Salt. Thyme. Basil. Oregano. Celery salt. Black pepper. Dried mustard. Paprika. Garlic salt. Ground ginger. White pepper. Colonel Harland Sanders called them his secret “11 herbs and spices.”

OMG. Beans, spilled. Feline, out of the bag. (And a long prison term for the dick who would put one of us there.)

How did one of the top secrets in corporate marketing history wind up on the pages of the Chicago Tribune? Innocently, it turns out, after freelance writer Jay Jones went to Corbin, Kentucky, to visit the Harland Sanders Cafe and Museum for a travel section story. Corbin is where the Colonel first served Kentucky Fried Chicken to customers of his gas station. As Mr. Jones tells it:

“With the help of the local tourism office, I arrange to meet a man named Joe Ledington. The 67-year-old retired teacher has spent his entire life in Appalachia. He still lives in the house in which he grew up, just north of the city limits of Corbin, a town of about 7,300. He agrees to meet me to share a few yarns about the Colonel.”

Mr. Ledington is the Colonel’s nephew, if he hasn’t been disowned from the grave by now. Leafing through his Aunt Claudia’s family album (she was the Colonel’s second wife), the reporter saw a list of 11 ingredients, with the teaspoon proportions for each, to be mixed with two cups of white flour. Asked about it, Mr. Ledington said: “That is the original 11 herbs and spices that were supposed to be so secretive.”

After realizing what he’d done, he tried in vain to undo it. As Mr. Jones reports: “In a subsequent phone interview with a Tribune editor, Ledington dialed back his certainty and expressed reluctance about sharing a recipe that — if it’s legit — ranks among corporate America’s most closely guarded secrets. ‘It could be; I don’t know for sure,’ he said about the handwritten list of ingredients, adding that this was the first time he’d shown it to a reporter. ‘I’ve only had that album for four years, since my sister passed away.’”

Asked to confirm the recipe was real, a Yum! Brands corporate weasel sent this e-mail: “In the 1940s, Colonel Sanders developed the original recipe chicken to be sold at his gas station diner. At the time, the recipe was written above the door so anyone could have read it. But today, we go to great lengths to protect such a sacred blend of herbs and spices. In fact, the recipe ranks among America’s most valuable trade secrets.”

Through the years, various people have claimed to find or tried to guess the 11 herbs and spices. Again from Mr. Jones: “Probably the most famous previous find occurred more than 15 years ago, when a couple in Shelbyville, Kentucky, said they stumbled upon what could be the secret recipe in the basement of the home they bought from Harland and Claudia Sanders in the ‘70s. Tommy and Cherry Settle reportedly found the recipe written on a piece of paper tucked inside a 1964 datebook.”

KFC sued but dropped the matter after determining the formula could not be the real one. This time, there will be no lawsuit. Editors at the Tribune fried up some chicken using the newly discovered recipe, compared it to KFC and reported it to be finger lickin’ good. I’ll take their word for it from my table at Chick-fil-A.

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