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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Best Stories in the World: KFR

There's this married couple, see, and they're about to celebrate their first anniversary. But their lives are hectic, almost out of control as they try to work hard enough to save money for their first house. Both are full-timers, staying late. So they decide to give themselves a break on their anniversary. On their way home, they pick up a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The husband sets out a picnic blanket on the floor, dims the lights, and pours the wine. The wife gets the plates. They chat and flirt and though things are tough, they see a bright future ahead of them. They don't mind that they're eating cheap food. Until the wife takes her first bite of a drumstick. There's something wrong with it, she says. It tastes weird, and it feels weird. The husband turns the lights up, and they see the tail of a rat hanging down from the battered and fried drumstick.

Is there a better urban legend than the Kentucky Fried Rat? Maybe. I don't know. Who cares? The rat is glorious. So glorious that it persists--just last year a dude reported receiving a rat instead of a chicken from the fast food restaurant. He even supplied photographic evidence. What's even better: the KFC in question had the offending meat tested at "a lab," which determined that it was chicken after all.

The story comes in lots of forms. One with a particular meaning places all the blame on the wife, who promises to cook for the husband but runs out of time, prompting her to get fast food and disguise it with fancy plates and napkins.

I remember teaching folklore right around the time that KFC changed its name to the initials instead of Kentucky Fried Chicken. My students insisted that they did so because their meat had been altered genetically to the point that it couldn't legally be called chicken anymore. Which is awesomely hilarious. I mean, why would anybody think KFC operates its own chicken farms? And believing this urban legend requires a person to believe that science has advance to the point that people can genetically engineer life forms without feathers, beaks, and the like. Sure, scientists can produce embryos with snouts instead of beaks, or turn on the gene that produces teeth, but things haven't progressed that much.

So why is this the best story in the world? Well, all urban legends comment directly on some element of society, some way that we're making ourselves uncomfortable. This one's about food preparation, reminding us that we probably put too much faith in overworked, underpaid teenagers when it comes to giving us things to eat, that we put too much faith in gigantic corporations that probably don't have our best interests in mind when it comes to giving us things to eat. So the story implicates her in the tragedy for not doing her wifely duty. Misogynistic or not, the story is about our failure to engage with our own lives in the important realm of sustenance. I also love it because, like all urban legends, it makes us shudder.

This legend goes back a few decades. Jan Brunvand writes about it in The Vanishing Hitchhiker. Gary Alan Fine devoted an article to it for the Journal of the Folklore Institute.

"If Colonel Sanders was to be careful how he worded it, he could actually advertise an extra piece."

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