In the 1990s, every fourth grade student in the Commonwealth of Kentucky was expected to write and assemble a collection of essays about the history and culture of Kentucky into what my fourth grade teacher, and likely also the Kentucky Department of Education called a “Kentucky Scrapbook.” The essays could be about anything, assuming they were Kentucky-related. I remember writing about the official state flower (goldenrod), the two official state trees (the tulip poplar and Kentucky coffee tree), and the state critter (the gray squirrel). Were I assembling a Kentucky scrapbook as an adult, I’d probably write an essay or two about Kentucky’s contributions to the fast food industry including the lesser known origins of Long John Silver’s and Fazoli’s, and of course the eponymous fried chicken that was Harland “The Colonel” Sanders’ gift to the world.
Anyone with a casual interest in fast food history is aware of the humble origins of KFC and how at the age of 65, Harland Sanders, motivated by the planned bypass of his business by what would become Interstate 75, set out to create a franchising empire based on the fried chicken recipe he served at his humble restaurant/gas station/motel in Corbin, Kentucky. Sanders, incidentally served in the First World War, but never attained a military rank higher than corporal. He called himself "Colonel" because like many semi-prominent Kentuckians, he had been given the honorary title of Kentucky Colonel. Pete Harman, owner of the Harman Cafe in South Salt Lake City, Utah would become Sanders’ first franchisee. His restaurant would add Sanders’ chicken to its existing menu, and would become the first location to use the Kentucky Fried Chicken name. KFC wouldn't become a standalone restaurant concept in its own right until the brand changed ownership over a decade later, but at the time it wasn’t terribly unusual for a company to market a franchised menu and name to existing restaurants. That’s more or less how Big Boy briefly became a nationwide chain of loosely affiliated regional chains, and how brands like Broaster Foods continue to operate today. Indeed, Harland Sanders' business model was nothing new when Utahns got their first taste of Kentucky Fried Chicken. At the time, independently owned restaurants and bars had been selling Chicken in the Rough since the Colonel was a corporal.
Chicken in the Rough is one of the earliest franchised restaurant brands in the US, dating back to 1936 by Oklahoma restaurateurs Beverly and Rubye Osborne, whose relationship and respective gender identities are unclear from their given names, and based on my limited research, have been lost to time. (Beverly has historically been used as both a masculine and feminine name, and I learned in fourth grade that Kentucky once had a male governor named Ruby Laffoon, whose name is second in hilarity only to fellow Kentucky governor Flem Sampson.) The exact origins of the Chicken in the Rough name are similarly unclear, originating either from an unintentional omission of utensils from a chicken dinner or an unfortunate picnic basket spill during an ill-fated Steinbeckian exodus from Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma. What we do know is that Chicken in the Rough was once served at close to 300 franchised locations, most of which were existing restaurants who paid to use the Chicken in the Rough brand and recipe. Despite being first to market and having a similar origin story, Chicken in the Rough floundered while KFC became a worldwide sensation. The Colonel’s chicken was cooked quickly in a special pressure fryer that lent itself well to standalone fast food locations at a time when fast food customers were beginning to crave more than just the burgers that launched the industry, while Chicken in the Rough was cooked in an unpressurized deep fryer that kept it tied to full service restaurants during the fast food chicken boom of the 1960s.
|Port Huron's home of Chicken in the Rough
Today, Chicken in the Rough is sold at only three locations, Beverly’s Pancake House in Oklahoma City, which seems to have some connection to Beverly and Rubye Osborne, and two bars that are separated by less than 3 miles that are situated on opposite sides of an international border. The Palms Krystal Bar and Grill in Port Huron Michigan and McCarthy Grill across the St. Clair river in Sarnia, Ontario are the other two holdout Chicken in the Rough franchisees.
Sadly, I learned of the existence of Beverly’s Pancake House after my first and only visit to Oklahoma to eat at the last Ku-Ku, and with nonessential travel over the Canadian border restricted at the time, The Palms Krystal was the easiest place for me to experience Chicken in the Rough. It was a relatively quick two hour drive to Port Huron from my adopted home in the Detroit suburbs, and I was greeted by a vintage neon sign of the Chicken in the Rough logo, a rooster reminiscent of Roger Miller’s character in the Disney Robin Hood movie clad in cartoonish golf attire with one (large) talon improbably wrapped around a golf club whose shaft has presumably just broken attempting to hit a nearby golf ball out of some tall grass, or “the rough” in golf parlance. Whoever designed the character the better part of a century ago made the choice to depict him smoking what I assume was meant to be a hand rolled cigarette, but to modern eyes appears to be a joint. The same character appeared on a hand painted A-frame sign on the sidewalk in front of the building’s entrance, and again on a rug near the bar. Many broken chains are short on branding, but that does not appear to be the case with Chicken in the Rough.
|I strongly suspect chicken is tomorrow's special too.
