Monday, March 19, 2018

KFC & the Middle Class

KFC & the Middle Class
As so many other children of Asian mothers, I was punished for any grade other than an "A". After the divorce, when my mom was raising us on her own and she had free reign when establishing academic consequences, I was grounded a full nine weeks for earning a "B".

If the next report card showed the straight A's as it was supposed to, I would not only be free to hang out with the other kids in our apartment complex after school again, but we got a treat: a whole bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, complete with a styrofoam side of coleslaw and another full of mashed potatoes and a container of gravy.

This, friends, was the good life.

If the weather was nice, my mom, my little sister and I would sit on the plastic seats outside, overlooking the K-Mart parking lot, grabbing our favorite pieces out of the bucket, as she gave us kids the same speech she always did. It was our Filippino mother's version of the American dream: work hard, study, and we would be able to have the things we wanted.

Eight year old me wanted chicken seasoned with eleven herbs and spices. But I had a feeling the ethos applied more broadly.

So deep was my young love of KFC that I started studying and turning in homework on time and annoying my weary-eyed teachers for extra credit, not because I was worried about being grounded for two straight months, but because I wanted a drumstick of original recipe. The incentives worked.

I saw my first real negotiations at Kentucky Fried Chicken, too, as my Filippino mother haggled with the poor cashier to switch out the two wings for two breasts, without charging us more.

"Can you please change the wings out for breasts? We prefer the breast."

"That's no problem, but there is an extra charge, ma'am."

"Extra? Why extra? When we come, they always just switch the wings for the breasts."

"But it is extra...and we just rang you up."

"We really do prefer the breast. Can you just switch them?"

I could see the moment when Mom wore the cashier down. It worked a surprising amount of the time. Though I could see the look of disappointment on her face when she actually had to part with a couple extra dollars to do so. I suspect it wasn't strictly because she had to pay more money, but because she had faith in her ability to always negotiate her way to a better deal.

Kentucky Fried Chicken also gave us the chance to feel American. Like, really American. I knew that some of the food my mom cooked, the pancit, adobo, the sinigang, was straight up weird to the kids we went to school with in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. Most of our classmates didn't have their grandmother sharing a bed with them or an uncle on the bottom bunk, either. But on the day after we had fried chicken, I would brag about it to any kid that would listen. I'd smile when they talked about how much they loved it, too, and inevitably, the discussion would turn to a debate over which two sides were best.

Original recipe was the tie that bound us.

Eventually, I got too old to keep wanting to hang out with my mom and my little sister. I selfishly started asking for money as a reward for good grades instead of fried chicken hangouts complete with life lessons from mom, which was a preposterously bad trade off. I turned out to be a dumb fucking teenager.

Still, this tradition is perhaps my favorite childhood memory.

I want to recreate this with our son. I'd like to have a regular but-still-somehow-rare treat rewarding a job well done. But I noticed that Mrs. Done by Forty and I basically never eat at KFC any longer, and that we eat at restaurants more often in a month than I did in a whole year growing up.

I wonder if going to out to a place like that would be a treat at all.

In my gut I know we're just in a very different socioeconomic class than we were in growing up. That was kind of the point of what my mom was talking about as we scarfed down chicken: that in this country, we could work hard and get the things we wanted. Now, we have them, but there's a weird feeling you get when you're no longer really a member of the class you knew.

As we get better with our finances, accumulating more and more wealth as we go, I wonder if I ever gave much thought to what I might be giving up in the process. By any measure, we are not middle class any longer. We're wealthy. Which, of course, is really amazing. We are fortunate beyond belief, and this is not an attempt to complain about having too much money.

But I do think we should be intentional about the kind of life we want to live, and the kind of life we want our kids to live. Having a bunch of money doesn't mean we need to spoil our kids, or send them to a particular kind of school, or buy them cars for sweet sixteens. I'd like aim for the same sort of thing my mother did: trying to just live below our means, maybe even below the average standard of the kids in our suburban neighborhood, and just giving the kids a peek at the middle class life they might have, if they work hard for it.


