The secret histories of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and store-bought white bread

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The Colonel at Kentucky Fried Chicken. ()
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By design, walking into a McDonald’s today—say, the one on Broadway and 9th Street, near Shakespeare & Co.—is a whole lot more like walking into Starbucks than it once was: Adult-Alternative satellite radio, free wi-fi (from AT&T, which also provides Starbucks’), and an atmosphere that invites you to stay a while, and not just if you’re part of a pack of loud teenagers.

Then there’s the Wendy’s on Broadway, near Bleecker. It has always been a Wendy’s and nothing more. You go in craving grease and a Frosty, and leave regretting it—a tried-and-true American fast-food classic.

Yet that’s not what the chain wants to evoke anymore. Grease is out; “healthy” is in. The changes, thus far, are modest: the menu on the Broadway-Bleecker Wendy’s has the same sorts of airbrushed images of its food as ever—only today, the burger buns are visibly flecked with grain. Wheat, in fact, forms much of the new visual motif—big stalks of it in the background of much of the wall-ad space. Light amber and green are the order of the day.

(Note to Wendy’s/Arby’s Group: If you really want to look like Whole Foods Jr., maybe you ought to start by cleaning the place a little better.)

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Wendy’s is hardly alone. Fast food in America is in a conundrum—every bit as popular and successful as it's ever been, especially in the post-globalization age, yet less respectable than at any point in its history, as millions of American cable subscribers fancy themselves foodies and the locavore movement gains legs. Fast food is cast not just as the inverse of fine dining, but as a societal villain, taking our money and killing us in return.

Yet once upon a time, the health benefits of fast food were a selling point. No, really.

White Castle, America’s first fast-food hamburger chain, founded in 1921, is not the first place anyone in her right mind would associate with the human body’s well-being in 2012. But White Castle marketed itself early on as a safe, clean alternative to the unsanitary conditions in the meat industry—a longstanding source of controversy thanks to Upton Sinclair’s muckraking The Jungle. A 1932 White Castle brochure was paternal in its reassurance:

When you sit in a White Castle, remember that you are one of several thousands; you are sitting on the same kind of stool; you are being served on the same kind of counter; the coffee you drink is made in accordance with a certain formula; the hamburger you eat is prepared in exactly the same way over a gas flame of the same intensity; the cups you drink from are identical with thousands of cups that thousands of other people are using at the same moment; the same standard of cleanliness protects your food.

That was then. Seventy years later, fast-food chains scramble to be perceived as something other than convenience stations that don’t serve gas. Take Kentucky Fried Chicken. In his brief, entertaining new book, “Colonel Sanders and the American Dream” (University of Kentucky Press), Pulitzer-winning Time magazine food writer Josh Ozersky notes that, following its first public offering on the New York Stock Exchange in 1969, Kentucky Fried Chicken wasn’t quite itself anymore.

KFC’s rapid expansion—when Sanders bought the first 100 shares, they were $10 apiece, only to split so many times they jumped to $400 a share—led, Ozersky writes, to a rapid expansion its officers weren’t quite ready for: “The general feeling seemed to be that they had ‘made it’ and that they ought to just keep the money coming in by opening more Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants.”

This expansion led, Ozersky writes, to “a melancholy motif in Kentucky Fried Chicken’s history: the chain’s inclination, demonstrated over and over again, to avoid defining itself by its core product. Roast chicken, grilled chicken, chicken sandwiches, barbecued chicken, chicken tenders, winglets, Rotisserie Gold, and the like come and go on Kentucky Fried Chicken’s menu like transient visitors to a youth hostel.” In 1991, then-owner PepsiCo concatenated the name to KFC, something Ozersky calls “a gesture [that was not] really based on any kind of marketplace reality.”

The Colonel’s "original recipe" chicken, as it is today, actually bears little resemblance to the original recipe, according to older diners who remember it and whom Ozersky cites in the book. "Tradition," in fact, is something “fast-food franchisees love to speak about . . . because tradition is what they most conspicuously lack; the buildings and menus and design motifs all change from year to year because they have to, lest they fall back in to the pack and be lost in what business writer Robert Emerson has called ‘the endless shakeout’ of emerging and expiring concepts. Words like ‘classic’ and ‘old-fashioned’ are fictions as invaluable to fast-food franchisees as testimonials in a Ponzi scheme.”

What differentiates Kentucky Fried Chicken from the fast-food pack, Ozersky writes, aren’t the Colonel’s “eleven herbs and spices,” but the nature of its central ingredient—chicken cooks slowly and unevenly, unlike hamburgers—and the Colonel himself:

“Kentucky Fried Chicken was the cutting edge of a new kind of restaurant deliberately created to sever all the last bonds between private and public dining. Minimal options, no servers, a stark space without even a shred of linen, and a business completely geared toward speed and take-out orders via a battery of high-tech pressure cookers—that was the reality of Kentucky Fried Chicken. It was the power of the Colonel’s image to coat this pill in the sentimental signs of the Old South, of hospitality with a human face.”

