Long before KFC’s Colonel Sanders was inexplicably a CGI Instagram influencer, RoboCop, or Reba McEntire, he was the Indiana-born Harland David Sanders. As Adam Chandler traces in his book Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom, Sanders was at one time the head of the world’s largest fast-food operation: With 600 franchises in North America by the early 1960s, KFC dwarfed the burger-slingers at White Castle and McDonald’s in his relentless quest to sell franchisees on his fried chicken recipe.
“The Colonel was a ham who served chicken,” Chandler writes. “He was a man who couldn’t be media trained or controlled or ironed flat, but still knew to exaggerate the folksy hayseed in him whenever he went on the air. (Off the air, he leaned more toward either fury or formality.)” In this excerpt from Drive-Thru Dreams, Chandler traces Sanders’s rise to worldwide fame. — Erin DeJesus
It’s difficult to imagine a time when the concept of the American dream didn’t exist. It wasn’t actually until 1931 when the term was coined and popularized by historian James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America. As Adams defined it, the dream centers on what he believed to be a strictly American possibility:
The American dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
It’s easy to trip over the irony that Adams, a wealthy former investment banker living abroad in London, felt so passionately about the promise of America, just as the bite of the Great Depression began to leave the worst of its mark. But once released into the world, the American dream became a new romantic and politically charged shorthand for success, prosperity, and upward mobility, dispatched like bumperstickers every election season as a byword for a land of freedom, heroes, bootstraps, destiny, and opportunity.
Just as Adams’s The Epic of America was receiving an enthusiastic reception on both sides of the Atlantic in 1931, a 40-year-old man named Harland Sanders opened up a new roadside gas station on a rough stretch of Appalachian highway. Sanders was an ill-tempered, middle school drop-out with a huckster’s instincts and showman’s virtuosity. But if there were ever one person who fully proved Adams’s interpretation of American dream to be possible, it was Sanders, whose dogged, frustrating trajectory toward fullest stature and worldwide fame started at that humble service station in southeastern Kentucky, far from the whirring velocities of the car assembly lines.
What’s most affecting about the story of Harland Sanders, later known by much of the world as the Colonel, is how unlikely it all was. How Sanders would come to embody the troublesome and elusive concept of the American dream involves decades of endless scrapping, bad breaks, grueling work, and self-promotion. Because Sanders’s story is so mythical and his image so corporatized, it’s easy to forget he was even a real person. But not only does his biography trace America’s adolescence and fulfill the most classic interpretation of the American dream, it’s also a useful prism through which the history of fast food can be understood.
Like traffic circles and the rules of soccer, the governing dynamics of the American dream have always been vague, frustrating, and subjective. By the terms set by James Truslow Adams, Sanders had already achieved the dream simply by the dint of his ambition and his legendary dissatisfaction with the status quo. In The Epic of America Adams holds up Kentucky-born Abraham Lincoln as a virtuous exemplar of American success, but not for grandiose achievements like the Emancipation Proclamation or losing his Senate election to Stephen Douglas despite winning the popular vote. “Lincoln was not great because he was born in a log cabin,” Adams wrote, “but because he got out of it — that is, because he rose above poverty, ignorance, lack of ambition, shiftlessness of character, contentment with mean things and low aims which kept so many thousands in the huts where they were born.”
Like Lincoln, Sanders had escaped the humble shack where he had been born only to end up just over 100 miles east of Lincoln’s log cabin, at the helm of a failing gas station in a troubled corner of Appalachia.
Two of the more spectacular nicknames for Sanders’ section of Corbin, Kentucky, were “Hell’s Half-Acre” and the “Asshole of Creation.” Both names were owed to the ambient poverty as well as its setting near a key intersection between two highways, a corridor where booze-runners flaunted Prohibition and deadly violence happened on a daily basis. “Bootleggings, fights, and shootings was as regular as a rooster’s crowing in the mornin’,” Sanders once remarked about his surroundings. According to his biographer John Ed Pearce,
Sanders kept a pistol under the cash register for safety and a shotgun in the bedroom, which he used to ward off men from killing each other outside of his station. To advertise his business, Sanders shrewdly sought out the sides of barns because, he said, “good old boys riding around like to shoot up signboards, but they thought if there might be a cow or mule on the other side of the sign, they wouldn’t blast away like they liked to.”
These complications notwithstanding, Sanders’s service station flourished as travel by car surged in popularity in the 1930s. His business became a well-regarded and convenient pitstop for motorists exploring their way down the fledgling Dixie Highway, which connected the Midwest to Florida. They would gas up and Sanders would make a grand production of wiping their windshields and offering free air to build a loyal clientele. Ever the angler, Sanders realized he could further outgun his rivals if he started offering food to this emerging breed of road dogs.
“I got to thinking,” he later recounted, “One thing I could always do was cook.” And so, Sanders started to whip up the staples of his larder on his old Vulcan range — steak, okra, biscuits, chess pie, and Kentucky mock oysters. Often, he would prepare meals for his family and they would only gather at the table to dine after hungry travelers hadn’t appeared to eat dinner first. Increasingly, travelers would linger to grab a bite of country ham or even the homemade fried chicken that their opportunistic host had begun offering.
More and more, these hungry travelers appeared as they drove in on newly built roads, spent nights in newly built motels, and experienced the country in unprecedented ways. In her book Dixie Highway, Tammy Ingram outlines how, despite an endless jam of contentious and competing social and political forces, America’s first “fully fledged interstate highway system” helped to efface regional isolation in the United States. Much in the way that technologies like radio had nationalized the cultural gaze, the Dixie Highway physically served disparate groups of “tourists, businessmen, farmers, and everyday travelers alike.” And, on the Dixie route through Corbin, Sanders nourished unlikely gatherings of strangers with his vernacular cuisine on a daily basis.
