Kentucky Fried Chicken, the fast-food chain of dubious Double Down fame, released a free e-book this year that’s dedicated to “mothers everywhere.”
Titled “Tender Wings of Desire,” the nearly 100-page novella is a Mother’s Day promotion billed as a “brief escape from motherhood into the arms of your fantasy Colonel.”
On the cover is the chain’s mascot Colonel Sanders donning his trademark goatee, black string tie and white suit. He is also, you should know, sleeveless. He cradles a young women who clutches a chicken drumstick. The cover mimics the hallmarks of steamy romance novels — the Colonel’s muscles are defined — and there’s a KFC bucket nestled in flowers nearby, lest you forget that this is an over-the-top ad for their “$20 Fill Up” meal.
Give Mom her true heart’s desire this Mother’s Day—a family meal and a romance novel featuring Colonel Sanders. pic.twitter.com/WHJNL9kRqn
— KFC (@kfc) May 4, 2017
Here’s how George Felix, advertising director, sold it: “The only thing better than being swept away by the deliciousness of our Extra Crispy Chicken is being swept away by Harland Sanders himself,” he said in a statement. “So this Mother’s Day, the bucket of chicken I get for my wife will come with a side of steamy romance novella. Dinner is taken care of and she’ll have the time to escape her busy schedule.”
I gave the book to my mom anyway.
Here’s what you should know about my mother. My mom likes to give gag gifts. She presented a homemade mini craps table to her own father, who loved to gamble at casinos off the Mississippi coast. She once bought fake dog poop that was regifted among family members. Then there was the time she had me scratch off a fake winning lottery ticket. I don’t remember my reaction, probably for good reason.
So I fire off an email with instructions to access the e-book. I send the following note:
There’s not a day that goes by when I’m not grateful for all the sacrifices you made as a mother. I think about all the ways I can pay back in spades all the grace you’ve shown me my whole life.
I hope this present is all but a small token of my gratitude.
I love you, Mom.
I also send a text, asking her to check her email. Her response minutes later: “I hope you’re going to say you’re coming home. Love you too, call me sometimes when you’re not busy”
This is going well.
I text her an hour later to see if she downloaded the e-book. She had, but added that she read only a few pages before she had to pick up my 9-year-old nephew. No other information is given. Meanwhile, I start reading it.
The book opens with Lady Madeline Parker who’s quickly defined by her hatred of embroidery. In fact, poor Madeline is often defined in direct contrast to her younger sister Victoria. Madeline has “zero musical ability,” while Victoria plays the harp and piano. Madeline can’t dance, a fact that’s doubled down (sorry) later in the book. Victoria can. Victoria also can’t wait to marry a man, while Madeline “would be perfectly happy to be a spinster all of her life.”
Their mother arranges for Madeline to marry a duke. But on the eve of the wedding, Madeline flees into the night, but not before whispering “Goodbye” to her family back home.
Waiting for a reply from my mother, I’m bombarded by ads for Mother’s Day while listening to Spotify (The new wicker seating set is just $249 at Home Depot.) Pangs of guilt over the gag gift soon follow. They jump-start a series of memories. How she took night classes while supporting me and my two siblings. How she would often run her fingers through my hair to calm me down. How she would send a care package around Halloween every year that included Count Chocula cereal.
I also remember a time as a child when I once called her “ignorant.” The word fell out of my mouth during a minor disagreement. I’m pretty sure I had studied it for a spelling test or something that day. I remember how her mouth dropped in response. She wasn’t angry. She was hurt. I’ve since removed the word from my vocabulary.
I’m irritated when the book decides to use “old maid,” a few pages after using “spinster.”
Fast-forwarding a couple chapters, Madeline is in a faraway seaside town. She stumbles into a job at a tavern called The Admiral’s Arms. By Chapter 6, a handsome man approaches Madeline, and the book dwells on the man’s eyes — they “were almost the exact color of the sea, perhaps darker, but not by much,” — and his glasses.
The man is Harland, an obvious stand-in for the real-life KFC founder Colonel Harland David Sanders. In a 1970 New Yorker profile of the fast food mogul, William Whitworth wrote that Sanders dreamt of fried chicken “so golden and delicious” and of gravy “so sublime that, he says, ‘it’ll make you throw away the durn chicken and just eat the gravy.'”
The book lacks that Southern flavor. And there’s rarely a chicken combo meal nearby when Madeline is at the tavern. In fact, there’s a suspicious lack of chicken in this story at all.
Among all the Amazon reviews, naturally filled with chicken puns, one reviewer said: “For a book called ‘Tender Wings of Desire’ I expected some tendies, but the author forgot to add their special blend of herbs and spices to an otherwise bland short story.”
But — spoiler alert — Harland turns out to have a fried chicken empire, and they swap fried chicken wedding bands at the end — or something. I didn’t finish it.
I did notice, however, this line on Madeline leaving her family: “Her decision to leave had nothing to do with her love for them, but would her leaving change their love for her?” What?
She then writes a letter that twice says she’s safe and twice says she’s sorry for her abrupt exit — and then doesn’t send the letter. Madeline, come on.
I call my mother back to finally get her reaction. After some quick chatter, she then addresses the 16-piece bucket meal between us.
“Thanks for the gift … I think.” She pauses for a beat. “Have you taken up the weeeeds?” she says in a Mississippian drawl that stretches out those e’s. She then laughs in a way I recognize. My mother and I are an easy audience.
“I’m curious what you thought of the book.”
My mother says she liked the part when Madeline — she knew her name — landed at the tavern.
Turns out, she read the whole durn thing. She made time to finish the book in between taking care of her two grandchildren, while my sister was out of town.
My mom, who’s a lifelong Church’s Chicken fan, said she thought it was funny in parts. My mom, who sent me the same personalized birthday song on cassette tape every year, who stayed strong when Dad died, and who didn’t bat an eye when I came out — read the stupid thing I gave her.
She did, however, have one major criticism: “I thought,” she said, “after all that, there would be a coupon for chicken at the end.”