WASHINGTON — Louisville-based Yum! Brands is not exactly a household name, but its brands are: KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut. Together they form the world's largest fast food company. In global terms, the flagship brand is good old KFC, which is an especially big hit in Asia - "Kentucky Fried Chicken" plays an integral role in Japanese Christmas traditions and its restaurants are ubiquitous in urban China. The foundations of this empire go back to a southern cook whose real culinary innovations had little to do with that famous secret blend of 11 herbs and spices.
Before there was KFC, there was really no such thing as fast-food chicken. Fast food meant thin, easily griddled burgers and thin-cut potato sticks you could dump in the deep fryer. But starting in 1930, a school dropout and army veteran named Harland Sanders - he was a teamster in Cuba during his U.S. Army stint, not a colonel - had a popular roadside motel, restaurant and service station in Corbin, Ky., where he served down-home southern classics including fried chicken and country ham. (Food critic Duncan Hines' 1940 book "Adventures in Good Eating: Good Eating Places Along the Highways of America" described the spot as "a very good place to stop en route to Cumberland Falls and the Great Smokies.") For at least the next decade, Sanders and his restaurant prospered. He became a prominent member of the local community and, despite having been born and raised in Indiana, was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel by Gov. Lawrence Wetherby.
And then came the interstate. We can only speculate as to the quality of the food at Sanders' old place, but Hines' recommendation was spot-on in terms of location. Driving south from Lexington on U.S. 25, you'd pass right by the restaurant just a few miles before reaching the turn for the Cumberland Falls Highway that would take you away from commerce and toward natural beauty. Then I-75 was built, and between Corbin and Lexington, it runs parallel to - but distinctly west of - the old U.S. 25. The new grade-separated road provided a much faster route for through-travelers. Sanders' business closed in 1955.