There is No Kentucky Fried Chicken
If you say you’re from Kentucky and you’re anywhere but Kentucky, you’ll find three common responses.
The first response if you say you’re from Kentucky to a non-Kentuckian is a mention of the Kentucky Derby. Now it is not a wide assortment of people who have this response. Horse girls, sports enthusiasts, very dedicated vegans, milliners, British people (why the Brits seem to know so much about thoroughbred racing is somewhat of a mystery to me) and of course every member or former member of a sorority or fraternity that is within a day’s drive from Kentucky (1).
With this response I usually mention Hunter S. Thompson’s essay The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved. I tell them about the parties and Mint Juleps (2) and how all of Louisville shuts down for a week, the schools even closing on the Friday before Derby (Oaks Day). I tell the story about how when I was a lawyer I proved a landlord was lying on the stand because they claimed they dropped off a notice on the morning of Saturday, May 3rd. “I’m sorry, are you saying you worked on Derby morning?” I asked incredulously. The judge threw the case out, no one works on the first Saturday in May in Kentucky.
Now I sometimes falter when describing the revelry of my hometown during the first week of May, wanting to treat the listener to tales of the magical nature of the city in the Spring, but not wanting to give the tourism bureau’s perfect description of my hometown. Afterall, the Derby hides lots of secrets for Louisville that they do not want exposed during the Run for the Roses (3). So when it is brought up I’ll make small talk about horses, explain how I learned how to bet an exacta box from a “math” demonstration using M&Ms on a class field trip to the Derby Museum in the third grade and then let them draw their own conclusions about what that says about my home state.
(1) Louisville, as their Chamber of Commerce likes to tout, is a day’s drive from 50% of the United States. This central location is why UPS has its headquarters there. This also makes the Derby an easy trip for the binge drinking college students of the South, Midwest and Eastern seaboard.
(2) The mint julep is an abomination of a drink, particularly when served at Churchill Downs, the home of the Derby. 120,000 of the drinks are served on Derby Day in commemorative glasses that list every prior Derby winner (a common collection in many Kentucky homes). The glasses are arranged on large silver trays and then a bartender pours bottom shelf bourbon over ice, sloshes it with sugar syrup and sticks a prig of mint in it to sell for about $15. More expensive versions are also made at the track including one sold for $1000 that comes in a gold cup and contains much fancier bourbon, it’s unclear if the higher price tag improves on the cloying sweetness of the $15 version.
(3) The treatment of horses of course is a well documented problem, with animal rights organizations frequently targeting the track. This was most dramatically highlighted during the 2008 Derby when Eight Belles, a filly who came in second had to be put down on the track after suffering compound fractures to both of her front ankles.
But, there is also the well hidden from the cameras reality that much of Churchill Downs runs on the labor of poorly paid and often undocumented Latinx workers, about 1000 of whom work around the track, taking care of the horses and grounds. During the past three Derby seasons activists for racial justice have used the revelry of the week to highlight the ongoing uprising against the Louisville police and government over the Breonna Taylor case, using the chant “No Justice, No Derby” to focus the world’s attention on the police murder of Taylor, if only for the fastest two minutes in sports.
The second response (and this one typically only happens if you’re in the United States, people in other countries don’t usually have this specific bias), is they’ll ask you if you wear shoes. This is of course a cover to ask you if you grew up poor or if you’re a hillbilly, if you use the word y’all in common conversation, and since 2016 to ask if you voted for Trump (4). When I was younger I used to react to this query with the indignant answer that I was from Louisville, it is the 17th largest city in the United States (5), voted for Democrats and wore shoes every day of course.
Now, I recognize this response for what it is, a way to make people feel embarrassed about being Southern, about being poor, about being from a state they think of as backwards. I now refuse to sell out my Appalachian (6) and Western Kentucky kinfolk to all y’all by distinguishing myself from them. I now struggle to vote for Democrats, their neglect of the state seems almost as sharp as the GOP’s malice. Now I’ll admit that there is just about nowhere I’d rather be than outside barefoot in Kentucky bluegrass (7) on a hot day.
(4) As to the Trump question, ⅗ of Kentuckians didn’t vote in 2016, some due to not being qualified because of age, criminal status or immigration status, some due to various voter suppression tactics and some due to the betrayal of poor Kentuckians for decades by both political parties creating a general sense of apathy. Of the other ⅖ of Kentuckians who did vote 62% of them voted for Trump.
(5) If you look at the city of Louisville only, it is actually the 27th largest city in the United States, however if you calculate the size of the city by looking at the metropolitan area (and you generously grant Louisville parts of Southern Indiana) then it does come in 17th, depending who is counting.
(6) The correct pronunciation for Appalachia is “App-a-latch-a” not, “App-a-lay-cha”. Mike Ivey in the essay A Rose by Any Other Name is a Damned Briar published in the journal Appalachian Heritage Review in 1986 wrote “[W]hen outsiders referred to the region, it was always AppaLAYcha. I kept hearing and reading about the poverty, filth, and disease in AppaLAYcha, and how those people were just too dumb or too lazy to do anything about it. It was a long time before I realized they were talking about me. It was a much longer time — years, in fact — before I realized they were not talking about me. What I finally came to understand is that AppaLAYcha does not exist. At least, it doesn’t exist in the real world. The AppaLATCHans exist; even AppaLATCHa exists. But AppaLAYcha is a fiction. It is an idea created by politicians and reporters.”
(7) Despite being the nickname for the state and found grown throughout it, Kentucky Bluegrass, or poa pratensis is not actually from Kentucky and instead is a native grass to Europe, North Asia and the mountains of Algeria and Morocco. Prior to colonization the grass in the area that is now Kentucky was more likely to be from the clover family.
Bluegrass music on the other hand can be tied more directly to the state, with the name coming from Rosine, Kentucky native Bill Monroe and his band, the Bluegrass Boys. While the name may be Kentuckian, the sound is more generally from all of Appalachia and has its roots in the folk ballads brought by English and Scottish immigrants and the contribution of African residents who provided the quintessential bluegrass instrument, the banjo.
The third response when you say you’re from Kentucky, and definitely the most common, is just an exclamation followed by three words. “Ah, Kentucky Fried Chicken”. Ah yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken. First, and I think this is important to explain here up front, Kentucky Fried Chicken no longer exists. I mean yes, there are of course Kentuckians who fry chicken in the Commonwealth (8), so it exists in that manner, but the entity “Kentucky Fried Chicken” hasn’t existed since 1991. That’s right, for over 30 years there has been no Kentucky Fried Chicken, the restaurant chain has been called KFC, just KFC. The name change was not made to distance the restaurant from Kentucky, but from Fried, it being the peak of the diet culture of the 1980s and 90s when it was rechristened.
But the restaurant will forever be tied to Kentucky, no matter what they call it, and the restaurant is everywhere. There are 18,875 KFC outlets located in 118 countries. Mainland China has over 5000 outlets and serves a variety of regional items like tree fungus salad and rice congee. Japan, which has over 1200 outlets, has embraced KFC and it is considered the place to go on Christmas Eve for dinner, possibly due to Colonel Sanders’ (we’ll get to him later) resemblance to Santa Claus (9). KFC recently just opened its first restaurant in Finland in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis and still there were two hour lines to enter on its first day.
(8) Kentucky, along with Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Virginia, is one of four US states that are technically not states but are commonwealths. What does this mean? Nothing practically speaking, they’re exactly the same as states, but if you want to be pedantic (and who doesn’t from time to time) you can point this out.
