Southern Man don’t need you around anyhow

For some odd rea­son I was try­ing to think of odd events in my life. Not the odd­est — such is an impos­si­bil­i­ty — but just odd.

I thought of weird and odd coin­ci­dences. There have been many: stand­ing on a street cor­ner (Broad­way & Hous­ton) in NYC in 1990 talk­ing to a friend who I had lit­er­al­ly bumped into, and then a third per­son, a mutu­al friend of us both, walk­ing around the cor­ner; stand­ing on the same street (B/way) two decades lat­er, won­der­ing aloud to Brigid how we would track down our friend Sal­ly who lived in the city and then real­is­ing that Sal­ly was stand­ing right next to me; going to a bar, once again in NYC, this time in 1994, and meet­ing an Amer­i­can guy who I had chat­ted to in Auck­land, at Cause Cele­bre, four days ear­li­er; or, and this was real­ly odd, get­ting on a tube in Cam­den in 1988 only to see my friend Valo from Auck­land oppo­site — I had no idea he was in Lon­don, but he told me he had moved recent­ly, and was now liv­ing in a flat in Isling­ton — four doors from where I was stay­ing with anoth­er mate.

True odd­ness.

How­ev­er meet­ing the Colonel was up there in the odd­ness stakes.

By the Colonel I mean, of course, The Colonel.

Colonel Sanders.

Who wasn’t real­ly a Colonel and didn’t actu­al­ly invent the way the the chick­en was being cooked by the time I came face to face with him. He once described the cor­po­rate ver­sion of his cre­ation as tast­ing like ‘a damn dough­ball stuck on a chick­en’.

It’s hard to argue with that.

It was 1973, or at a pinch (of the heav­i­ly MSG infused secret recipe) ear­ly 1974 when the Colonel came to town. I was work­ing part time at the Pan­mure branch of Ken­tucky Fried Chick­en (they would not drop the words to the ‘KFC’ acronym to try and hide the ‘fried’ tag for anoth­er decade and half) in South-East Auck­land to save dosh to buy a car. It was one of four branch­es in the coun­try, all in Auck­land — the oth­ers being Roy­al Oak (the first, in 1971), Pap­a­toe­toe and Taka­puna. At the time the Pap­a­toe­toe branch had, so we were told, the biggest KFC turnover of any branch glob­al­ly — a ques­tion­able hon­our it lost a few years lat­er to Toko­roa down coun­try.

Our staff was about 70% Poly­ne­sian and Maori, as were, I guess, our clien­tèle who came in droves — on Fri­day and Sat­ur­day evenings we would have a queue down the road as folks lined up for their coro­nary induc­ing fam­i­ly packs.

They were dif­fer­ent times.…

That same obe­si­ty-in-kids-is-fine ad ran for years in New Zealand too.

But back to the Colonel before I for­get the drift of all this.

Yep. The Colonel came to New Zealand, brought, I sur­mise, by Gen­er­al Foods / Tip Top who owned the domes­tic fran­chise, to give the prod­uct a shove. In those days, of course, any minor celebri­ty who couldn’t get arrest­ed else­where was bound to pull a large and hap­py crowd in New Zealand — a lit­tle like 2010 — but in this case the good (or not so good if you believe the peo­ple from his home­town) Colonel was a lit­tle more than that. As well as being a cor­po­rate icon, he was, by 1973, one of the most famous faces on the plan­et.

A long way from this:

As the day approached sev­er­al of us were approached by the man­age­ment one by one, as often hap­pened, and asked if we want­ed to work that shift. I hap­pi­ly agreed — who wouldn’t?

On the day I arrived to begin my shift around ten and we were all pulled aside by the shift boss and giv­en a swift talk. We were not, he said, to cook the fin­ger lickin’ chick­en as we always did every day — as pre­scribed by the lam­i­nat­ed man­u­al that hung out­side the staff room which we all used as our guide to all things Ken­tucky. Instead, he said, we were to use a slow­er, far more labour inten­sive method that includ­ed by-step­ping the nor­mal sachets of the 11 famous herbs and spices, and instead adding anoth­er mix­ture which came that morn­ing in sev­er­al sealed bags.

As I recall it smelt rather dif­fer­ent — salti­er and less tangy — but we oblig­ed with all the instruc­tion.

I not­ed that the staff on the shift exclud­ed sev­er­al of the week­day shift reg­u­lars. Indeed none of the old­er women who nor­mal­ly worked, were on. Instead, all the stu­dents and part-timers were work­ing. I shrugged and assumed it was to give the place a youngish edge for the old man.

He arrived around mid­day and was escort­ed into the kitchen where we were, one by one, intro­duced to the white be-suit­ed old guy. He was much small­er than I thought he would be — he was an odd look­ing lit­tle man, rather unim­pres­sive, and he mere­ly grunt­ed as he went from per­son to per­son. He had an odd odour about him.

It was over in 10 min­utes and as he left we were told to imme­di­ate­ly return to the nor­mal cook­ing pro­ce­dure. The sealed bags were tossed and the nor­mal sachets opened.

I looked around and it clicked — all the staff this day were white skinned. I asked Dave, the shift boss, if this was inten­tion­al. Most­ly, as I said above, our staff, and very much the old­er women who made us all laugh so much in the hor­rif­ic greasy work envi­ron­ment, were brown.

But not today.

Dave was quite open about this: the word had come from head office, after instruc­tion from the US, that the ‘Colonel’ was not to be intro­duced to coloured peo­ple.

Har­land Sanders, the colonel (who deserves the title all low­er case if at all), was, rather unsur­pris­ing­ly, a good old fash­ioned South­ern racist.

He had always been hap­py to sell to black and brown folks, but he want­ed no inter­ac­tion with these ‘peo­ple’. And god for­bid hav­ing to shake hands with such peo­ple. Since he was so god­ly…

Thus Tip Top had all the Maori and Island staff ros­tered off for the day shift.

I left short­ly after­wards to go to uni­ver­si­ty. I had the mon­ey for my car and I was sick of com­ing home stink­ing of KFC and cov­ered in the grime, grease and secret herbs & spices. I hat­ed the place and for­ev­er will.

I still gag at it all and didn’t come close to eat­ing again until Jan­u­ary 1st, 2000 when Brigid and I woke after a huge mil­len­ni­um NYE. We need­ed food. We want­ed cur­ry. Closed. We want­ed Prego piz­za. Closed. Every­thing. Closed.

Apart from KFC. Des­per­ate, we rang the 0800 num­ber and placed a reluc­tant order.

An hour or so lat­er there was a knock on the door. I went out and the deliv­ery boy stood there. Actu­al­ly, the deliv­ery boy was not a boy but a man in his mid-twen­ties. And he wasn’t stand­ing there, he was lean­ing there – on our porch wall. Huge­ly over­weight, gasp­ing for breath hav­ing walked the 20m from his car, he stood there push­ing a red and white striped box and an invoice in my direc­tion. I hand him $50 and he fum­bled around and hand­ed me sev­er­al greasy screwed up notes and a coin or two before he stag­gered away.

Inside Brigid and I, already shak­en by this deliv­ery, opened the box and felt nau­se­at­ed by the unc­tu­os­i­ty and the over­pow­er­ing smell.

We threw the food in the trash.

Per­haps more obscene than odd. But it’s a sto­ry…

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November 15, 2010 at 1:01 pm

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