Sunday, February 18, 2001

Chicken recipe 'sure tastes familiar'

        Recipes are serious business. In our family, it was Aunt Patty's Baked Beans. We'd chew carefully and speculate.

        “Well, there's definitely chili powder,” my brother Steve said. We ignored him. Years of smoking has incinerated his taste buds. My cousin Lydia detected a hint of mustard. Not much help, we told her. Is a hint more than a teaspoon? Aunt Patty would just smile.

        Finally, we wore her down.

        Maybe she got tired of being the Bean Queen. Maybe she was trying to inspire a generation who had begun to take unconscionable short cuts, showing up at picnics with buckets of chicken and store-bought dinner rolls.

        Anyway, she caved.

        She gave it to her sisters, who gave it to their daughters. And so forth. Soon, it could be found in cookbooks published by churches and fire stations with titles like Butterbean Blowout and Beanie Surprise. Tragic.

Corporate coronary
               So, you can see why Kentucky Fried Chicken had a corporate coronary when it looked as if somebody had the secret recipe. More than pride was at stake. KFC posted sales last year of $8.9 billion.

        Colonel Harland Sanders, who died in 1980, developed the formula and entrusted it to his wife, Claudia. This is the last recorded instance of trust. Now, the recipe is in a safe, and everybody who knows the secret has signed confidentiality contracts. Ingredients are blended by two companies, neither of which has the complete recipe.

        Imagine the fear and loathing at KFC headquarters when Tommy Settle called to ask if they'd be interested in a list of 11 spices in the colonel's handwriting. They were so interested they sent a deputy sheriff to the Settles' door three days later with a writ, demanding the list.

Father figure
               Tommy and his wife, Cherry, are hardly adventurers out for a quick buck. They own the Claudia Sanders Dinner House in Shelbyville, Ky. “My father died when I was 7,” Cherry Settle says, “and the Colonel kind of took on that role.”

        When Cherry married Tommy, the Colonel walked her down the aisle. He'd already sold them the Shelbyville restaurant, along with the white house next door.

        Cherry found the leather-bound ledger a year and a half ago. “It was in the basement with a bunch of other stuff. He wrote down everything, how much he paid for meals. Wasn't much of a tipper,” Cherry observes. “A quarter, 15 cents.” Inside the book was a list of spices, 11 of them. And in specific amounts, by the milligram.

        “Sounded like the secret recipe to me,” Cherry says. She and Tommy thought the company might like to buy the book from them. “We thought it was their recipe, in the handwriting of their founder, you know, like a collector's item.”

        The company sued.

        The suit was dropped, after KFC found that five of the ingredients were different from their recipe. They returned the book. Cherry fried up a batch of chicken, using the formula and “it sure tastes familiar.”

        She is scheduled to appear Friday on CBS' The Early Show. “They are planning some kind of cook-off with KFC.” Their recipe against the one Cherry found. “All in fun.”

        For serious business, Cherry will stick to her own fried-chicken recipe, customer tested over 28 years. She thinks hers is a little spicier than the one she found in the basement. I asked for the recipe.

        She says it's a secret.

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