(9) In fact a common saying in Japan, based on KFC marketing is ケンタッキーはクリスマス！or Kentucky is Christmas!
I’ve only visited a KFC in my current city of Berlin one time, in a moment of desperation near Alexanderplatz when my daughter was melting down on a walk home after buying new shoes. The shopping trip had taken longer than expected and we were returning far after the time she usually had her afternoon snack, a precarious situation where any parent starts to look for anything in their immediate vicinity for help. As her hands were pulling at my dress and tears ran down her flushed round cheeks, I looked up and saw the familiar spectacles, the Van Dyke beard and strange ribbon tie of the Colonel and thought, “She will eat chicken nuggets” and turned inside. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been in a KFC when I entered, because here’s the thing, Kentuckians don’t really eat there, I mean sure sometimes we do, but not in numbers indicative of some kind of home state pride (10).
I’ve tried to research this, and as you can imagine KFC isn’t particularly open with information but here is what I’ve learned. There are 106 KFCs located in the state of Kentucky, about one for every 42,150 residents, barely less per capita than neighboring West Virginia which has one for every 44,800 residents. But perhaps most telling of Kentucky’s neutral, and perhaps even hostile attitude to their defining restaurant is that in a survey of the best fried chicken chain restaurants in Kentucky, KFC came in fourth, behind Bojangles, Zaxby’s and Chick-Fil-A. This is also reflected in the sales numbers for KFC, which does not crack the top five in fast food sales in Kentucky, while Chick-Fil-A sits at number three.
Not only is KFC not a particularly popular restaurant in the Commonwealth, fried chicken itself is not really one of Kentucky’s specialties. Recently I saw a graphic being passed around, one of those which purports to list the top foods in every state and under Kentucky there was listed fried chicken. I immediately rolled my eyes, because it’s just not. Fried chicken is a Southern food for sure, a dish that combined Scottish frying techniques and West African spices that was first prepared by enslaved Africans and gained popularity throughout the South because it traveled well in hot weather and chicken was an inexpensive and accessible protein (11). The further South I’ve traveled in the US the better fried chicken I’ve had, with notable standouts being Nashville Hot Chicken and a drumstick serving from a gas station in rural Georgia that was so good I wrote the number of the exit on a MapQuest printout so that I could return on my way home.
(10) I’m not sure if I felt home state pride when at the KFC in Berlin, more like home state indignation when I realized that my favorite KFC item, a flaky biscuit, was not on the menu and instead was replaced with a Brötchen.
(11) Fried chicken was in particular a staple in Black communities in the South due to this portability when during Jim Crow many restaurants were closed to Black families so that it was necessary to pack picnics for any long trip. This connection to Black communities has led to many harmful stereotypes around the food, however the dish has been reclaimed as a unique and important part of both Soul Food and American cuisine in general.
But is it a Kentucky dish? No more than any other Southern dish is. Certainly there are Kentuckians who can cook a good fried chicken, myself included, although it’s not a dish I prepare particularly often. It’s not super hard to make (requiring just chicken, a buttermilk brine, flour, seasoning, an egg or other binder and lots and lots of hot oil), but it can be difficult to perfect, a good piece requiring both proper seasoning and cooking until it is crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside.
I have childhood memories of eating both of my grandmothers’ fried chicken recipes, I remember sitting at their respective formica tables and wiping my greasy fingers on folded paper napkins (my mother who raised four kids during the same calorie conscious era that caused KFC to remove Fried from the name, I don’t recall ever making the dish). But my Nana, whose family was from near Lebanon, Kentucky (12) was way more likely to make liver and onions than fried chicken. My Grandma, who raised my dad in Buechel (13) on a small chicken farm, made the dish more often. But her sweet dishes, like pie from apples she picked from the tree just outside her back porch are what I long for, much more than her fried chicken.
Kentucky, unlike many states, does not have an official state food, we have an official state fruit the blackberry, and an official state drink, milk (14). However there are many dishes that are discussed as being Kentucky originals. Burgoo, a stew that is similar to Irish or Mulligan stew is often pointed to as being a quintessentially Kentuckian dish but it is served in many places throughout Appalachia (15). The Hot Brown sandwich is also mentioned on many lists of Kentucky cuisine, although it’s a complex dish to make and not one many Kentuckians have even had (16). Derby Pie™ is another oft cited dish, but it is rarely seen outside of Derby season (17).
(12) Perhaps the food most commonly associated with Lebanon is cornbread because the small town was the epicenter of the Cornbread Mafia, a Catholic organized crime syndicate that under the leadership of Johnny Boone, “The Godfather of Grass” (and a distant relative, a fact I’m sure my Nana would be horrified I am publicly disclosing) ran one of the largest marijuana growing operations in the US in the 1980s.
(13) Buechel was an independent city when my dad was born in 1950, however since 2003 when the city of Louisville and Jefferson County merged it is more considered a neighborhood of Louisville. It is a little difficult to imagine chicken farms existing there now as much of its local character has been replaced with the traditional American suburb (albeit slightly more working class) look of strip malls and car dealerships.
(14) I don’t know what kind of magic the milk lobby used to gain this designation when any Kentuckian would immediately guess bourbon when asked about the state drink. Although contrary to legend, bourbon can be distilled outside of Kentucky, 95% of the world’s bourbon is made within its borders. This has to do with the limestone filtered water, wide temperature swings with often very hot summers and very cold winters and the ease of growing corn, bourbon’s main ingredient.
An affectation I have in every bar outside the Bluegrass state is to immediately bemoan their lack of bourbon choices before settling for the ubiquitous Makers Mark.
(15) Burgoo, which has no set ingredients and instead is a mixture of whatever meat and vegetables happened to be available, combined with a thickening agent such as cornmeal or ground beans to make a hearty stew is served throughout the state. Its adaptability and the fact that it was often served in large batches at social gatherings made it a good dish in a state where 16.6% of the people live below the National poverty line and depend on cheap ingredients and community to survive.
(16) The open faced sandwich, named for the Brown Hotel where it was first made in 1926, is a combination of roasted turkey, bacon, toast, tomato and a gooey Mornay sauce and is like a more decadent version of a Welsh rarebit. The Brown Hotel was also the site of many scenes from the 2005 Cameron Crowe film, Elizabethtown, a movie that infuriates Kentuckians by continually showing incorrect driving directions, including infamously showing Frankfort, the capital in Central Kentucky, on the same route as a path to E-Town (the local nicknames for Elizabethtown, somehow not used once during the film), a town located in a completely different direction.
(17) A Derby Pie is typically topped with walnuts and the filling contains an immense amount of sugar (both granulated and corn syrup are called for in most recipes), chocolate and bourbon. The name Derby Pie is owned by the incredibly litigious Kern’s Kitchen who fiercely protects their trademark, suing over 25 times for infringement. This has led to many local restaurants carrying dishes such as “Kentucky Pie,” “Pegasus Pie” and the very wordy “First Saturday in May Pie.” Kern’s Kitchen ships out their signature pie around the country and you can buy it frozen in most Louisville grocery stores. Kern’s official frozen pies however have been described as having a sawdust like crust and skimping on filling, so many Kentuckians simply make their own version.
