooted in the real. In 1941, Colonel Harlan Sanders opened up a filling station in Corlan, Kentucky, and cooked a few dishes in the back of the building. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, pecan pie. His aim was to offer the key elements to a wholesome Sunday dinner, a notion that resonates with images of the family farm, and the mythic agricultural lifestyle of another era. He wanted to offer people a comforting experience. His recipe for fried chicken was probably an amalgamation of his mother’s own cooking and other fried chicken he had tasted. Those 11 herbs and spices that KFC marketing extols in the undisclosed mystery of the Original Recipe, plus those bread crumbs and frying, could make any chicken taste good. It is in the true spirit of the historical cooking of the poor of that area.

And no doubt this is why KFC is so successful. It has taken a legitimate cooking experience from over 50 years ago and made it modern, fast and cheap. In terms of the quality control of the taste over three continents, this is a miraculous feat. But it is also ubiquity and globalization at its most effective and at its least. It is on par with the world of champagne, and the large négociants whose aim it is to create millions of bottles of champagne every year that are consistent and plentiful. The aim is to make them all the same. There is much allure in the democratization of such a notion. Everyone can have champagne! Everyone can have fried chicken! Marie-Antoinette must be turning in her grave: everyone is buying and eating their own cake.

But as much as it is appealing that everyone can afford to have their cake and eat some, too, what happened to the right of everyone to eat and drink well, of foods that are truly natural, that come from a particular place whose character lives in the food itself? Don’t we all have the right to eat and drink well? Don’t we have the right to have pleasure and emotion around the taste and quality of our food? Or do we only have these rights if we are sufficiently monied?

This past New Year’s Eve is memorable for me for many reasons: the dawn of a new decade, the gathering of good friends and the sharing of a delicious meal. The provocation of a leg of chicken. I am thankful to be forced to think about what I eat. And while the taste of that KFC Original Recipe is also memorable, I will not be waiting to be pick up my next bucket. I will not be partaking of KFC until I know where its ingredients come from, until I know how the poultry is raised, until I know if the meat is infused with antibiotics and chemicals. I know I am very fortunate to have a garden from which to feed myself, and to have access to local meat and poultry. And because we know how to cook and to cook with nothing much, my husband and I have often fed a table of four in our home for less than $12.

KFC has a good thing going with its flavor preparations, at least with its Original Recipe. But can it rise to the challenges of its sourcing? As a country that prides itself on feeding large numbers of people, and on democracy, wouldn’t it be brilliant if we could actually feed our people well and with nutritional advantages? Let us not forget that to grow so much meat, poultry and produce, we must use pesticides, insecticides and fertilizers to ensure sufficient yields.

So how can a chain like KFC return to its origins, and find itself again? Is KFC willing to offer an experience and true food rather than just improve the brand financially? (Wouldn’t it follow that the brand would become even more successful if Yum! made a real effort to provide real ingredients?) How could KFC embrace a myriad number of perhaps smaller farms that raise their chickens conscientiously to supply its ever-growing number of outlets?

There may not be neat answers to these questions, or easy solutions. But KFC should be aware -- the train is coming. Democracy and the market will begin to demand to know where KFC’s food originates, and the greater population will learn to cook on their own again -- out of interest and necessity.

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