*Photo is from JeepersMedia at Flickr Creative Commons.

34 comments:

  1. The modern day version of this would be gourmet tacos or avocado toast!!! A lot of my successes also came through the ‘obstacles ‘ I saw in my path. With the right kid, wanting to prove everyone’s perception as wrong can go a long way. I’m glad these moments of ‘victory’ encouraged you to continue striving.

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    1. Thanks, Lady Dividend. It's weird how something small like a not-so-fancy dinner out can be motivating or, in my case, nostalgic. But I really do love that memory.

      I should have worked this into my post, but at our wedding rehearsal potluck, my mom brought a bucket of KFC. I remember a couple people looking down their noses at it, making snide comments, too, and I wanted to throw them out, or worse. I was furious inside, but kept it cool since, you know, we were getting married the next day.

      I gave my mom a big hug and told her it was my very favorite food that day, and it was the truth.

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  2. Man, I want some KFC right now. But you're right, we don't really eat a lot of KFC these days. When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, same as you, I think, even though our family was "upper class" we still ate KFC pretty regularly. Especially on picnics. So I think it may be a time period thing versus a status thing. Come to think of it, we still eat KFC with my parents when we have picnics. I think it's time for a picnic. And some KFC...

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    1. That is a fantastic idea. I think we might do the same for a dinner sometime soon. I know it's "bad for us".

      But it might be good for us, too.

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  3. The last time we had KFC was with my Filipino BFF in college when we ate way too more chicken than is healthy for grown humans. The memories! PiC's health food kick won't allow him to let us eat KFC again but we can always splurge on a costco hot dog dinner and reproduce it that way. ;)

    Outgrowing the class that you were born to is a REALLY weird proposition, particularly when we try to figure out how to pass those lessons on to the next generation. I'm still trying to figure out how to teach our kiddo the ropes of a class that I'm just coming to grips with, and still reject in some ways (the spending!)

    I suspect that our luxury and lessons have to be passed on in the one commodity we can never save up: time. Spending time with JB cooking, baking, gardening, reading - those are the times we're going to try and infiltrate zir little brain.

    We were all dumb teenagers, weren't we? I don't think that's avoidable.

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    1. Hey Revanche!

      Maybe you can convince PiC to try out the grilled chicken while the rest of the fam eats original recipe or extra crispy?

      You put it better than I did: I am struggling with outgrowing the class of my youth. And yeah, there are parts of the consumer class around us that we'd like to tamp down in our own household, for sure. The spending is out of control sometimes.

      Your point about time spent cooking is fantastic. And that might be the very best solution to the problem I described in the post. We can easily cook at home more often than we do right now, and then maybe KFC four times a year (ahem, I do assume he will earn straight As every time) will really be a treat.

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  4. I'm definitely feeling this post. Your KFC was my McDonald's. I remember so clearly the anticipation of getting to go eat at McDonald's, because we obviously never ate out, ever. We drove to McD's, got the food, parked the car. I was holding the tray with the drinks, somehow tripped, and dropped all the soda everywhere. I remember feeling sooooo disappointed that happened.

    Now I'm not sure which class I fit into, but we are pretty wealthy. We have lots of money leftover even after buying mochi, cookies and fancy things like avocados and salmon. I always worry that I would be too hard on my kid. I feel like my childhood was an unusual extreme, and I don't know what's normal these days. Was my childhood harder than it needed to be, or just right? While I don't have my own kids, I do feel like I'd want them to have a simpler childhood similar to mine. Playing outside, not a lot of toys, reading books, etc. It's hard in today's world, but that doesn't mean you can't try to raise the bar...

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    1. Oh, man, Luxe. I totally get that feeling of spilling the soda.