In his youth, Sanders had been irascible and unable to work comfortably for others. He’d get a job, push himself to the top of the pack, and then be let go, more or less, for insubordination. Only in his 40s, when he began cooking big southern meals for the customers of his Corbin, Ky. service station, did Sanders find his true calling.

As Ozersky points out, that calling was to be a cook—not an entrepreneur. Kentucky Fried Chicken was founded only after Sanders’ hotel-restaurant began failing, following a highway rerouting that directed customers away from, not toward, him. Sanders began selling his flour-spice mix to established restaurants; starting a chain happened by happenstance. It wasn’t a driving goal.

1969 TV ad

Sanders’ white hair, goatee, and suit, and black string tie, became as indelible as the food—probably more. Once he sold the corporation in 1964 (for a mere $2 million), he became Kentucky Fried Chicken’s spokesman, appearing in ads that played on his old Southern charm, such as a 1969 TV ad in which the Colonel sits in a rocking chair, a little girl in his lap, warmly telling viewers, “I’d be mighty proud to have you try Colonel Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken. Mighty proud.”

Behind the scenes it was a different story—in front of them as well, sometimes. Privately, and sometimes publicly, Sanders bad-mouthed the company’s modifications to his original menu. To him, Extra Crispy chicken was “a ball of fried dough,” the gravy “wallpaper paste.” The latter comment—to New York Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton, no less—triggered a libel suit against from the chain’s corporate owners. (It was dismissed.)

Sanders’ alarm over the micromanagement of a menu he’d spent his lifetime perfecting is echoed by Ozersky, albeit with a far breezier and snarkier tone:

“Even today, with the most stable and healthy ownership the company has had since the time of its founding, Kentucky Fried Chicken is considered the weak sister of Yum! Brands, its current parent company. And why shouldn’t it be? Taco Bell’s food costs are negligible and its bean and cheese concoctions little harder to make or more expensive to stock than one might find in a prison commissary. Pizza Hut, likewise, can sell a piece of frozen bread with tomato sauce and industrial cheese for five dollars anywhere it can place an oven and a cash register. Contrast this with Kentucky Fried Chicken’s product, its troublesome carcasses and bubbling oil and unhealthy, déclassé product."

Class, of course, is the great differentiator in today’s food wars. It’s the reason PepsiCo, then Kentucky Fried Chicken’s owner, shortened its name to KFC in 1991—“fried,” it has become increasingly understood since Reagan’s presidency, is for the poor, and frequently dark-skinned, whereas the likes of Whole Foods and Starbucks radiate middle-class gentility. (Hence Wendy’s ridiculous makeover.)

For at least as long, the same has been true of mass-produced, cheap, store-bought industrial white bread brands such as Wonder.

Whitman College professor Aaron Bobrow-Strain chronicles the rise of the American staple in White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf (Beacon Press). White bread’s public image has undergone a series of transitions similar to that of fast food: industrial production overtaking home cooking (or baking) in the face of a health crisis, reaching critical mass, and then subsiding in popularity once its unhealthy properties became unignorable.

“In 1890, 90 percent of American bread was baked at home by women,” writes Bobrow-Strain. That changed drastically in the wake of (again!) the 1906 publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which inspired a Chicago health inspector to investigate the city’s cellar bakeries:

“Sanitary inspectors painted pictures of dark, vermin-infested caves with raw sewage dripping from pipes into dough-mixing troughs, street dust and horse manure blown onto dough, bread cooling on dirt floors, and whole families sleeping in rag piles in bakeries, alongside their chickens,” writes Bobrow-Strain.

It was hardly a coincidence that the darker the bread was back then, the darker its eaters tended to be.

"Eating white bread was said to ‘Americanize’ undesirable immigrants,” writes Bobrow-Strain, “and a few social commentators even claimed that eating white bread literally changed newcomers' complexions . . . Indeed, in both Chicago and New York, public uproar about cellar bakery conditions was hard to separate from larger anxieties about the habits of the nation’s new Jewish and Italian immigrants.”

Bobrow-Strain writes: “[In] the early twentieth century the language of ‘knowing where your food from’ was a public relations coup for industrial food,” a fact that applied to white bread as well as fried chicken. By 1914, a Pennsylvania newspaper would claim, “It is scientifically proven that home baking is unsafe from every standpoint."

That changed drastically during World War II. In 1943, the U.S. government decreed that powdered vitamins—niacin, thiamin, iron, and, later, riboflavin—be added to flour and bread, in order to build stronger soldiers for the war effort.

“For war planners, public health officials, and baking industry executives,” Bobrow-Strain writes, “synthetic enrichment was the only ‘realistic’ way to improve the nation’s health in a hurry . . . the quickest way to rush vitamins to every American, almost every day—without needing to change the country’s tastes or upset its milling and baking industries.” (By contrast, in 1941, Canada decreed that “the addition of synthetic vitamins to bread constituted criminal food adulteration.”)

The legislation was a public-relations coup, turning the public "vitamin conscious"—so much so that many of that generation presumed automatically that white bread was nutritious, and left it there.

