Colonel Sanders: the American Dream inside a bucket of fried chicken

Josh Ozersky's energetic biography of Colonel Sanders follows the entrepreneur's journey from abject poverty to cartoon-like frontman for a global fast food conglomerate.

The KFC at Dubai Mall, one of about 15,000 outlets in 105 countries and territories around the world. Gabriela Maj / Bloomberg
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Josh Ozersky, in his earnest Colonel Sanders and the American Dream, stresses at the outset his alarm over the fact that a growing number of Americans don't realise that unlike Uncle Ben - in fact unlike any other such marketing creation - Colonel Sanders was a real person, not a corporate creation. And not only a real person, an exemplar: "More than almost anyone in the hagiographic literature of American business, he truly lived the American Dream."

Ozersky's book is part of the University of Texas Press's Discovering America series, which operates on the premise that much of US history still remains to be written and sets out to tell the peculiar and perhaps illustrative side stories that get lost in the drama of wars and westward expansion. But since the food company that Colonel Sanders founded, Kentucky Fried Chicken - KFC - has a worldwide reach (more than 15,000 outlets in more than 100 countries), it's incumbent on Ozersky to do a little clarifying about that central conceit of his book - just what is the American Dream?

He rejects the simple definition: "Often it is used to describe hard work leading to fortune, but there is nothing especially American about that; that is the Protestant work ethic wrapped in a flag," he writes. Instead, he digs deeper: "The phrase 'American Dream' was coined specifically to describe a state of egalitarian opportunity, a novus orbis where a man might transcend his roots and create himself as he saw fit." Our author's main contention in this energetic little book is that people shouldn't forget that Harlan Sanders was a real person, because forgetting that fact would drastically lessen the heroism of the man's personal journey from obscure beginnings to global figure.

Harlan Sanders was born in 1890 to a farmer in rural southern Indiana. The oldest of three children, Harlan lost his father at age five and in the years that followed became by necessity his mother's chief support in helping the family to survive. "No one can fully appreciate the Colonel's life and character," Ozersky claims, "without understanding how desperate and how unexceptional his mother's situation was." Young Harlan got a variety of menial jobs but aspired to more.

This aspiration led to a brief stint as a lawyer - a stretch that ended when Sanders got into a fight with his own client in the courts. He went back to menial work, pulling double shifts on the railways to support his new wife and family, until he landed a job selling insurance. He was sacked twice from that job, and a spate of similar non-starters followed, from selling tyres to backing the manufacture of acetylene lamps. Eventually, he ended up in Corbin, Kentucky, running a petrol station and it was there he had the idea of making a little money on the side by serving homemade food to paying customers. The idea was just the latest in Sanders' long line of business schemes, and like all of them, it was a long shot: "It was a gas station with some rooms attached, in a backward corner of a backward state, in the grip of the Depression, and it was a desperate undertaking, like most small businesses were at that place and time."

Through dint of unrelenting effort and lots of luck (and plenty of trial-and-error experimentation with the pressure cooking he used to prepare his birds), it worked: Sanders eventually expanded his little restaurant, making first one, then two, then a few franchise deals to sell his meals around the state - deals that were sealed with a handshake and gave him a nickel profit on every chicken. As Ozersky puts it: "Kentucky Fried Chicken was built on the efforts of one old man tirelessly driving around to back-road diners nearly as decrepit as himself."

Over time, he adopted the familiar guise by which he's known today, the white suit and tails, the black tie, the gold-tipped cane, the white hair and goatee. He would get himself booked onto local TV shows in order to promote the opening of some new franchise, and he would show up with a bucket of chicken and hand drumsticks out to members of the audience. He was a natural performer and began filling his everyday speech with the backwoods slang he'd been at pains to shed when he thought the insurance world didn't approve of it. Ozersky is being perhaps tongue-in-cheek credulous when he grudgingly admits "there was a level of artifice", but he wants to stress that any play-acting was shored up by good old-fashioned hard work.

But Ozersky's contention that Sanders embodies that elusive concept, the American Dream, becomes harder and harder for the book to support, especially when that oft-mentioned but ill-defined concept begins to part ways with mere financial success. By the mid-1950s, Sanders had "completed his transformation from worker to living asset," our author tells us. "His white suit would never be seen with a spot of dirt or grease on it. Why should it? It would be his job to represent the chicken, not to actually cook it." But even that representation was fraught with problems, as Ozersky is the first to admit. No matter how hard a worker he was, culturally speaking, Sanders was more and more coming to embody a lie: "[he] created an alternative reality in which the white planter not only ate the chicken but implicitly made it. Nothing could have been further from the truth."

The truth was that as the Kentucky Fried Chicken conglomerate continued to boom, the professional businessmen and restaurant backers who had been brought in to run the most lucrative franchises and organise things on a national and international level pushed Sanders into an ambassadorial role. As Sanders himself puts it in his memoir, "the popularity of Kentucky Fried Chicken was growin' right over me and mashin' me flat".

He wasn't from Kentucky; he was only an honorary colonel; he wasn't an antebellum Southern gentleman - he wasn't legally allowed to change his public appearance by so much as a handkerchief in his breast pocket, and he quickly surrendered even nominal input into the company he'd founded. Not only is this unlikely to be most people's idea of the American Dream, but it also goes a long way to undercut Ozersky's contention that KFC's founder was a real person: certainly by the time the company became a global phenomenon, Colonel Sanders was as close to being a fictional character as anybody could get.

He had flare-ups of personality too. This was a man who "had made a lifelong habit of swearing at employees, his own and those of lucky restaurant owners, and knocking any nearby surface with the end of his cane to indicate his displeasure at imperfectly cooked scrambled eggs". But for the most part, he was as well-behaved a corporate icon as the Jolly Green Giant, a cheerleader for the success of the company bearing his name.

Ozersky's book deals with that success as much as it does with the man who started it all, and the chapters concerned with the present-day KFC are among the book's most fascinating. There are now Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants all over the world, and Ozersky makes the excellent point that this ubiquity is largely the result of sidestepping cultural prohibitions. "The fried-chicken tradition of the American South, with its communal connotations and complicated racial history, may not have meant anything to the citizens of Bahrain or Beijing," he points out. "But the people there ate chicken, and they ate salt, and they ate fried, crunchy things of varying degrees of spiciness, and so Kentucky Fried Chicken made sense in a way that its burger-based rivals didn't."

Ozersky isn't always happy with this success and laments the decline of his hero's currency, noting that since his death his image has become "more common and less meaningful". How much meaning there ever was in the image will be for readers to decide, but nobody finishing this book will look at their local KFC in the same way again.

Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.