      For what it's worth, for Mrs. Done by Forty's birthday, while the cake was lit...I totally dropped it on the floor. I didn't realize the little plastic tray under the cake wasn't REALLY what the cake was on (there were two different little plastic trays)...it slipped off and, man, I felt awful. And this was only like 4 years ago.

      I know what you mean re: trying to replicate our childhood or, perhaps, realizing that it wasn't quite 'normal'. I think we will probably be too hard on our kids, trying to illustrate how lucky they are. Maybe that's just how it goes.

      But yeah, I want to bring in all those things you mentioned. Simplicity. More time outside. Few toys but a lot of (library) books. Like you said, why can't we raise the bar?

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    2. Yeah, it would have been another 3-4 months before I had McD's again, so I was so mad. And awww, I know exactly what you mean about the dual trays on cakes. It's an easy thing to mix up!

      One other thing I see people mention is this idea of "giving your kid a better life" than you. Like, in reference to helping adult kids with house down payments, etc. I don't know, but that's not a thought I've ever had. What I have thought about is teaching my kid to be an awesome person and independent adult. So to me, offering a down payment and paying for weddings aren't things I'm currently planning to do.

      Re: raising the bar, I also see lots of justifications for spending on kids, like, "Well, he/she will feel left out if everyone else has a nice car." And my thought is, don't parents have an opportunity to teach kids that confidence doesn't need to come from stuff?

      But I'm just talking out of my butt until I actually have a kid. Then I'm sure I'll do a total 180.

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    3. Those are all great points, Luxe. Our kid is going to have LOTS of opportunities to learn that confidence doesn't come from stuff, especially as we drop him off to school via bike or, on rainy days, our 2006 Matrix that dad tried to re-paint himself using spray cans of clear coat...and it shows.

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  5. I think about this all the time. I bounced around class-wise growing up but nowadays fiance and I are solidly well to do. Sometimes I worry we'll be robbing our kids of gratitude for the little things and self-reliance if we give them too much. But at the same time, aren't we working hard so our kids won't have to? Feeeelings.

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    1. Hey there, YAPFB. We, too, bounced around in class, going from upper middle class to lower middle class before and after the divorce, then back to upper middle class as I got to high school when my mom remarried. It's funny, but my fondest memories are really of the time we were in the apartment, then when my mom saved up and bought a little ranch house for just the three of us.

      I don't know what the right balance is of giving our kids a nice life and making sure they aren't too spoiled, or missing out on a chance to feel gratitude, as you said. I guess we're going to have to figure this out as we go, but I'd rather lean towards the frugal, middle class end.

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  6. It's funny how many childhoods moments come back to the sharing of food. We were never big KFC fans, but for me it was a Blizzard from Dairy Queen. That was where my Dad would always take me to celebrate an accomplishment, whether it was a big game at basketball or hitting the honor role.

    I'm an only child and my parents were comfortably well off (I wouldn't say wealthy but close) they were very conscious about spoiling me. I really appreciate that because it instilled a strong work ethic in me that has served me very well.

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    1. You are totally right, Sarah. So many memories are food based, in our experience. Maybe that's why I'm overweight?

      I would love to replicate the approach your parents took. We are definitely going to be well off (and more) but it would be fantastic for our kids to still have a good work ethic, and to understand that it takes to finish long term projects that are worth pursuing (college degrees, career projects, saving up for retirement/house/etc. etc.)

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  7. I can honestly say this is the finest piece ever written on Kentucky Fried Chicken. SEO searches for chick'n wings - eat your heart out! ;-)

    Your story resonates with me - having grown up blue collar, in a blue collar town (Saginaw, MI.) Fast food was definitely a treat. And boy did it feel good to be able to go there on your own when made a few bucks and had time to kill. MC'Ds, Wendy's, Caesar's...

    I agree that I'll likely put incentives out there for extraordinary dedication to the work and process of school. There's something to be said for the discipline you achieve when you apply yourself, but I hope it's in fields/areas my boy or girl are truly interested in. School curriculum can be pretty dull and rote.