But by the early ’70s, Bobrow-Strain writes, “The sterile, chemically laced, and homogenous substance of white bread could stand in as a synecdoche for social conformism, the environmental costs of industrialization, racism, bland suburbia, or cultural imperialism abroad. Establishment archenemies such as Robert McNamara or Earl Butz weren’t like white bread, they were white bread.”

When Richard Pryor left the stage during a Las Vegas stand—before resettling in Berkeley and becoming the searing, honest, foul-mouthed persona that made him the greatest stand-up comic in history—he dismissed his longstanding Bill Cosby-manqué act as “white bread.”

It was the first time, but hardly the last, that white bread would be shorthand for cultural values that signify “boring and horrifying whiteness,” in the words of critic Tom Smucker. (His essay of that title—about the Beach Boys, Carpenters, and Lawrence Welk—is collected in the book Pop When the World Falls Apart, edited by Eric Weisbard.)

But even as Americans continued to eat fast food in record numbers, industrial white bread’s popularity fell sharply once the ’60s counterculture began to question the hand-me-down beliefs of the prior generation, including beliefs about what they should eat.

"Through the 1970s,” writes Bobrow-Strain, “ingredients that seemed drawn straight from a commune kitchen—sprouted wheat, unsulfured molasses, raisin juice, and wheat germ—gave Pepperidge Farms and Arnold loaves exotic appeal.”

These new loaves—“Woodstock in cellophane,” in Bobrow-Strain’s neat phrase—upended not just Wonder, et al.’s cultural hegemony, but also its market share.

“Between 1967 and 1982, white bread consumption plummeted 30 percent—but overall bread consumption, led by high-fiber brown loaves, actually increased,” he writes. In 1972, California nutritionist Hilda Swenerton told The Los Angeles Times, “We’ve been so busy pointing out how the faddists are all wrong that we’ve failed to recognize some of the good faddists have done.”

Bobrow-Strain frequently identifies himself as a member of “the alternative food movement.” Indeed, there are times when White Bread seems more like a sketch for a larger history of that movement than an examination of its namesake.

As lefties often are, Bobrow-Strain can be pedantic. Discussing “the streamlined loaf” of industrial bread—no odd bubbles, a smooth, even texture—the author all but wrings his hands: “If we could, for a moment, let go of our postmodern attachment to the roughed-up and irregular landscape of artisanal bread, the sight would take our breath away.”

Even in a browner-loaved landscape it’s hard not to wonder, Who is this “we,” kemosabe?

But the second half of White Bread is far livelier than the first, as if Bobrow-Strain had been revving up. He’s incisive in detailing the way bread figured into America’s post-World War II peace strategy. When bread shortages occurred in France and Japan, America’s grain growers came to their aid, with Associated Press columnist H.R. Baukhage claiming that "The only thing that can ‘save Europe for democracy’ is ‘the American farmer.’"

Bobrow-Strain is at his best surveying the reach of American white-bread-making globally, particularly the “Green Revolution” in Mexico—a Rockefeller Foundation-sponsored collaboration with Mexico’s Ministry of Agriculture to promote white bread south of the border.

“‘El trigo de Rockefeller’—Rockefeller wheat—spread faster than its creators could have imagined,” he writes. “By 1957, 90 percent of all wheat seeds planted in Mexico were the high-yield varieties supported by industrial inputs. Between 1940 and 1960, the index of Mexican fertilizer production soared 4,000 percent, while pesticide application increased eight-fold . . . policy makers in the United States credited the Green Revolution with staving off Red Revolution around the world”

The problem is that in order to make this bread, Mexican farmers needed to purchase expensive, U.S-made equipment, leading to “increased hunger in the presence of rapidly growing agricultural activity.”

“[A]s much as it increased productivity,” Bobrow-Strain writes, “the Green Revolution also reinforced rural inequality, creating a new class of wealthy U.S-style industrial farmers, coddled with subsidies, and masses of peasants who couldn’t compete in the debt-driven race.”

A different sort of peasantry is the focus of the book’s final chapter, “How White Bread Became White Trash,” which he keys to the white-trash parties of early-’00s hipsters.

“Store-bought white bread combined the two most hated motifs of the era: industrial origins and whiteness,” he writes.

In return, young American urbanites reconsecrated it in the 2000s the way they did with the Carpenters in the 1990s—by turning it to kitsch, then celebrating it:

“Some manifestations of the white trash revival try to reclaim white bread eating as a virtuous cultural celebration, an authentic piece of southern regional foodways, as Ernst Matthew Mickler’s 'White Trash Cookbook’ contends. African Americans join in this, as well, touting Wonder bread’s place in traditional soul food. Even an article in the haute cuisine magazine ‘Saveur’ admitted, ‘Sopping up [Kansas City barbeque] may well be the only legitimate use for spongy, store-bought white bread.’”

As for the artisan bread Bobrow-Strain celebrates by proxy? It’s more plentiful than ever, thanks to the likes of Au Bon Pain, the St. Louis Bread Company, and Breadsmith, which would “vie to become the Starbucks of bread” by the mid-’90s. In other words, it operates like fast food without appearing to be fast food, the exact reverse of what Kentucky Fried Chicken, or KFC, or whatever it’s called now, has been trying to accomplish for decades.