A Scientific Investigation Into the Jewel of Kentucky Cuisine

by Kentucky For Kentucky |

“Well, let me just quote the late, great, Colonel Sanders. He said, ‘I’m too drunk to taste this chicken.’” — The late, great Ricky Bobby

If you’ve ever heard that now ubiquitous quote, you might have wondered whether the Colonel ever actually said it. He didn’t. But if you’re a Kentuckian who has heard it, you already knew that. Why? Because you know that Colonel Harland Sanders, of the global Kentucky Fried Chicken empire, was a steely-eyed, iron-livered chicken maniac who took no prisoners and brooked no bull. 

If you’re a Kentuckian, you probably have a more important question: How drunk is too drunk to taste this chicken? Is it even possible?

When the world challenges your chicken and boozing capabilities, there’s only so much a Kentuckian can stand. To set the record straight once and for all, you’re going to need both Kentucky booze and Kentucky bird.

No, I’m not talking about that 8-piece bucket of golden delight you get at the drive-thru. I’m talking about the real deal, the original original recipe.

Legend has it that when Harland sold his Kentucky fried rights and the corresponding secret recipe in the late 60’s, he swindled the old carpetbaggers by giving them a lesser version, preserving the actual secret recipe which includes the perfect measurements for those 11 famous spices.

The Colonel and his mistress-turned-missus, Claudia, set up shop back in Shelbyville, creating Claudia Sanders’ Dinner House so they could continue churning out the real thing while the corporate chain sold a lesser version. After their deaths, the Sanders’ friend and co-worker Cherry Settles and her husband, Mike, bought the place and moved into the adjoining house.

Years later, a reporter named Bruce Schreiner found out about a discovery made by Cherry and Mike. In 2001, he wrote in an article for the Associated Press that the couple “found the leather-bound 1964 datebook 16 months ago. It contained a recipe listing 11 herbs and spices in specific proportions. Tommy Settle wanted to authenticate the recipe in hopes of selling the book to a collector, and contacted KFC… KFC responded last week by suing for possession of the book and recipe.”

The suit dragged on but KFC eventually dropped it, breaking out into a nervous sweat while claiming it wasn’t the real recipe. But why would they sue at all unless they were worried? Frighted by false fire, as they say, KFC had revealed their hand. The carpetbaggers had to have realized: their “secret recipe” advertising stunts were at an end.   

If we’re going to find out how drunk is too drunk to taste this chicken, we can’t just use some Kentucky fried chicanery. No, sir. We’ve got to get the real thing. And as a Colonel of this Commonwealth, I’m willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of y’all. So that’s just what I went and did.

Photo courtesy of Claudia Sanders’ Dinner House

There are cats roaming outside the plantation-warehouse hybrid, and adirondack porch chairs. Older folks populate the dining room, sounds of modern country music fill up the building. A grand staircase inside the main door leads to a second-floor bar that’s empty on a Saturday night except for Ashley, who steps behind the bar when I enter.

“So, “ I said, propping my elbow up on the bar with a smirk as I unleashed what was very likely the most clever joke she’d ever heard in her life, “have you ever seen anyone too drunk to taste this chicken?”

Buddy, the hilarity of the question nearly tore Ashley apart right there at the bar. You could tell she thought it was brilliantly funny by the fact that her face was totally blank and she just stared at me for a minute, most likely wondering how such a maverick comedienne managed to wander into her neck of the woods. I guess it was cruel of me to lay such a thigh-slapper on an unsuspecting person while they’re working.

“No,” she said, probably using all of her energy to contain her laughter.

Almost immediately afterward I saw her walk over and say something to her manager. I assume she was relaying this gut-buster of a question to him because he looked up at me with the same blank expression she’d had. It was probably so funny she got a raise. Not to blow my own horn, but I was glad I could help. She deserves it. Ashley is a hard worker.

She hurried off to take care of some other tables, and I was left alone upstairs to reckon with the brooding portrait of the mysterious Harland.

In his book “Colonel Sanders and the American Dream,” author Josh Ozersky tells us that this is the tough old coot who got into a gunfight while running a gas station in Corbin, Kentucky and ended up shooting a competitor who painted over the Colonel’s storefront sign. He was a lawyer that brawled with his own clients, and a sailor with a sailor’s tongue. He stayed ornery even after selling his franchise and collecting fame and fortune. He would travel around the state denouncing the half-baked corporate trash-bird, calling it “the worst chicken fried chicken I’ve ever seen.”

