KFC's Colonel Sanders: He Was Real, Not Just an Icon

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Corbis / Bettmann

Harland Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, died in 1980 at the age of 90

When I read last week that a majority of Americans ages 18 to 25 didn't know who Colonel Sanders was, I was shocked. According to USA Today, 61% of respondents didn't know who the guy with the beard in the KFC logo was. What? They don't know who the most famous chicken icon in the world is? A face that says "fried chicken" to hungry people from China to Peru?

For anyone who grew up in America in the second half of the 20th century, the Colonel was a true icon. You didn't need to be able to read to know who he was; you didn't even need to watch TV. Anyone who drove a mile in any direction would see his beaming, grandfatherly visage and white suit and know that Kentucky Fried Chicken could be found there. Maybe not everybody knew that he was the chain's founder or remembered his TV commercials from the '60s and '70s, when he talked about how each piece was dipped in an "egg warsh" before frying. But, at least, they knew he was real. Half of the young adults in the survey, which was ordered up by the chain, assumed that he was the creation of KFC, rather than the other way around.

I find this very disturbing. And not because I'm in the process of writing a book about Colonel Sanders. I don't expect anybody under 25 to read it — or anybody else, for that matter. But it hurts me as an American to think that so many people lack such a basic piece of cultural information. I mean, it's one thing to not know who Thomas Jefferson was or when the Vietnam War ended. College professors brace themselves for the ignorance of their charges and, in fact, have a good laugh about it every year, when two academics in Wisconsin circulate, with much fanfare, a list of how much the incoming freshmen don't know.

But by not knowing that Harland David Sanders was an actual man, who lived an actual life, people miss out on more than they might imagine. For one thing, the Colonel wasn't just a fast-food baron who represented his company on TV, the way Dave Thomas (a Sanders protégé) later did. Sanders was the living embodiment of what his food supposedly stood for. His white suit wasn't the invention of a marketing committee; he wore it every day and was never seen in public for the last 20 years of his life in anything else. (He had a heavy wool one for winter and a lighter cotton one for summer.) He was a failure who got fired from a dozen jobs before starting his restaurant, and then failed at that when he went out of business and found himself broke at the age of 65. He drove around in a Cadillac with his face painted on the side before anybody knew who he was, pleading with the owners of run-down diners to use his recipe and give him a nickel commission on each chicken. He slept in the back of the car and made handshake deals. His first marriage was a difficult one, so he divorced his wife after 39 years. (His second marriage was much happier.) He once shot a man in a gun battle, but was never charged as the other guy started it. He was a lawyer who once assaulted his own client in court. He was indeed a Kentucky Colonel, an honorary title given to him by not one but two governors. He was a Rotarian and a Presbyterian, and he deserves to be remembered at least for having a verifiable existence.

But after he died, at the age of 90 in 1980, his image was up for grabs. By the 1980s, the Old South was not the most appealing image for a national chain. Nor was fried chicken any longer the perfect food to feed your family in a time when calorie-counting and healthy choices were already becoming omnipresent concerns. The Colonel was for a time even transformed into a frisky cartoon character who danced around, dunked basketballs and affected hip-hop lingo when he wasn't plugging Pokémon toys. Later, perhaps in a fit of remorse, KFC outfitted him in an apron to remind the world of his culinary skill.

Since the Colonel's death, his company has changed its name, dropping Kentucky Fried Chicken for the more generic and unthreatening initials KFC, even going so far as to suggest that the letters stood for "Kitchen Fresh Chicken." Nobody was fooled. Frequently KFC has wanted to shift its identity to something more in keeping with the times, but it is yoked to the Colonel and his fried legacy. And its inability to change is, in fact, the best thing about it. There is no "original recipe" for McDonald's; that company can change the way it makes burgers tomorrow, just like it has in the past. The food at Taco Bell doesn't reference any particular place or time; there's nobody to recognize, no frame of reference to miss. Many KFC franchisees, particularly in the South, wish that Yum! Brands, KFC's parent, would see that, and these franchisees feel so strongly about the matter that they have sued KFC. They feel that KFC'S rebranding efforts hurt the brand, and couldn't care less if the chain's core product is "relevant," as KFC puts it.

It's hard not to see at least some grounds for their position. After all, Colonel Sanders' 11 secret herbs and spices are their greatest asset. That recipe is kept in a vault deep inside corporate headquarters in Lexington, Ky., surrounded by motion detectors and surveillance cameras; only two executives have access to it at any time. Inside that vault, those spices are written on a piece of notebook paper, in pencil, in Sanders' own hand. I'm told that the paper is yellowing and the handwriting, by now, is faint. That fragile connection to a real man and a real vision is what makes KFC unique. I wish more people would appreciate that.

Ozersky is a James Beard Award—winning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His food video site, Ozersky.TV, is updated daily. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders. Taste of America, Ozersky's food column for TIME.com, appears every Wednesday.