There are other foods that are listed as Kentucky specific (Benedictine (18), bourbon balls (19), Modjeskas (20) and Owensboro style barbecue (21) come to mind) but honestly none of these strike me as particularly iconic. Kentucky’s food is a mixture of foods from many other places and foods that are only known in tiny little pockets of the Bluegrass where few have ventured. This is not to say that Kentucky doesn’t have a food culture, far from it, in fact an entire season of the Bravo show Top Chef was filmed in and around the state highlighting the eclectic and interesting restaurants in the Bluegrass.
This season was filmed the year after I left Kentucky to move to Berlin and I’ve never watched it. My Facebook feed was full of my friends spotting host Padma Lakshmi or pointing out how they were in the background of some scene and I would scroll as fast as I could by them, feeling like the entire state went to a party that I found out about the next day. I’ve pulled the episodes up on my laptop to watch, but every location I recognize feels like learning some new detail (a new job, a move, the birth of a child) about an old lover, that pang you get when realizing someone who’s life used to be hopelessly tangled with your own is now living an entirely new life that you have nothing to do with.
Top Chef heavily featured multiple James Beard award winning Chef Edward Lee, a Brooklyn transplant who has said he moved to Kentucky after being inspired by the food during a trip to the Kentucky Derby in 2001, although my suspicion is he met his wife, a Kentuckian who did not want to leave, the traditional way most newcomers to the state end up staying. Lee’s combination of his family’s Korean food traditions with the food traditions of the American South have significantly raised Kentucky’s food profile on the national scene. His “Dirty Fried Chicken” recipe which relies on Gochujang sauce and his “Adobo Fried Chicken and Waffles” are amazing modern Kentucky takes on the classic dish.
(18) Benedictine is a sandwich spread developed in the beginning of the 20th Century by Louisville caterer Jennie Carter Benedict and is made of cucumbers and cream cheese and typically dyed a garish bright green. In 1905 Benedict wrote The Blue Ribbon Cookbook (which contains her Benedictine recipe), a staple of Southern food writing which is still in print today, being rereleased as recently as 2022. Personally, I suggest choosing pimento cheese when picking from Southern sandwich spreads.
(19) Developed in 1936 by Ruth Hanly Booe in Frankfort, bourbon balls are usually made by soaking pecans or walnuts in bourbon, grinding them into a paste to roll into a ball and then coating it with melted chocolate. Booe had faced a series of bad luck prior to developing the candies, including being widowed with a young son and her candy business, Rebecca-Ruth Candies, burning to the ground in 1933. But bourbon balls were a huge success and helped her grow her still existing candy business even in the midst of the Great Depression.
(20) Modjeskas are a caramel coated marshmallow confection, sold at some small candy stores and developed in Louisville in the 1880s. The candy was named after Polish actress Helena Modjeska, who was in town debuting the first American run of Ibsen’s A Doll House. Modjeska inspired this sweet candy that I purchase every time I return to Louisville, the name of a popular Pullman car and Susan Sontag’s novel In America, quite a legacy.
(21) Owensboro’s barbecue style has been declared “the best in the world,” but I’m sure those are fighting words to people from Texas, Kansas City, Memphis or the Carolinas (not to mention the many non-American barbecue purveyors). Owensboro style focuses around mutton and after smoking the meat over Hickory coals for hours it is served with a Worcestershire and vinegar based sauce.
But since no one has ever asked me the question, “Kentucky? Have you ever been to (Lee’s flagship restaurant) 610 Magnolia?” I am stuck with the Colonel as the main ambassador for my state, no matter how I may feel about it. The Colonel is Colonel Harland Sanders, who despite this almost too folksy name, was a real person (it’s okay if you didn’t know that according to a survey done in 2010 more than half of American adults believe he is a fictional character). Sanders, was born in Henryville, Indiana (22), not Kentucky, on September 9, 1890.
He had by all accounts a rough childhood, his father died when he was five and he dropped out of school in the seventh grade. His mother was particularly hard on the young Sanders. He recounted in his 1966 autobiography that when he lost his first farm job at the age of 10, his mother berated him. “Your father’s dead and you’re the only one I can look to for help with the other children. And you’re no account. You can’t even hold a job at two dollars a month,” she raged at him. He credited this interaction with his lifetime hard work ethic, although it certainly did not stop him from losing jobs, something he did with regularity most of his adult life. In addition to childhood trauma, his mother also gave him a love for cooking, teaching him a variety of dishes; turnip greens (cooked with a ham hock), fried parsnips, hominy, red eye gravy, biscuits and of course fried chicken.
(22) I am refraining from writing Indiana slander in this essay, but finding out that the Colonel was a Hoosier did make me shake my head back and forth a few times.
However Sanders did not initially go into the restaurant business. Instead Sanders worked various farm and manufacturing jobs throughout Indiana and did a brief stint in the US Army (he never reached the rank of Colonel) where he was stationed in Cuba. He then worked for railroad companies, first in Alabama (where he met and married his first wife Josephine, with whom he would have three children) and then later Arkansas. In Arkansas Sanders enrolled in law school and for a brief time practiced law in Little Rock. However his legal career was cut short after a dramatic in-court brawl with his own client (23). This fight ended with him being charged with battery and made it impossible for him to continue to practice law, something Sanders does not mention in his autobiography, instead simply stating that he no longer wanted to be a lawyer.
(23) According to the biography of Sanders Colonel Sanders and the American Dream by Josh Ozersky Sanders was inspired to go to law school when he realized after a train accident that he could make money by being the first lawyer to sign up victims “depending by how much blood is on them.” I was inspired to go to law school almost a century later, but my goals were perhaps a little more altruistic. Nonetheless, I suffered a similar fate to Sanders, an early exit from practicing law, albeit under much less dramatic circumstances.
After the disgraceful exit from Arkansas, Sanders returned to Indiana and then floated back and forth across the Kentucky/ Indiana border doing a series of jobs including at one point working for the Michelin tire company where he frequently dressed as another iconic brand mascot, the tire clad Michelin Man at county fairs and other events. However he gained perhaps his biggest success operating a ferry boat company that moved people from Louisville to Jeffersonville, Indiana. But, never to stay doing one thing for too long, Sanders cashed out his money from that venture and invested it in an unsuccessful company that made lamps.
At the age of 40, Sanders was offered the operation of a gas station by the Shell Corporation in Corbin, Kentucky (24), Sanders accepted but wasn’t satisfied with the money that running a gas station brought in and tried to raise cash in other ways, including according to his autobiography, delivering babies (a task I cannot find that he had any specific training in) (25). In addition to this ad hoc midwifery, Sanders also began to sell meals, hoping to attract truckers to his location. His early menus were based on what he was feeding to his family. Sanders wrote “A typical meal I served then would include whatever the meat or entrée was that day. Then maybe I’d add creamed butter beans and possibly spinach, collard or turnip greens.” However, fried chicken was rarely on the menu because of the length of time that it took to properly cook, with most Southern chefs eschewing the deep fryer because of its less superior flavor and instead frying it in a cast iron skillet. This preparation took both time and a watchful eye from a chef and also prevented many pieces from being prepared at once due to the size of the skillet.
The restaurant part of his business was not the most pressing concern of Sanders in the early days, instead he was involved in a feud with another gas station owner, Matt Stewart. The two men engaged in what turned out to be a bloody battle over the signs directing people to their respective locales, each painting over the others. On May 7, 1931 upon hearing Stewart was once again painting over his sign, Sanders and two officials from the Shell Corporation jumped into their car and sped to the scene where they found Stewart on a ladder. All four men were armed. While it is unclear who fired the first shot, at the end of the altercation, one of the Shell officials was dead and Stewart had two bullet holes in his shoulder courtesy of Sanders. Stewart was put on trial for murder, convicted and given an 18 year sentence (26). Sanders does not mention any of this bloodshed in his autobiography, even though he does devote five paragraphs to other information about the advertising and signs for his first restaurant.