He showed up at the chicken shacks to yell at employees for their disappointing product, using his ever-present cane to whack workers and throw metal trays full of tasteless half-chicken onto the floor, mad as hell that his alchemy had been reduced to garbage.

This was a Colonel that went to war for his bird. Thought he probably wished otherwise, and maybe even tried, he was never too drunk to taste this chicken. It’s up to us to prove it.

 

FOR SCIENCE

If we want to see exactly how drunk is too drunk, we’ve got be as accurate as possible. So let’s put some rules in place:

  1. Once you’re hurling a bilious geyser of pink chunks spasmodically out of your mouth between unintelligible prayers of contrition, your palate is ruined. And you are, without question, too drunk to taste this chicken.  
  2.  If you’re so drunk you mistake one of your greasy phalanges for a fried drumstick and wind up knuckle-deep in yourself by accident, then you’re too drunk to know whether or not you are actually tasting this chicken.
  3. Just like sex and Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts, if someone yells “stop,” blacks out, or goes limp–the experiment is over. If you can’t consent to this chicken, you’re too drunk to taste this chicken.

 

Objective: Determine the maximum possible intoxication level at which a human female can still be able to physically taste this chicken.

Method: Carefully balancing rapid alcohol intake against consistent measures of time, I will maximize absorption of alcohol into the brain during metabolization and minimize side effects that could undermine taste testing. I’ll eat two wings and immediately apply 44 milliliters (1.5 fluid ounces, or one straight shot) of 80 proof bourbon every 30 minutes until blood alcohol rates achieve levels which no longer allow me to taste this chicken.

 

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

Tastebuds: Most American tongues have between 2,000 and 8,000 microscopic tastebuds, and hundreds of thousands of receptor cells in the mouth. Kentuckians, however, are born with no less than 600,000,000 tastebuds that are genetically keyed from birth to analyze the flavor qualities of brown liquors.

Booze: 357ml (just over eight shots) of Kentucky Gentleman straight bourbon whiskey, 2 shots of some leftover Bulleit straight bourbon whiskey (shot size adjusted down to account for differences in proof).

Bird: 20 wings, freshly prepared using the Colonel’s secret secret recipe with the most beautiful golden-brown breading I’ve ever seen.  

Car keys: Forfeited

Lab-quality protective gear: Sweatpants, flip flops, ratty t-shirt, towel, utilitarian ponytail precautions in place in case I have to initiate emergency upchuck protocols.

Tech: Game of Thrones shot glass (House Stark), notepad and pen, back-up recorder to use after loss of fine motor skills.

Prep work: Since this experiment is just as much about tolerance as it is taste, I threw a few bologna sandwiches down my gullet an hour and a half before the experiment began to create a base layer on my stomach, and drank up to a half gallon of water throughout the day to ensure baseline hydration. This isn’t a sprint. This is a marathon.

Yours truly: 5’10,” weighing in at about 170 pounds or 77.11 kilograms, with body fat coming in at a comfortably squishy 27 percent. I’ve got a BW of 0.49, a MR of 0.017, and I like long walks on the beach, Netflix, and chill.

 

HOW DRUNK AM I?

Like fresh vegetables and rent payments, home breathalyzer tests are a bit out of the price range of a journalist. So to get my approximate blood alcohol level, I just calculated by hand, relying on my Ph.D. in Supremely Hard Math from Wikipedia University.

If you feel like reproducing this experiment with more precise results, your alternate option would be to call up a local police officer and ask him if he wants to come over and find out how drunk you are. I don’t know why, but most cops seem to be into this game. You’ll often find them at dorm parties, just hanging out, doing what they love. On special occasions, they’ll play this game with an entire city block, standing in the middle of the road with a festive vest and a flashlight, asking you to slow down just so they can chit chat about how drunk they think you might be.

I, personally, have never had them guess the correct amount. They look disappointed when they get it wrong, but I keep a teddy bear in my backseat as a prize for them if they ever guess correctly. They’ll have earned it.

 

SLURRY HOME COMPANION

To estimate peak blood alcohol concentration (EBAC), you’re best bet is to apply the Widmark formula. Here’s how to do it if you want to play along at home:

Two things stay the same no matter who you are: 0.806 is about how much water is in your blood (80.6 percent), and 1.2 has something to do with Sweden.