I was seated at a booth near the back of the barroom, and ordered from an attentive server what I knew to be Chicken in the Rough’s signature dish, half a fried chicken on a bed of shoestring fries with a biscuit and honey. I was informed by my server that the chicken was cooked to order and would take 20 minutes or so to prepare, and my response conveyed that I was okay with that. I’d gladly wait that long and longer for freshly cooked fried chicken. I took my 20 minute wait as an opportunity to appreciate my surroundings. The Palms Krystal Bar looks like it hasn’t had a remodel since around the time Pete Harman started selling Kentucky Fried Chicken in Utah. Every fixture and molding had the aesthetic of the late 1940s or early 1950s, but appeared pristine. Adding to the immersiveness of the experience was a paper Chicken in the Rough placemat on my table, featuring not only the aforementioned stoned golfing rooster but also his “caddie,” a tiny yellow chick carrying a similarly diminutive bag of golf clubs whilst morbidly proclaiming, “I’d gladly be fried for Chicken in the Rough!” and in turn, triggering in me the vague sense of guilt that all meat eaters feel to some extent or another in modern times. Were it not for the wall of flatscreen TVs above the bar, the retro decor and charmingly dated marketing materials might make one briefly wonder if they had traveled back in time 70 years or so.
|A pleasantly anachronistic dining area and bar
True to my server’s word, my meal arrived almost exactly 20 minutes after I had ordered. It was situated in a plastic basket atop a branded paper liner. Four pieces of chicken were nestled among freshly cooked shoestring fries. The whole exquisite heap was topped by two nonstandard items, a cup of coleslaw, and not a biscuit but a mass produced bread roll. I was unsurprised by the roll. Decent biscuits are tough enough to find in the upper south, let alone across the river from the Great White North. The coleslaw, similarly unsurprisingly, had a tzatziki-like flavor, likely a product of Southeast Michigan’s Greek-American culinary traditions. I can’t imagine there were many Okies from Muskogee by way of Alexandroupolis who might have contributed a coleslaw recipe to Beverly and their relative, Rubye in 1930s Oklahoma.
|And The Chicken's Caddie (sic)
The chicken, fresh out of the fryer, was too hot to eat, so I took the opportunity to try the fries that had begun to cool thanks to a lower thermal mass. In my previous post, I complained about the fresh cut shoestring fries recently removed from the menu at the Columbus Ritzy’s, but the fresh cut shoestrings from Chicken in the Rough were pleasantly crispy unlike their discontinued counterparts from one state south. They had clearly been fried twice, once to cultivate a crust and again to cook through. This is the key to a good freedom fry. Pre-frozen fries are usually par-fried before being frozen, so when they’re fried again just before being served they develop a pleasantly crispy exterior. It’s why freshly cooked from frozen McDonald’s fries are objectively better than the mushy mass of greasy potato girders at the bottom of your Five Guys bag, despite the fact that Five Guys slices their own spuds. I suspect it’s also why the Columbus Ritzy’s switched to frozen fries to match its counterparts in Kentucky, Indiana, and West Virginia. Give me a twice-fried frozen fry over a once-fried fresh cut any day. My point being that if you’re going to serve fresh cut fries, cook them right, or don’t bother, and to my delight, Chicken in the Rough Fries were both fresh cut and cooked right.
|A basket of chicken and fries with nonstandard bread and coleslaw
Before I filled up on fries, I began a few cursory nibbles on the chicken, starting with the smallest and quickest to cool wing before working my way up to the leg, thigh, and breast, giggling with adolescent delight about how I would later write the suggestive-sounding sentence you’re reading right now. Aside from being fresh, the chicken was unremarkable. Unlike the old man in the white suit, Beverly and Rubye seemed to specify only salt and pepper in their seasoning blend, but the fact that the chicken was fresh from the fryer made it much more pleasant to eat than the overbreaded lukewarm chicken I received on my most recent trip to the KFC drive thru. Chicken in the Rough didn’t need 11, or for that matter, 21 herbs and spices to be tasty. It simply had to be cooked to order.
I finished by topping a few remaining chicken scraps and my roll with honey from the plastic squeeze bottle on the table. It was another local contribution, purporting to be from nearby Harsens Island, and I wondered how many depression-era Chicken in the Rough patrons did the same to maximize their caloric intake as a survival strategy. My meal at Chicken in the Rough was the only thing of substance I ate that day, and I wasn’t especially hungry until late in the lunching hour the next day, which in my mind made its roots in tough times evident.
It was approaching midday on a Sunday when I concluded my meal, and found the dining room much more full and lively than when I had entered less than an hour before. Upon exiting the building, I found a chicken takeout window out back that appeared to predate the recent takeout boom necessitated by our era’s tough times. It was perhaps there to compete with the more common fast food fried chicken places. I suspect most customers call in their orders given the prep time involved, but Chicken in the Rough would be a welcome alternative to takeout from KFC or Popeye’s if I lived in or around Port Huron.
Imagine an alternate timeline in which fast food never became popular. Many franchised restaurants experiences in this reality would likely look a lot like Chicken in the Rough at the Palms Krystal, a beloved neighborhood establishment serving up a few franchised and branded recipes, embracing a business model blending the concepts of independent and chain restaurants under a single roof. It’s something not seen often in our reality encompassing a more homogeneous restaurant industry less dependent on dine-in customers than ever, but it’s a charmingly antiquated spectacle worth experiencing if you find yourself below the sign of a pot smoking rooster holding a broken golf club.