The shootout may have been a grizzly start but it had the consequence of eliminating Sanders’ competition and allowed him to continue expanding his business, including adding a small dining area at the side of the station. This attached restaurant, named Sanders Court and Cafe, quickly stopped being a side business to the gas station and became its main attraction. Within a few years of operation Sanders had bought an adjoining plot and opened a stand alone restaurant and motel. Sanders also developed a pressure frying method for fried chicken which maintained the taste of a pan fried chicken but had the speed of the deep frying method. This made it possible for Sanders to quickly provide chicken to busy tourists and his restaurant became a popular spot to stop for people traveling through the Cumberland Gap.
(24) Corbin, Kentucky is located in Southeastern Kentucky and is near the Cumberland Gap, a valley through the Appalachian mountains that made it possible for hundreds of thousands of European settlers to move into the “western frontier” as Kentucky was thought of at that time. The city is the home of the Cumberland Falls State Park which is one of the only places in the world where you can see a moonbow, a rainbow caused by moonlight instead of sunlight. The beauty of this phenomenon clashes with the history of Corbin which on October 19, 1919 forced all Black residents of the town onto cramped railcars, forcibly evicting them from their homes and declaring themselves a white town.
(25) While it is possible that this is a tall tale from Sanders, obstetric care in Southeastern Kentucky in the 1930s was abysmal. In 1931 Mary Breckenridge, a public health nurse and granddaughter of American vice president John C. Breckenridge was horrified by the preventable deaths she saw of mothers in her community and started the Frontier Nursing Service (FNS) in Leslie County, Kentucky (About 60 miles away from Sanders’s gas station). FNS provided “nurses on horseback” who traveled throughout the mountains delivering babies and updating local “granny midwives” on modern medical practices.
Maternal care in Kentucky still lags behind the rest of the nation. In 2022, Kentucky’s maternal mortality rate was 40.8 deaths for every 100,000 live births, significantly above the nation’s average of 17.4, 46% of these deaths were related to substance abuse. This maternal mortality rate is expected to climb after Kentucky became one of the states where providing abortion care became illegal after the repeal of Roe v. Wade in June of 2022.
(26) The local sheriff initially arrested all of the still living men, but in the end charges were dropped against Sanders and the other Shell official. It’s impossible to know why charges were not pursued against the other men, but the Shell company’s influence on local magistrates is highly suspected. Kentucky has a long history of corruption among state and local officials and still sits as the most corrupt state according to the Harvard University Center for Ethics.
Also, Stewart did not live to start his 18 year sentence, instead being killed by a deputy sheriff in a shootout while he was on bail pursuing an appeal of his conviction. There were rumors that the sheriff was paid to shoot Stewart at the behest of the victim’s family, but these were not proven. Police violence is still present throughout the Commonwealth with many Kentuckians being killed by the police in suspicious circumstances over the almost 100 years since Stewart’s death and while I was working on this essay the Department of Justice released a scathing report regarding the practices of the Louisville Metro Police Department, which included several police murders.
Also during this time Sanders developed his unique 11 spice blend, the so-called “Original Recipe.” The recipe remains a closely guarded secret at KFC where it is stored in a vault at their Louisville headquarters and two spice companies are tasked with making the blend, each company only making half of the recipe before they are combined so as to maintain secrecy. Numerous attempts have been made to ascertain the contents of the secret recipe, including a scientific investigation in the 1980s that claimed the only spices it had were salt, MSG and black pepper. However the most likely formulation of the blend was exposed in 2016 when Sanders’ nephew released a hand written recipe that he claimed was directly from Sanders. It lists the ingredients as salt, thyme, basil, oregano, celery salt, black pepper, dry mustard, paprika, garlic salt, ginger and white pepper.
With his signature recipe and cooking technique perfected, Sanders’ restaurant became more and more popular. By 1935 Sanders, who never met a person he wouldn’t try to charm, had become the head of the Kentucky Restaurant Association. But perhaps the most credit for the success of his restaurant can be given to fellow Kentuckian and brand icon himself, Duncan Hines (27), who in his 1939 book Adventures in Good Eating listed it as a “very good place to stop.” It was while he was operating this restaurant that he first was given the title of Colonel by Kentucky Governor Ruby Lafoon.
How can a governor bestow a military rank you may be asking yourself, well it’s a good question. While there is some dispute as to when the Kentucky governor started granting the title of Colonel to Kentuckians (it may have began when the Kentucky militia was decommissioned in 1813), by the mid nineteenth century the title was being granted to many Kentucky civilians, usually those who held positions of prominence. In 1890 Opie Reed (who is most well known for originating the phrase “there is a sucker born every minute”), wrote the book Kentucky Colonel which is responsible for introducing the public perception of the Kentucky Colonel as a refined, genteel, Southern gentleman.
The title of Kentucky Colonel is now thought of as a goodwill ambassador for the state of Kentucky (28). However the process for becoming a Colonel has significantly loosened up (29), and for decades almost anyone nominated to become a Colonel was accepted. In fact the process was so loose that in 1980, Louisville Courier Journal columnist Tom Loftus managed to get the governor to commission a dog named Waldo as a Colonel (although he was later decommissioned when the fact became public). Being a Kentuckian is not even a requirement for the title, as it is often given to famous visitors to the state, much like one would hand out a key to the city (30).
I am also a Kentucky Colonel, being nominated somewhat unceremoniously in the early 2000s by a former law clerk. I didn’t have any particular bonafides for this nomination, mainly just enthusiasm that I knew someone who could nominate me. Who wouldn’t want the ultimate Kentucky bragging title? While I’m not sure I have been a goodwill ambassador for the state, I have included the title on my Twitter profile, next to “curly hair enthusiast.”
(27) Duncan Hines was born in Bowling Green, Kentucky and went to my alma mater Western Kentucky University. Hines is now most associated with the popular cake mix brand, however contrary to popular belief, he was not a baker and instead was a restaurant critic. His reviews and guides were so popular that he was able to license his name to a small company to start selling a variety of food products. The Kentucky Museum in Bowling Green, where I worked for a few years in college, contained a small exhibit about Hines that included, as I loved to point out to anyone who visited, his barely used stove.
(28) While the Kentucky Colonel may be the most well known of state honorary titles that mimic military titles, it is far from the only one. Tennessee, New Mexico and Georgia will also bestow the title of Colonel upon you. Rhode Island will name you a Commodore. Texas and Nebraska names some citizens Admiral (Nebraska’s designation being somewhat tongue-in-cheek considering the state’s landlocked position).
(29) In 2016 former Kentucky governor Matt Bevin received criticism for closing the Colonel process during his time in office. Andy Beshear, the current governor of Kentucky, reopened the Colonel process in 2020, creating a website where anyone could be nominated (eliminating the need for another Colonel to sponsor you first). While it is unlikely that the Colonel process was the reason why Matt Bevin lost (he had one of the lowest approval ratings of any governor in the nation) it’s possible that a few of the only 5,189 votes he lost by were from disgruntled wannabe Colonels.
(30) Betty White, Bob Hope, Elvis Presley, Pope John Paul II and Winston Churchill all hold the title.