Wt is your weight in kilograms. BW is called “body water constant,” which I won’t pretend to understand outside the fact that it is sex-specific. Female adults plug 0.49 into this spot, male adults 0.58. MR is your metabolism rate and is also sex-specific (female adults can use 0.017 and males 0.015). This is how fast your body gets rid of alcohol, whether that’s through a ridiculous number of trips to the bathroom or that rank margarita breath you’ve expelled into someone’s face. MR also tells you a lot about how each of the sexes handle their booze.

A common misconception is that male adults generally have a higher tolerance because they tend to be physically bigger than female adults. But since female adults tend to have a higher percentage of body fat (where alcohol can be temporarily stored) and we have a higher rate of elimination, we can drink you under the table more often than you think.

Lastly, plug in the overall number of hours you’ve been drinking (DP) and the number of drinks (SD). Now, you’re ready to find out how drunk you are. Congrats. Take a shot.

One point to remember: B.A.C. of 0.01 is 1 percent of a milliliter. So when a cop explains to your wobbling face that he’s clocked your B.A.C. at the legal limit of “0.08,” what he’s saying is that you’ve got 0.00008 liters of alcohol for every liter of blood in your barely-upright body.

ROUND 1: FIGHT

20:00 – Wings number one and two: Immediately realize I have never had real fried chicken before. Unlike anything mortal man has ever tasted. Considering abandoning journalism to work at Dinner House. Sympathizing with Harland. Intense desire to burn down every KFC in existence. Secret recipe confirmed. This is it. This has to be it.

First shot: Just like the other Kenny G, this one also succeeds in ruining everything he touches.   

20:30 – Wings three and four: Last 30 minutes have been an eternity.

Second shot: Motor skills, coordination, depth perception, and concentration levels still strong. Resolve, however, waning.

Calculations: (0.806 21.2)/(0.49 77.11) – (0.017 1) = 0.0341964091
B.A.C.: 0.03

ROUND 2: TEST YOUR MIGHT

21:00 – Wings five and six: Initial shock has worn off. Detail in preparation more evident. Wings were dredged in less flour than KFC’s. The skin is crisp but without pulling away from the meat like KFC’s does. Betting that the Dinner House still brines their chicken and does a full buttermilk soak. They’ve got to be using pressure fryers. The meat is just so moist and tender. Somebody grew this guy, fed him mealworms and grain, kept him warm. Somebody loved him.

Shot three: I remain convinced that I could probably play saxophone better than this bourbon tastes.

21:30 – Wings seven and eight: Not only does the taste remain undiluted by the booze, but it may have made the booze more tolerable. This isn’t the Kentucky fried chicken that had Harland flipping prep tables. This is less greasy, and more evenly cooked, suggesting that it was either (after being frozen) allowed to come to room temperature before being fried, or that it was cooked with fresh, unfrozen chicken.

Shot four: Burning away the delicate mucous membrane on the surface of my tongue at this point, but is it worth escaping the taste of the world’s worst bourbon if it means I can’t taste the world’s best chicken?

Calculations: (0.806 41.2)/(0.49 77.11) – (0.017 2) = 0.0683928181

B.A.C.: 0.07

Notes: My penmanship skills began to turn sour at this point. I made the switch to the backup audio recorder. Surprisingly, my ability to use a keyboard was unimpaired, which allowed me to continue producing a string a tweets, and which also answered a lot of my long-standing questions about George Will.

ROUND 3: FINISH HIM

22:00 – Wings seven and eight: “Hot KFC is tolerable for the price, right? But when KFC gets cold, it becomes a gummy, semi-gelatinous mess. Now, Harland’s chicken cools off and it’s better cold than KFC’s is hot. It’s not stringy or rigid with overcooked tendons. These wings seems like they were cooked at a lower temperature. There’s no pan or tray marks where the chicken lay too long one way or another. There’s no dripping hot-oil fry-basket taste. There’s just the spices that keep coming through. Not ‘hot spicy,’ just a careful balance of sage and savor.”

Shot five: “I don’t even like Game of Thrones.”

22:30 – Wings nine and ten: “Did I have to drive all the way to B.F.E. and back for this chicken? Yes. Did I have walk into a building that wishes it was a [unintelligible audio] plantation house, just to get this chicken? Swear I did that. And did fried chicken become a centerpiece of American cuisine thanks to the skill of an enslaved people who perfected the art of turning cheap birds into gourmet meals with West African spice and sheer brilliance? Yes. Yes, it did. This chicken is the story of a white man building on a body of culinary artisanship before accidentally delivering it to the hands of corporate devils who would go on to make racist advertisements into this very decade. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is this not the most problematic chicken that ever was? You know it is. And God help me, it’s the best damned chicken I’ve ever had in my life.”

