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Real Meals: more cluck for your buck

A visit to KFC: how can anything that tastes this awful be quite so popular?

Chicken, chicken! Every place I go there is chicken, every step I take, wishbones and drumsticks crunch beneath my soles, while the blisters in battered old chicken skin crepitate eerily. If, as I do, you live in a large city, you're never more than a few feet away from some disjointed portion of a poultry carcass. If, as I am, you're the owner of a dog, you're never more than a few seconds away from having to shove your hand down its throat to try to retrieve a splintery bone.

Sometimes I think this great alfresco charnel house is only the just resting place for these poor birds' leftovers - after all, their miserable and truncated lives were spent boxed, then they were exterminated with Einsatzgruppen awfulness, before being flogged in boxes; at least now - albeit in bits - they're spread about, as if having been subjected to a strange inversion of a Tibetan Buddhist sky burial, whereby human beings scavenge bird corpses rather than vice versa. At other times I project myself into the dim, distant future; surely, in the course of geologic time, these great middens will petrify, forming some hitherto unknown sedimentary rock, one that will cause geologists of the distant future to dub this the Kentuckyzoic era?

What can we say about Kentucky Fried Chicken - as it was formerly known - or KFC, as it is known now? Well, the chain is a "concept" (yes, that's what they call them), along with Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, of Yum! Brands. With its 36,000 restaurants in 110 countries, Yum! is the biggest fast-food purveyor in the world (and, if you accept the strong anthropic principle, the entire universe). That's a lot of bones - not, I hasten to add, that we can blame KFC for all of them. Colonel Harland Sanders, of the string tie and snow-white locks, may have founded his first fried chicken outlet as long ago as 1952, but the relentless strut of this headless foodstuff across the known world has been greatly facilitated by religion.

To begin with there were fake KFCs, called things like American Fried Chicken or Tennessee Fried Chicken, but then came a new generation, offering halal fowl, and with names such as Favorite Chicken and UK Chicken. Now you can chaw your way religiously across town, from Chicken Imperium to Chicken Satrap, from Chicken Region to Chicken Zemstvo, until, eventually, you reach some miserable joint tucked in the armpit of the earth and called simply "Chicken" - that nonetheless offers BBQ beans.

“Iss safe for the Hindus, innit?" said the charming woman I engaged in conversation at a city-centre branch of KFC the other evening. "I mean, those Hindus can't eat pork, can they?"

“Muslims," I corrected her. "It's Muslims who can't eat pork - along with Jews, and, for that matter, Rastafarians."

“Muslims?" She grabbed her companion's arm for support. "I thought it was cows that wuz sacred for them."

This young couple - whom I had bearded about their attitude towards the establishment - proved just as voluble as the people I'd spoken to in McDonald's. As they prattled on about how much junk food they ate, and where they ate it, I wondered if there were something in the Colonel's famed secret recipe besides innocuous herbs and spices. Neither of them gave "a monkey's", about the conditions in which their dinner had been reared. (It's worth recalling that the EU standard for this is 20 - that's twenty - birds per square metre, their beaks clipped so they don't try to assist each other's suicide.)

“You're shitting yourself," said my cut-price Candide, "if you sit there thinking about that stuff. I mean, it's not like you think about how your jeans are made by a poor kiddie in some Indonesian sweatshop."

“Um, actually," I gulped, "I do sit here contemplating just that."

I also sat there thinking how recherché the KFC experience was, what with its red walls, beige tiles and blond wood'n'steel furniture. The portrait of the Colonel - the keynote of the decor - is outlined in neon swaths, a 1980s corporate bastardisation of a Warhol silk-screen print. In fact, KFC is undergoing a rebranding (reconceptualisation?), part of which is moving back to the original appellation, Kentucky Fried Chicken.

I suppose Sanders would be proud: after all, his colonelcy was awarded in 1935 for chicken-frying expertise. This conjures up an image of the antebellum South populated entirely by burger-flipping majors and corndog-griddling generals - perhaps that's why the Confederacy lost and Atlanta burned? Sanders's secret recipe is still kept at KFC's Louisville headquarters in a safe, the combination of which is known to only two finger-lickin' executives at a time. Together with the Coca-Cola recipe, it must rank as one of the true elixirs of the age.

But what does it taste like? A tricky question to answer, given that, unless you were raised by anchorites in the Sahara, this taste-datum is seared into your cerebellum. I manfully ordered two pieces with fries and a small bucket of Sprite. I also had two corn-on-the-cobs (on offer at 99p). I say "had", but I only managed one bland, watery cob, a few fries and one piece of chicken. I had been given two breasts - at least, I think they were chicken breasts; they might as well have been the buttocks of superannuated Indonesian child labourers. At any rate, I choked down just one before concluding that the secret was really a mystery: how can anything that tastes this awful be quite so popular?

Real Meals appears fortnightly
Next week: Will Self's Madness of Crowds

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England