Sanders didn’t initially seem to share my enthusiasm about receiving the Colonel title, in fact he even lost his original certificate, and had to be recommissioned in 1949. After his initial success in Corbin, Sanders opened and closed a variety of restaurants through the late 1930s and 40s, citing the lack of tourists due to World War II and some entanglements with the IRS as a reason for his various failures. Sanders pitched in with the war effort during this time, moving to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to run a public cafeteria for people working on the Manhattan Project (yes that’s right, Sanders fed the people building the atom bomb). He then briefly moved to Seattle before returning to his still open Corbin restaurant in the late 1940s.
Sanders also earned a reputation as a ladies man (or at least a man who liked ladies) during these years, a reputation he had until the end of his life (with a former employee recounting that Sanders in his late 70s showed him his Rolls Royce and told him it was a real “Pussy Wagon”). His mistress Claudia Ledington Price ran his Corbin restaurant for much of his absence, tensions around this relationship led to his divorce from Josephine in 1950. Sanders’ own daughter, Margaret wrote in her 1996 autobiography that “Mother refused to accept that she alone could not satisfy Father’s physical needs, which from the very beginning of their marriage had seemed excessive to her. Father nevertheless had a libido which required a healthy, willing partner.” Sanders married Claudia soon after the divorce, although the relationship was never monogamous, at least on Sanders’ side.
Around the time of his return to Corbin, his new marriage and being recommissioned as a Colonel, Sanders also began to don his iconic white suit (perhaps choosing the color because it hid the flour that was often on him) and black string tie, which was made out of a grosgrain ribbon, a look that was a hundred years out of style even in rural 1950s Kentucky. After this wardrobe change and Sanders’ new insistence that people address him by his honorary Colonel title, Harland Sanders the man had become Colonel Sanders, the brand. Unknowingly at the time he had also developed his adopted state’s most recognizable icon (31), the one person everyone knows is from Kentucky (even if he is not).
Around this time Sanders began to think beyond just his Corbin restaurant, franchising the concept first to Salt Lake City restaurateur Pete Harman in 1952. Harman is perhaps as important as Sanders himself in the development of Kentucky Fried Chicken as a brand. He began to sell the chicken in the iconic red and white buckets and contributed the famous slogan, “It’s Finger Licking Good!” (uttering the phrase after a commercial he filmed elicited an angry call to the TV station from a woman criticizing him for licking his fingers). However it was Don Anderson, a Salt Lake City sign painter hired by Harman, who attached the brand indelibly to my home state, naming the new restaurant, Kentucky Fried Chicken. Harman enthusiastically approved of this label thinking that it gave the restaurant the exotic feel of Southern hospitality (32) that differentiated it from other restaurants in Utah.
(31) While Sanders may be the person most likely to be attached to my home state he is arguably not the most famous Kentuckian of all time. That title would go to Muhammad Ali, the self proclaimed “most famous man alive.” While at the time he made this statement it may have been hyperbole, Ali’s persistent presence on the international stage as both an athlete and an activist landed him on many lists for the most influential figures of the 20th Century.
Kentucky, and particularly Louisville, now enthusiastically celebrates their hometown hero, a prominent museum and multicultural center dedicated to Ali is considered one of the jewels of Louisville’s waterfront. Ali’s 2016 funeral was one of the largest events in the city in decades with thousands turning out to wave at the Champ’s hearse as it drove along the streets of Louisville. I stood with my parents and daughter that day at the entrance to Cave Hill Cemetery (also the resting place of Colonel Sanders) where the street in front had been covered in a blanket of rose petals, as the Louisville Lip made his final appearance in the city.
But this kind of adulation was not always present for Ali in Kentucky. Ali wrote that after the 1960 Olympic games he returned to Louisville and threw his gold medal off of the Jefferson Bridge over the treatment he received in the city due to the Jim Crow system (while this story may have been one of Ali’s trademark tall tales, there is no doubt that Ali’s return to Louisville was marred by racism).
(32) Southern hospitality is tied to romanticized ideas of the Antebellum South. Kentucky, while a border state in the Civil War (maintaining a neutral stance) was a slave state with 19.5% of the state’s population being enslaved people. The term “sold down the river” comes from the Louisville slave market where people would be separated from their families and put on boats to go down the Ohio River to plantations in the Deep South. This brutal reality of Antebellum Kentucky is far from the “hospitality” that is often associated with the planter class (Southern aristocracy) of the time.
Sanders, who was now in his sixties, traveled the country selling the rights to his recipe, method and likeness in return for four cents on every chicken sold. This franchise concept was highly successful and by 1959 Sanders had closed his Corbin restaurant and opened a headquarters in Shelbyville (33). He later moved the headquarters to Louisville, constructing a building that he dubbed the White House due to its resemblance to the president’s home in Washington D.C.. Sanders was known for many things, but humility was not one of them.
In 1962, future brand icon himself, Dave Thomas, who would go on to found the Wendy’s fast food chain, worked with Sanders on improving several struggling franchises, paring the menu down and installing a large red and white revolving bucket outside every store, a staple of the restaurants’ marketing for decades. By 1964 there were over 600 locations and the brand began to expand internationally, eventually becoming the second most recognizable fast food brand in the world, only trailing the behemoth McDonalds (which is why many people throughout the world who could maybe only name New York, California or Texas as American states have also heard of the 26th most populous one).
1964 was also the year that Sanders decided to sell the business for 2 million dollars (around 19.5 million dollars adjusted for inflation to 2023) to a group of investors led by his friend John Y. Brown Jr.. The terms of the sale guaranteed a lifelong salary for Sanders in exchange for being a brand ambassador. Sanders also maintained the title of head of quality control and remained an important presence in Kentucky Fried Chicken’s headquarters, where he also remained on the board of directors. In a piece in The New Yorker in 1970 William Whitworth wrote of Sanders outsized presence at the company, “[T]hough he has relinquished control of the company, the Colonel retains considerable moral authority with K.F.C. executives and franchisees, all of whom revere him as a food genius, love him for inventing a product that has made them rich, and fear his terrible wrath.”
Brown is credited with much of the chain’s expansion, making it a multi-million dollar company with over 3000 restaurants in 48 countries. Brown sold his interest in the company in 1971 to the Connecticut based Hueblin Inc. for 284 million dollars (over 2 billion dollars adjusted for inflation to 2023). Brown parlayed his success at Kentucky Fried Chicken into a successful run for Kentucky governor. In 1979 he interrupted his honeymoon with former Miss America Phyliss George (a Miss Texas for the record) to announce his candidacy, a move that surprised his competitors and other political insiders because he had never before shown any interest in Kentucky politics. Brown’s disinterest continued when he was in the office, spending more than 500 days of his four year term outside of the state (34).
(33) Shelbyville is a small agricultural town located about 31 miles east of Louisville and is often referred to as the American Saddlebred Capital of the World due to the over 80 saddlebred horse farms located there. Saddlebreds are an American horse breed that, unlike their Thoroughbred cousins, do not race but rather are primarily used as show horses. Many idyllic pictures of Kentucky contain these horses grazing on bluegrass next to white picket fences.
It’s also the birthplace of rapper Jack Harlow, who later moved to Louisville, attending both my middle and high school (many years after I left). But despite the success of his 2020 single “Whats Poppin” and his collaboration with Lil Nas X on “Industry Baby,” I am not sure if the Shelbyville Tourism Board want to replace the horses on their website with Harlow’s face just yet.
