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7 Finger-lickin' Legends About Colonel Sanders and KFC

Colonel Sanders
Colonel Sanders poses with a batch of his fried chicken. Courtesy KFC Corporation. All rights reserved.

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With its crispy golden fried chicken, KFC is a staple of the fast-food world, sporting 23,000 restaurants in more than 135 countries. You don't get that big without accumulating some myths and urban legends along the way. Here are seven that have been in the public eye for years but just aren't true.

1. KFC Doesn't Use Real Chicken

In 1991, Kentucky Fried Chicken officially changed its name to KFC. The new version was shorter and snappier, nixed the world "fried" (which had a bad reputation), and omitted the word "chicken," because the company planned to expand its menu with other foods.

Still, some paranoid types decided that the real reason for the name change was that KFC was no longer using real chicken. Instead, the company was using mutant chicken-like organisms with multiple legs, sans feathers, and possibly more than one head. (Why else would they say "chunks of tender white meat" instead of "chicken" in their commercials?)

This myth is so prevalent that KFC had to address it on its website: "KFC sources 100 percent real chicken — of the absolutely non-GMO variety — from trusted US farms... this case went to court, where the rumors were thoroughly debunked and shown to be as false as they were silly."

So how did it get started? Perhaps it was be a sign of the times — a fear of genetically-modified foods and industrial foods in general.

2: Colonel Sanders Was a Real Army Colonel

Harland Sanders did enlist in the U.S. Army as a young man but never reached the rank of colonel. He launched his first food service from a Shell gas station in 1930 at the age of 40. Just five years later, his food was so legendary that Kentucky Governor Ruby Laffoon gave the fried chicken king an honorary title of colonel, which was a distinction bestowed upon distinguished gentlemen of the South.

In 1949, Sanders received another such honorary commission, and this time, he decided to put it to good use, leveraging the colonel title for marketing purposes. He grew a goatee and mustache, and eventually, donned a signature white suit and a black string tie. He even bleached his facial hair so that it matched his hair. His iconic look became the literal face of the company. Having a recognizable look no doubt helped when he started hitting the road to sign up franchisees.

3. Colonel Sanders Stole the Secret Chicken Recipe

An oft-repeated story is that Colonel Sanders stole his famous "11 herbs and spices" recipe from a Southern black woman. One version says that Sanders nabbed the recipe from a woman known only as Miss (or Mrs.) Childress; when she threatened to go public, he paid her off with a meager $1,200.

While there is a history of white entrepreneurs taking ideas from black cooks and not giving credit, no one has found that to be the case with the KFC recipe, Snopes reported.

But it does lead to an interesting aside: Sanders' decision to use newly invented pressure cookers to make his famous fried chicken was as crucial to his success as any recipe. These innovative cookers made it much faster to create delectable fried foods, and helped Sanders more quickly expand his restaurant empire.

4. Harland Sanders Was a Gentle Soul

Maybe in his personal life, but in business he was anything but. Early on, Sanders bounced from one railroad job to the next. Eventually, he became a fireman with the Illinois Central Railroad. When he had downtime, he decided to study law in hopes of becoming an attorney. (Sources say he turned to law either after a brawl with a co-worker or because he realized he could make more money representing workers injured in rail accidents.)

Rather than attend college, he studied law via correspondence, through a program offered by La Salle Extension University. His career as a lawyer lasted just a few years, collapsing after Sanders got into a fight with his own client in the middle of a courtroom.

He tried a few more careers before turning to the restaurant business. (During his gas station days, he shot a rival station owner during a gunfight.) In 1964 he sold his now-successful corporation for $2 million and stayed on as brand ambassador. In 1971 the business was resold to a company called Heublein. Sanders so disliked the changes the new owners made to the food that he decided to open a competing restaurant. Heublein tried to block this and Sanders sued the company for $122 million. Both sides settled out of court.

5. Colonel Sanders Cursed a Japanese Baseball Team

The Hanshin Tigers, a professional baseball team, spent decades languishing without a championship trophy. Then, in 1985, thanks to a former big leaguer, American pitcher Randy Bass, the team finally broke through and won it all.

As local tradition demanded, fans gathered on a nearby bridge and called out the names of the players on the now-triumphant team. When each name was shouted, a fan who looked most like that player would jump into the river. Of course, no one resembled Bass, so instead, they nabbed a statue of Colonel Sanders from a nearby KFC restaurant and chucked it into the water.

This act launched a decades-long drought, from which the Tigers have still not recovered. It was the Curse of the Colonel. Finally, in 2009, divers miraculously pulled the statue from the river bottom, but that still hasn't changed their luck. However a fan site for the Hanshin Tigers points out that most media reports have this story wrong: The Sanders incident happened actually after the Tigers won the CL pennant, but before they won the Nippon Series (the championship) two weeks later. Further, talk of a curse only started two years after this, as a way to explain how the team's performance had declined so much.

6. A KFC Customer Bit into a Fried Rat

This tall tale (tail?), which has been repeated for decades, is just that — an urban legend that a woman bit into a piece of chicken that turned out to be fried rat. Sure, a lot of fast food joints (and restaurants in general) deal with rat problems. But no one's ever proved that KFC served a fried rodent for dinner.

In 2000, a family sued KFC, saying that they'd found an entire chicken head in their order, even posing with pictures of the crispy noggin. But the family refused to let experts examine the head, and the lawsuit soon dissipated.

Similarly, in 2015, a man posted a picture to Facebook claiming it featured a fried rat from KFC. A DNA test proved that the item was just a chicken tender.

7. The Secret Recipe Is No Longer Secret

Several news sites have published versions of the recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken, the most convincing of which comes courtesy of a relative interviewed by the Chicago Tribune. However, the KFC Corporation claims no one has gotten the recipe right, according to the Tribune. Nevertheless, a food writer reverse-engineered the chicken and came up with a recipe you can try.

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