Sanders parlayed his successful reputation as a cook and turned one spare table in a gas station storeroom into an entire cafe in 1937. But the food at the Sanders Cafe wasn’t the only draw. In his book Open Road, Phil Patton details how Sanders, true to form, emphasized the benefit of offering both dinner and a show:
He told stories about the local moonshiners and tall tales of his days working on the railroad and getting in fights with his bosses.
When the audience was deemed appropriate, he poured over these stories, like gravy over his ham or chicken, a profanity whose color and inventiveness was remembered years later by his listeners. “He had a heart as big as a barrel,” said a man who knew him then, “but, Lord, he would cuss a blue streak.”
Alas, Sanders’ luck didn’t quite stick. The cafe burned down to the ground in 1939 and once again, he was forced to start again from scratch. But Sanders, who had managed to become a prosperous, self-made man despite the Great Depression, had gotten a taste of the dream.
In 1940, Sanders rebuilt his cafe, this time with an adjacent 17-room motel. The Sanders Court and Cafe opened on the 4th of July with red Gingham checked napkins and a country ham breakfast served with biscuits, red eye gravy, fresh grits, and eggs. The kitchen had white walls, ceilings, and floors to project cleanliness as well as an open kitchen so customers could peer in and see how well-maintained it all was. Sanders even installed a model motel room beside the women’s bathroom of the cafe so that the “lady of the house” could check out how homey the facilities were and perhaps be persuaded to allow her family to stay the night. To signal how modern it was, Sanders had equipped the room with a pay phone.
Around the same time that Harland Sanders’s rededicated roadside business flourished, the influential Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter popularized “creative destruction,” a theory that he copped in part from Karl Marx. Creative destruction describes the chaos that ensues when a new industry built on a new technology emerges and leaves networks of outdated industries in its wake. Creative destruction is why many people feel a twinge of sadness when looking over their dusty DVD libraries and wistfully chuckle at the sight of fax machines and newspaper classified ads.
To this point, the life of Harland Sanders had been one wholly shaped by creative destruction. In his younger years, he had worked the railroads, which had replaced horses and canals. One of Sanders’s early business schemes involved creating a company that sold acetylene lighting to farmers, but the rapid and widespread adoption of the lightbulb and electricity completely had wrecked his investment. Sanders had settled in Corbin, a town developed by the grimy grace of coal and railroads. The primacy of the railway travel would be overtaken by cars, creating a need for tires (which Sanders sold) as well as roadside food, gas, and lodging options (which is how Sanders had made a name for himself in southeastern Kentucky).
Had Harland Sanders the temperament to remain a lawyer or an insurance salesman, he might have enjoyed a much steadier life. But what made Sanders truly great is that he wasn’t just a victim of creative destruction, he was an architect of it as well. One oft-scribbled note in the marginalia of American popular culture is that Harland Sanders wasn’t a real colonel. That’s true insomuch as he never led troops into battle or ordered an illicit Code Red. But the designation itself is real. One power vested in the office of the Kentucky governor is to bestow the title of Kentucky Colonel upon anyone deemed deserving. In 1935, Ruby Laffoon — Kentucky’s tremendously named governor who was directly preceded and followed in office by men named Flem Sampson and Happy Chandler, respectively — commissioned Sanders with the ceremonial honor, supposedly for his exploits as an amateur midwife.
What separates Sanders from the countless other Kentucky Colonels is the fact that he went method into the role of the colonelcy with a fidelity that makes Daniel Day-Lewis look like kind of a punk. Sanders became the Colonel, first in a black suit and then in his trademark white suit, which matched his hair and a goatee that some historians suggest he dyed white. Wherever he went, he would engage in some “coloneling,” making strategic small talk and enhancing the Sanders mystique one table, community picnic, Rotary Club meeting, and social outing at a time.
And over the years, the Colonel had prospered and extended his reach — in business, branding, and, of course, chicken.
Among his many projects in Corbin, Sanders endlessly tinkered with the perfect way to make chicken. Frying it in a pan took half an hour, too long by any service standard, but especially for a small highway joint with a time-pressed clientele. And so he labored with Bertha, his beloved first pressure cooker, retrofitting her with valves and risking life and limb to find a way to fry it faster and better. Miraculously, Bertha cut the cook time from 30 minutes down to just nine through a pressure frying method that managed lock out grease and seal in juices. Equally crucial, his chicken came coated in a batter made of a secret blend of herbs and spices that Sanders had refined again and again, mixing ingredients into piles of flour on the concrete floor of his back porch.
The chicken was a revelation; the result was poultry in motion. The Sanders Cafe continued to flourish, later coming recommended as “a very good place to stop en route to Cumberland Falls and the Great Smokies” in Duncan Hines’ prestigious national guidebook, Adventures in Good Eating. Ironically, Sanders’s informal exploits in the kitchen had begun strictly as a means to better eke out a living during the Great Depression. “I figured I couldn’t do worse than these people running these places around town,” he told one biographer. But, unwittingly and in a very American way, Sanders’s efforts as a chef, entrepreneur, salesman, and marketing whiz in those lean years, laid the groundwork for what would eventually become an international empire. And as the country slowly emerged from the economic catastrophe of the 1930s, unimaginable opportunity revealed itself on the roads ahead.
From Drive-Thru Dreams by Adam Chandler. Copyright 2019 by the author and reprinted with permission of Flatiron Books.