(34) Brown’s lieutenant governor, Martha Layne Collins led the state during his absence and later won the governorship in her own right. Collins was only the 8th woman elected governor in the United States and at the time of her election in 1983 she was the highest ranking Democratic woman in the US. She was considered for the 1984 vice presidential ticket with Walter Mondale, eventually being passed over for Geraldine Ferraro.
Collins’ legacy was tarnished when in 1993 her husband was convicted of pressuring many businesses to invest their money with him with the perception that they would have an advantage of bidding for state contracts that Collins would oversee. This scandal was one of a seemingly endless series of political scandals in Kentucky in the 1990s, including Operation Boptrot which led to the conviction of nineteen Kentucky legislators. Even the most respected Kentucky politicians are never too far away from a scandal.
Hueblin’s ownership of the chain was successful, although often strained by the still looming presence of the Colonel, who was in his eighties. Sanders, who had maintained ownership of the Canadian franchises of Kentucky Fried Chicken and was living mostly in Mississauga, Ontario (although maintaining a home in Shelbyville), was not quiet about the quality of the US franchise and the use of his image. He was particularly critical of Hueblin executives whom he referred to as a “bunch of booze hounds”. Sanders publicly criticized the new gravy, a cheaper, easier to produce and (according to Sanders) much less tasty version of his recipe, frequently calling it “goddamned slop.” Sanders also helped his wife Claudia open a restaurant in Shelbyville named “Claudia Sanders, the Colonel’s Lady” which claimed it sold the original Kentucky Fried Chicken recipe.
These actions caused a slew of suits and countersuits between Hueblin Inc. and Sanders, that were finally all resolved via settlement in 1975 with a one million dollar payment to Sanders and an agreement to continue to pay him an annual salary to be the brand’s spokesperson. Claudia was also allowed to continue operating her restaurant, and using the “Original Recipe,” albeit with the changed name “Claudia Sanders’ Dinner House.” The restaurant remains open to this day (although is currently for sale for 4.9 million dollars) and is the only place outside of a KFC where you can purchase an authorized version of the Colonel’s original recipe. Sanders told the New York Times at the time of the settlement that he was happiest that Hueblin executives agreed to attend a cooking lesson led by him at the corporate headquarters.
Sanders mainly stayed on the company’s good side after this settlement, however he was sued in 1978 by a franchise owner in Bowling Green (35) for libel after complaining once again about the gravy, telling the Courier Journal among other things “My God, that gravy is horrible. They buy tap water for 15 to 20 cents a thousand gallons and then they mix it with flour and starch and end up with pure wallpaper paste. And I know wallpaper paste, by God, because I’ve seen my mother make it.” The case was dismissed.
(35) Bowling Green, located in the south-central area of the state, is the third largest city in Kentucky. The iconic American car, the Corvette is manufactured there. The city also is home to the National Corvette Museum, which in my opinion resembles a large chicken beak when viewed out your window while driving south on I-65. On February 12, 2014 the museum suddenly developed a sinkhole under one of its exhibits (sinkholes are not uncommon in this area of the state due to the numerous cave systems). The sinkholes ate eight one-of-a-kind Corvettes that were on display, an estimated loss of over a million dollars.
However the museum refused to be defeated by its geography and reopened the next day, eventually turning the sinkhole into an exhibit and allowing visitors to virtually rescue the swallowed Corvettes. A true testimony to the Kentucky spirit of making something out of a disaster if I ever saw one.
On September 8, 1979 (the day before his actual birthday) the city of Louisville threw Sanders an 89th birthday party with an epic schedule of events including a demonstration of traditional Kentucky crafts, a look back at the “Gay Nineties” (1890s) when Sanders was born, the reveal of a statue of Sanders, mimes, clowns, square dancing, more than a dozen musical acts, including performances by the Stephen Foster Singers (36) and country superstar Barbara Mandrell. About 35,000 people attended the party and it was listed for several years as the world’s largest birthday party by the Guinness Book of World Records.
While I have very few memories of Kentucky Fried Chicken from my childhood (a passing memory of red and white buckets on a picnic table for a family reunion, a classmate who dressed as the Colonel for Halloween), I had always told people I had attended this party as a baby, something I remember being told to me by my Grandma. I was under the impression that it was his 90th birthday party, taking place just a few months before he died in 1980 (90 also seeming like a much more likely age for a large blowout than 89). But when researching this essay I realized I couldn’t have possibly attended this 89th birthday party because I would not be born until six days later. I now wonder if my memory or my Grandma’s conjured up this attendance, maybe trying to find for me some attachment to the state’s most well known icon.
After Sanders death in 1980 from a short battle with acute leukemia, his body laid in the rotunda of the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort (37) and later was displayed in an open casket at Kentucky Fried Chicken headquarters before being buried in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery, wearing his iconic white suit and black grosgrain ribbon of course. But this is far from the end of Colonel Sanders, who cheated death by making himself a brand almost 30 years earlier.
(36) The Stephen Foster Singers are a musical group named after songwriter Stephen Foster, the writer of the Kentucky state song, “My Old Kentucky Home.” The song, written in 1852 was a minstrel tune, often performed in blackface and is still played before every Derby (albeit with the line “Tis summer the d*rkies are gay” edited to “Tis summer the young folks are gay”). The song, which is written from the perspective of an enslaved man, presents a carefree story of slavery, with the chorus of “weep no more my lady, weep no more today, for the sun shines bright on our old Kentucky home” literally asking for a sunny disposition. However the song has frequently been reworked and reconceptualized with even Frederick Douglass finding it had value. Stating that the song could “awaken the sympathies for the slave” and create an atmosphere “in which anti-slavery principles take root and flourish.”
Kentucky historian Emily Bingham in her book My Old Kentucky Home: The Astonishing Life and Reckoning of an Iconic American Song which attempts to wrestle with the song’s twisted past, writes, “For Black Americans the question has never been if ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ is redeemable, but whether it might be useful…. In response white people and the organizations they controlled steadfastly upheld ‘My Old Kentucky Home.’ Some have gone so far to believe that its sweet strains enabled all to forget ‘social and racial differences.’”
(37) Frankfort, not Louisville, is the capital of Kentucky. It has the fourth smallest population of any capital in the United States (only the much less populous states of Maine, South Dakota and Vermont have smaller capitals). In 1862 British novelist Anthony Trollope wrote “Frankfort is the capital of Kentucky, and is as quietly dull a little town as I ever entered.” It is hard to say that Frankfort has improved much on this reputation in the following 161 years.
Two years after Sanders’ death Hueblin was acquired by the tobacco company R.J. Reynolds (38) who in 1986 sold the company for 850 million dollars (almost 1.8 billion dollars adjusted for inflation to 2023) to the PepsiCo Corporation. PepsiCo made several adjustments to the restaurants, including the aforementioned dropping of the Kentucky Fried Chicken for KFC and adding popcorn chicken, hot wings and several roasted chicken options to the menu. PepsiCo also opened their first restaurant in Beijing in 1987, becoming the first Western fast food chain to operate in China. KFC remains the most popular Western chain in China, beating McDonalds, who’s beef based menu and refusal to change their selections to accommodate local tastes has hindered their growth.
