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Rich: Nostalgia, loyalty meet over a plate of chicken

POSTED: March 31, 2009 1:00 a.m.

Louise and Selena, being the genuine Southerners they are, both had a hankering for fried chicken. And I, of course, knew just where to find the perfect recipe.

"Hey, the next exit's Corbin!" I exclaimed excitedly from the back seat of the SUV as we sprinted south down Interstate-75 through Kentucky. "That's the home of the original Kentucky Fried Chicken. We have to go there."

A couple of years earlier, I had found the birthplace of the famous fried chicken, almost by accident. I was driving to Lexington when my friend, Chip, called my cell phone. When he found out where I was, he said, "You should stop in Corbin and eat at Col. Sanders' first restaurant."

Well, that's just what I did. It's a wonderful little place with the original sign - Sanders Café - still dangling in place and a huge, familiar red-and-white bucket that towers over the place built back in 1940 after a fire destroyed the first building in 1939.

He had opened the restaurant in 1932 there on Dixie Highway and became famous around those parts not for the fried chicken that would make him an American icon but rather for his succulent Smithfield ham, red-eyed gravy and grits.

Later, though, in the kitchen of that place, he experimented with different herbs and spices until he developed the "Colonel's secret recipe."

To step in the door is to step back into 1940 on one side of the building and into the glistening whiteness of a 1950s diner on the other side where the chicken is ordered and served. The 1940s side houses most of the modest museum, an ode to Kentucky's most famous citizen, though the 1950s side has a life-size Col. Sanders figure that is perched on a bench.

On my first visit there, I sat down on the bench beside him and munched on his original recipe of 11 herbs and spices.

"The last time I was here, I met Junior. He's the assistant manager," I chattered as we walked from the parking lot. And wouldn't you know? We walked in and there was Junior waiting at the cash register, grinning from ear to ear.

I was so happy to see my old friend.

"I know you don't remember me but I was here two years ago and I had the original recipe," I chatted excitedly. I stopped and smiled. "I had never had it before."

He laughed and nodded his head. Junior has the look of many of the Scotch-Irish who settled those mountains - strawberry-blonde hair, blue eyes and freckles that are fresh-looking and appealing. "I do remember you!"

I introduced him to the girls and explained that we were just passing through. We ordered our food, took a tour of the memorabilia and Junior presented me with a T-shirt emblazoned with, "I Ate Where It All Began."

"It's a gift," he said, grinning broadly.

"We have to have our picture taken," I said because, after all, our family is big on photos - Selena is a professional photographer - and it was a grand adventure as well as a visit with an old friend.

Junior left his place at the cash register and came outside to take the photo of us in front of the pitch-roofed building with its canopy-covered windows. Then Junior and I had our photo made together.

"How long has you worked here?" I asked.

"Seventeen years," replied the plenty proud assistant manager. "It's a good job and I'm glad to have it."

We talked a moment longer, said our goodbyes then I hugged Junior. As we drove away and he waved, I thought of his happy, content loyalty in a world where happiness, contentment and loyalty are rare.

At the Sanders Café in Corbin, Ky., I had met an American Original.

And it wasn't a fried chicken recipe, either.

Ronda Rich is the Gainesville-based author of the new book, "What Southern Women Know About Faith." Sign up for her newsletter.



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