Shot six: “I will fight this dumpster.”

Calculations: (0.806 61.2)/(0.49 77.11) – (0.017 3) = 0.1025892272

B.A.C.: 0.10

Notes: The 0.1 – 0.199 range is queasy territory. This is where the early food layering and hydration really pay off. The lab-quality protective gear may not have actually been necessary, but this B.A.C. range is also about where you stop caring who sees you in sweatpants.

 

ROUND 4: FLAWLESS VICTORY

23:00 – Wings 11 and 12: “This stuff is unstoppable. I’ve had plenty to eat today, but these are wings that won’t quit. By now, with KFC chicken, I’d have a filmy layer on my tongue. That’s not what’s happening here. All that crap about the secret spice thing is real. There are real spices. KFC isn’t using them but that chicken witch, Claudia, is. Garlic, pepper, salt, all the regulars. What is this other fairy dust? Maybe turmeric?”

Shot seven: “But that’s the thing: stray cats can’t get student loans. He doesn’t know why I’m crying. He just thinks I’m drunk.”

23:30 – Wings 13 and 14: “You know, I just found an article by Jere Downs where she interviewed John Y. Brown III, one of these big-shot lobbyists in Frankfort. He said when he was little, Harland taught him how to make biscuits one morning. You guys, we gotta get Big Chicken out of politics and into my kitchen.”

Shot eight. “Sure, he’s got momentum now, but you don’t know him. What if Bernie wins it but he comes out on stage wearing a fedora that says ‘Feel the Bern’? And everybody’s like ‘Oh, daaaaaaaang. You got us, Bernie. You got us so good.”

Calculations: (0.806 81.2)/(0.49 77.11) – (0.017 4) = 0.1367856362

B.A.C.: 0.14

ROUND 5: COLONEL WINS

24:00 – Wings 15 and 16: “Mr. Speaker, I move the clencher on this chicken!” 

Shot 9: Impromptu version of “She Blinded Me with Science” by Thomas Dolby sung at oppressive decibel levels.

24:30 – Wings (number uncertain): Sounds of slow, deliberate chewing, interspersed with occasional moans and soft chuckling for approximately three and a half minutes.

Shot 10: Possibly a version of My Old Kentucky Home, could also be that one song by Joe Cocker.

Calculations: (0.806 101.2)/(0.49 77.11) – (0.017 5) =0.1709820453

B.A.C.: 0.17

Notes: No one should be going beyond 0.20. It’s easy to cross a dangerous threshold with alcohol poisoning. It can happen hours after your last drink. You might already be back home safe, just trying to make the bed stop spinning, and it can strike you down. Alcohol poisoning can even happen the following day. Between 0.200 – 0.299, you can expect not only a first-class vomithon, but memory blackout, loss of motor control, and unconsciousness. Your heart forgets how to beat regularly, your breathing is disrupted. Don’t be an idiot: If you take it one sip too far, you’re not going to be around for the hangover, and you’re definitely going to be too drunk to taste this chicken.

 

RESULTS

Within the context of our rules, the maximum blood alcohol level at which one is too drunk to taste this chicken is about 0.17.

That’s not to say you couldn’t taste it afterward, just that it would be hard to do so if you can’t reach the bar. On a related note, I woke up with nearly no hangover. I speculate that it was by the grace of Claudia.

Here are the facts: If you don’t try this chicken, you might as well smash all the plates in your house and eat off the floor. If you call yourself a foodie, don’t try Claudia’s chicken; it’ll just ruin you for everything else. If you call yourself a Kentucky cook and you won’t pick up a batch of this chicken, you deserve to be driven out of the state and dropped off in Indiana. If you love soul food and you don’t try this chicken, you’re missing out on a culinary time capsule where hundreds of years of southern cooking came together to show you exactly what fried chicken should have been all along.

Conclusion: Claudia’s bird is a blessing on the Commonwealth. If a goodly, God-fearing Kentuckian doesn’t find their way to Claudia Sanders’ Dinner House before they die, they’ll likely find themselves at its gates immediately afterward. 

Kentucky for Kentucky