In 1997 PepsiCo spun off their restaurant division into a separate company that would eventually be named Yum! Brands which in addition to KFC also owns many other restaurant chains including Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. Yum! chose Louisville as its corporate headquarters and now resides in the old KFC White House that is located on Colonel Sanders Lane (although many of the corporate executives work in Dallas, Texas). Yum! has struggled with the KFC brand, being surpassed by Chick-Fil-A for the leading chicken retailer in the US. Perhaps it is no surprise then that KFC leaned on a familiar face to combat lagging sales.
In May 2015, KFC launched a new series of advertisements and for the first time hired an actor to play Colonel Sanders, with Darrell Hammond stepping into the role. Many criticized the “aw shucks” performance that Hammond gave with tarnishing Sanders’ legacy. Former KFC owner John Y. Brown even weighed in on the controversy telling the Courier Journal, “I don’t think you make a gimmick out of somebody. I think they are making fun of the Colonel. It is such a fascinating story, I hate to see them tarnish it.”
But despite the backlash, KFC continued its use of actors to portray Sanders, with Yum! CEO Greg Creed telling Food Business news “I am actually quite happy that 20% hate it, because now they at least have an opinion. They’re actually talking about KFC, and you can market to love and hate; you cannot market to indifference.” Since Hammond’s portrayal a variety of actors have portrayed the Colonel in ads including Jim Gaffigan, George Hamilton, Rob Lowe, Jason Alexander and as the first woman to portray Sanders, country music superstar Reba McEntire.
Perhaps the strangest reiteration of the Colonel was done by former Saved by the Bell star Mario Lopez who in 2020 portrayed Sanders in a short film, A Recipe for Seduction, sponsored by KFC that aired on the Lifetime Network. The film tells a romantic love triangle story where a young woman named Jessica is wooed away from her fiance by her live-in chef, Harland Sanders. The plot proceeds with the jilted fiance stealing the Colonel’s Original recipe, kidnapping Sanders and trying to murder him (assisted by Jessica’s mother Bunny). No, I am not making this up.
(38) R.J. Reynolds is based in North Carolina, perhaps the only state in the union with closer ties to the tobacco industry than Kentucky. Tobacco is Kentucky’s most important crop, and second only maybe to bourbon as it’s most well known manufactured product (when you consider that a fast food restaurant chain and thoroughbred racing are the other two things the state is known for its easy to see why Kentucky is often thought of as a haven for vice). While tobacco has brought wealth to the state, it has also been a source of misery with 8900 Kentuckians a year dying from their smoking of the crop.
The public health threat of smoking is perhaps why the Kentucky State Fair no longer features a tobacco pipe smoking contest. I was fascinated by this contest as a child when it would appear between spelling bees and performances by bluegrass bands on the stage in the Exposition Center. A row of (usually old) men would sit in a chair and puff on a pipe while people sat in the audience watching. My mom never let me stop to observe closely so I cannot tell you what the rules are for sure, but I think that the winner was whoever could smoke the longest.
Whether KFC’s sometimes bizarre rebranding of the Colonel will help boost sales (of chicken right? They are still trying to sell chicken over there right?) long term remains to be seen, but I don’t see the brand or the Colonel losing its influence over the image of Kentucky anytime soon. In fact KFC has recently indicated that it intends to lean more on its brand assets, key among them the full name “Kentucky Fried Chicken.”
KFC recently caused quite a scandal in my adopted country of Germany when on November 9, 2022 they sent out a message on their app that said “It’s memorial day for Kristallnacht! Treat yourself with more tender cheese on your crispy chicken. Now at KFCheese!” Kristallnacht, which translates to broken glass, is the anniversary of the night in 1938 when the Nazis destroyed Jewish owned businesses and synagogues, killing 90 Jews and largely being seen as the start of the Holocaust. This message was roundly condemned, with Dalia Grinfeld, the associate director of European affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, tweeting “How wrong can you get on Kristallnacht KFC Germany. Shame on you!” KFC apologized and blamed this message on an automatic push notification which was linked to a list of the country’s national holidays. Truly an awkward day to be a Kentuckian in Berlin.
And here I am, a frequently awkward Kentuckian in Berlin. 4520 miles away from my home, but just 1.5 kilometers from the nearest KFC.
“Ah Kentucky Fried Chicken.” My daughter, now 11, also receives this comment when she says where she is from, but in an ease with our adopted country and her own sense of place that I envy, never pauses to worry about it. Not concerned about grease stained fingers or the KFC Double Down becoming her legacy, she just nods and moves on. “At least they know something about Kentucky,” she told me one day.
But my desire to pull my state, my past, my history away from this fast food restaurant chain shows up every time someone brings it up. Why should a man born a Hoosier and a Salt Lake City sign painter get the power to define my home? So I write about Kentucky, about coffee shop unions and neighbors impacted by tornadoes who help each other, about wildcat teacher strikes and brave abortion clinic escorts. I want to give context, I want to explain. I want you to know something about Kentucky besides the cartoon outline of Colonel Sanders and a breaded drumstick, even though I know you aren’t really asking.
I want to tell people about what it feels like to stand on the lawn in front of a white painted shotgun house on an April Kentucky morning, when everything smells like fresh grass, the air is neutral and soft and the fading colors of the peeling sidings of the houses around you contrast with the spring flowers popping out of chipped concrete planters lined in front of them. I want to tell people about the Western Kentucky caves, a system so massive (39) that when a leading cave researcher from China stepped into the opening of Mammoth Cave they burst into tears at the beauty and enormity of it. I want to tell them about the sandstone cliffs of Red River Gorge, where the Red River has cut a series of arches into the landscape over millennia and where I once stood, my hand resting on a curved wall, the light streaming through the pine and oak canopy, making the water underneath shimmer like a gray silk scarf and thought that this must be what heaven looks like.
(39) As of 2010 the Mammoth Cave system was mapped at over 420 miles, more than double the next largest system, located in Mexico. It is believed that the system is much, much longer, possibly being attached to many of the other cave systems in Western Kentucky.
One of the greatest mysteries of the cave is why after thousands of years of exploration and use of the cave by the Indigenous Americans in the area it was abandoned around 200 BCE despite the presence of the ancestors from members of at least seven current nations (The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Cherokee Nation, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, Shawnee Tribe, Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, Absentee Shawnee Tribe, and the Chickasaw Nation) remaining in the area. Perhaps we would know more about this history and all native history in Kentucky (the name itself possibly derived from the Iroquois words Kenta Aki) if it weren’t for the consistent abuses towards natives in Kentucky and the numerous broken treaties with indigenous nations throughout its’ history. This includes most infamously the “Trail of Tears” which crossed Western Kentucky from 1838–1839.
But what to leave in and what to take out when explaining Kentucky always befuddles me. Should I tell you about how waking up on a Spring morning often means your eyes will be puffy and swollen from the pollen in the air? Should I write about how life expectancy and community investment drops precipitously west of Louisville’s 9th Street Divide, the blood soaked redline that kept the city segregated (40)? Should I tell you about mountaintop removal mining, where the tops of the Appalachians, mountains so old that its been remarked on that they predate bones, have been stripped for the coal (41) inside? Should I tell you about my friend Henry, who’s last conversation with his mom before he killed himself was about the horrific anti- trans bills that the Kentucky legislature were considering (42)?
