Did Colonel Sanders Steal The KFC Original Recipe?

Despite being developed in the 1930s, KFC's secret blend of 11 herbs and spices wasn't revealed until 2016, when the Chicago Tribune interviewed Joe Ledington, the nephew of Colonel Harland David Sanders and one of the heirs of the Kentucky Fried Chicken dynasty. As a boy, Ledington helped run a family business set up at a gas station in Corbin, Kentucky, which was later converted into a restaurant and motel for passing travelers — the very first KFC. In exchange for using the swimming pool at the Sanders family restaurant-motel, Ledington was tasked with mixing the signature flour and spice concoction. "I mixed them over the top of the garage for years," he told the Chicago Tribune.

Following Ledington's revelation to the news outlet, however, KFC's parent corporation Yum! Brands, did not officially confirm, deny, or further elaborate on how the recipe came about. Instead, they simply told the Chicago Tribune, "At the time, the recipe was written above the door so anyone could have read it."

KFC's original recipe may not have been created by Colonel Sanders

Even though the secret recipe was seemingly revealed to the public, KFC has remained mysterious about its exact origins. Perhaps the most important part of the secret wasn't the ingredients of the recipe, but the person who really came up with it.

The Yum! Brands spokesperson did mention that many claimed to have figured out the recipe well before Ledington shared his family scrapbook, but the truth is that the Colonel himself may have made the most significant claim of all. According to recent speculation shared across social media and republished by Snopes, Colonel Sanders took credit for a recipe originally created by a Black domestic servant named Miss Childress (or Mrs. Childress, depending on the source). After the Childress family complained, Sanders reportedly paid them $1,200 for the rights, which seems to be a modest amount compared to the restaurant chain's current $8.3 billion net worth (via Forbes).

Historians say it wasn't considered stealing at the time

While there is no proof that Miss Childress even existed or that $1,200 was paid, historical evidence does support that a Black woman came up with the original recipe (via Snopes). The assertion that the Colonel alone created the recipe is inconsistent with racial and social dynamics of early 20th century America. "Anyone who knew anything of the South knew that no Kentucky colonel would have cooked the fried chicken in a southern household; the chicken in prosperous southern households, particularly in the Colonel's era, was inevitably cooked by a black maid or family housekeeper," per Snopes.

According to Professor Psyche Williams-Forson, author of "Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food and Power," there is a well-documented history of white entrepreneurs and chefs taking credit for recipes from African Americans who performed domestic service. Williams-Forson went on to explain to Snopes, "Given that throughout enslavement and long after, African American and white women often worked together in the kitchen instructing and cooking various recipes, it is quite difficult to make a strong assertion of whose recipe belongs to whom. The issue, however, is that African American women were never credited in cookbooks."

As explained by Williams-Forson, Sanders at the time would've been entitled to the recipe as his own intellectual property and could've easily claimed it as his. While his nephew may be in possession of the recipe used when the family opened the first KFC, that doesn't mean Sanders is the one who originally created it. Whether a woman named Miss Childress was involved remains unproven, but if the Colonel did create the recipe, it was a huge deviation from the norm during the period.