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.
However meeting the Colonel was up there in the oddness stakes.
By the Colonel I mean, of course, The Colonel.
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…