During my first year in Germany, when I missed Kentucky and Louisville so much some days that it felt like grieving someone who had known me, really known me, my entire life, I told my husband that I felt like I was a person with a place and when I wasn’t there I felt less than whole. But Kentucky also felt like it didn’t want me, didn’t want my Brown daughter, who in 2016 I wanted to take far away from there, from the teens who rolled down their car window and yelled “Sand n*****” at my husband the day after Trump won, from the legislature that seemed intent on stripping as many people as possible of basic rights and dignities. I can understand how Kentucky got to that place. I understand how the poverty and neglect, the political maneuverings and white supremacy made my home state a place of such ugliness. I can still see the beauty and the people who fight every day to make it better. I think Kentucky is worth fighting for, but when I left, I just didn’t have the fight in me anymore.
(40) Redlining was a method employed in many American cities whereby real estate agents would draw a literal red line on a map around traditionally Black neighborhoods in a city and prevent new Black homeowners from purchasing property outside of the line. In Louisville this redline still very much divides the city, even if the practice is not (at least openly) practiced anymore. One of the first challenges to this redlining was made by white civil rights activists Anne and Carl Braden, who in 1954 were approached by Black couple Andrew and Charlotte Wade with a proposal to purchase a home for them in the Shively neighborhood, outside of the city’s redline.
The Bradens agreed and this led to an uproar from the white community in Louisville. The Wades’ home was shot at and firebombed. The Bradens had a cross burned on their lawn and countless death threats.The Bradens were eventually arrested for sedition (the claim being that they were purposefully trying to overturn the government via their purchase, well and for maybe being Communists), a charge which Carl was convicted of and Anne likely would have been too if the Supreme Court hadn’t invalidated state sedition laws while she was waiting for trial.
Anne, far from being cowed by this incident, instead spent the rest of her life as a leading civil rights activist both in Louisville and nationally. Anne and Carl (who died suddenly in 1958 of a heart attack) continued to be the target of intense attacks for their work towards civil rights. I attended many rallies about social issues in the early 2000s where Anne (in her late seventies at this point) not only spoke at but also usually had a hand in organizing them. She was a fierce presence even then. After her death in 2006 the University of Louisville opened the Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research.
(41) Coal mining is inextricably linked to the development of Kentucky, coal being discovered there in 1750, 42 years before Kentucky would become the 15th state. Kentucky has two major coalfields, located in the Eastern and Western part of the state and as of 2001 8.36 billion tons of coal had been extracted from the state.The first commercial coal mine opened in 1820 and since that time, coal has changed the face of the state, bringing economic growth (well for some people) and environmental destruction.
One of the most well known songs about Kentucky, “Coal Miner’s Daughter” written by country singer Loretta Lynn, is about the fossil fuel. Lynn (who Sissy Spacek won an Oscar for portraying in the 1980 film Coal Miner’s Daughter) was born in Butcher Hollow in 1932 and her father worked in the Van Lear coal mine (eventually dying with Black Lung Disease at only 52). The song is an autobiographical look at Lynn’s childhood in the tiny Kentucky coal town and was named one of the songs of the Century in 2001 by the Recording Industry Association of America.
There are only approximately 4000 coal miners left in Kentucky and less than 1% of Kentucky’s workforce is currently employed by the coal industry (this is due to the mechanization of coal mining requiring less labor and tightened environmental regulations reducing the areas where mining is permissible). This has not stopped coal mining and miners being consistently used at props by almost every Kentucky and national politician.
(42) Henry’s mom is Kentucky State Senator Karen Berg who during the 2023 legislative session, which began just weeks after Henry’s death, made impassioned pleas to her fellow legislators to not pass bills which would end gender affirming care for children and force teachers to disclose gender identity information of students to their parents. They did anyways, passing several anti trans bills while she wept on the floor of the Statehouse.
Kentucky is a place where I once lived on Confederate Place and went to work on Muhammad Ali Blvd. and now here I am an ocean away and I feel tasked with this responsibility to explain where I’m from. But, how much of Kentucky is even mine anymore? How much was ever mine to begin with (44)? Certainly Kentucky has been hurt by depictions of the state by those who left or who only traveled through (45). Can a displaced (misplaced?) Kentucky Colonel explain it? Do my almost six years apart from the Bluegrass make it impossible to reflect accurately on the 37 I spent there? How many footnotes do I need (46)?
My instinct is much like Sanders’ own in his autobiography, to remove the negative pieces of the story to tell a more flattering portrait. I want to distance myself from the Colonel, the fried, the chicken, the fast food that is the only thing that so many people know about my state. I want to take everything out of the red and white striped bucket, remove the Colonel’s picture, replace it with Muhammad Ali or Anne Braden or Loretta Lynn. Fill the bucket with burgoo. But the power of marketing is too intense, the Colonel’s face too ubiquitous, thirty years of being named KFC has not stripped Kentucky from the brand, how could I? And isn’t KFC, Kentucky Fried Chicken, part of the story too?
(44) My hometown Louisville is the most populous and urban city in the state. A typical “blue dot in a red state,” it has more liberal politicians than the rest of the state and also has a significantly higher median income (although the West End of Louisville has some of the highest poverty rates in Kentucky). My daughter’s father, a Kentucky native, was born to Indian immigrant parents in tiny Greenup County located in the Northeast corner of the state and nestled into the Appalachian mountains, his experiences of Kentucky are vastly different from mine. Most of the things I know about the rest of the state, I know as a visitor, only having spent four years outside of Louisville during my time at Western Kentucky University.
(45) Kentucky has a long history of being misrepresented in popular culture and literature, with many of the worst examples being about people from the Appalachian region. One of the most egregious recent examples is the book Hillbilly Elegy by the now US Senator from Ohio J.D. Vance (which in 2020 was also adapted into a movie for Netflix by Ron Howard). Vance, who grew up in suburban Middletown, Ohio and only ever visited his mother’s family for summers in Breathritt County, Kentucky, put the responsibility for the poverty and substance abuse in the region firmly on the behavior of individuals, not the systemic injustices and exploitation that afflict Appalachia.
Meredith McCarroll in her essay, “Hillbillies Need No Elegy,” for Bitter Southerner writes “When Hillbilly Elegy seemed to be all anyone talked about, and when I realized people associated that book with me because I’m Appalachian, I read it with eagerness and curiosity. And though Vance’s story was different from my own, I read with empathy for his unique experience. But he crossed a line when he began to use ‘we’ instead of ‘I.’ I didn’t like what he said about ‘us.’.”
Elizabeth Catte in her book What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, which was written at least partially as a response to Hillbilly Elegy was harsher on Vance, writing, “I’ll note that Vance has transcended one of the most authentically Appalachian experiences of them all: watching someone with tired ideas about race and culture get famous by selling cheap stereotypes about the region.”
(46) Topics I wanted to include in these footnotes but could not find a way to shoehorn in include but are not limited to: Fish fries, Billy Rae Cyrus, Louisville’s affinity for their hometown celebrities (did you know Tom Cruise went to my grade school?), the Kentucky Wildcat/ Louisville Cardinal basketball rivalry (this omittance feels particularly egregious), bell hooks, Bloody Monday, the pronunciation of the Kentucky city Versailles, the Humana Festival of New American Plays, the first public display of the lightbulb, the TVA’s creation of Kentucky Lake, Wendell Berry, where the term redneck comes from, the Arc Creation Museum, moonshine, The Saint James Art show, the opioid epidemic, Louisville slugger bats, the 2018 campaign of Amy McGrath against Mitch McConnell (although give me a few bourbons and I’ll rant about that “marine and mom” for hours), the “Happy Birthday” song, the Hatfields and McCoys, Governor “Happy” Chandler, Appalshop, the Harlan County War and the Blue People of Kentucky (the Fugates, not UK fans).