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    1. You're always so kind in your comments, Cubert. Thanks for always being a supporter of the blog.

      Saginaw, MI -- I feel like I've read some stories about that city in the past few years, during the last election cycle, certainly.

      And I, too, found that I spent way too much of my hard earned money at fast food joints after I finally got a job. (And discovered, um, different forms of recreation in high school.)

      I still drink the cool aid re: school curriculum and the liberal arts approach. But as a former teacher I think I kind of have to. Rote and dull? Never!

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  8. Well, we definitely ate a lot of KFC as kids but not for the same reasons you did. I actually don't recall ever getting rewarded with food. Perhaps that's why my brother and I made average to below average grades? I guess we got rewards without ever having to do something first. Since I don't have kids, I'm not sure what is a good reward system. The health nut in me says food is not it, but is money? What about an experience? Glad I don't have to figure this shit out. :) BTW, as much as I hate KFC's involvement in disgusting practices of inhumane chicken raising, their biscuits are so f'n good!

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    1. That's a really interesting point, Tonya. I, too, don't know what the right reward system is. (One of my favorite books, Drive, seems to make an argument against giving rewards for activities that tend to have their own embedded reward.)

      And yes, the biscuits are amazing (especially with honey and fake butter)...and I try not to think about the chickens. :)

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  9. I didn't eat KFC for a number of years but recently have gotten back into it. It's still delicious but for some reason they've made the fries much thinner and they're totally rubbish now!

    Can't beat the gravy... So good. Ok I'll stop as I'm drooling on the train and people are looking at me funny.

    Anyway it's great to hear your mum teaching you some good lessons and also that incentives work! Although I do have similar fears that as kids nowadays get so much... What will actually be considered a treat for them?

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    1. They fucked with the fries? I honestly never get those but do remember them being delicious, thick wedges. Why mess with success?

      And yes, the gravy. Dear sweet God, the gravy.

      I don't have any good answers yet on the kids but I do have some things I want to avoid: constant meals out, so many toys that they can't be organized or appreciated. Basically: I worry about spoiling them.

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    2. Well.. not sure if the fries were ever the same in the UK as US but yea they definitely changed here at some point, for the worse.

      I worried about the toy thing as well but our house is already full of toys. I wouldn't necessarily say its inevitable but you will have to be constantly vigilant about people buying gifts and toys entering your house. It stressed me at first but now realise there are bigger fish to fry when it comes to raising a child. Your mileage may vary of course. We have lots of family close by who all like to spoil. I'm not going to be the guy who says no presents... Yet at least!
      I think car boot/junk yard sales every year may be the way forward to keep it consuming our house in quick order.

      Anyway I'll be interested to hearing about your experiences with it all, I'm sure you'll end up with a post idea or two about this stuff when baby comes along :)

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  10. Eating out, or getting takeout, was always a treat for us, too. This was more because my parents couldn't afford it rather than they didn't want to. Our pizza was always from Little Caesar's and our chicken was, like yours, from KFC.

    As a kid, I always preferred the extra crispy. I like the original recipe now as an adult. I'm not sure if it's me that changed or the recipe.

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    1. I love both but agree, Joe, the original has become my favorite as I get older.

      As you said, these choices were often a treat b/c they were what we could afford. And that MADE it a treat.

      When we have continuous surplus, how can any meal out really reach that level? Can we replicate the experience?

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    2. MMM's king for a day post is one of my favourite ones. It really gets to the heart of why a treat is a treat. It's because it's rare and the rarer it is then the better the treat. People who treat themselves to something every day "because they deserve it" are really actually missing out on what it feels like to get a real treat in my opinion. It's such an obvious point but one that most people seem to miss, I guess advertising is constantly telling us the total opposite which doesn't help.

      I'm hoping I can convey this point to TFS junior at as an early age as possible!

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  11. Hah, lucky for you that your 'Asian Tiger Mom' rewarded 'A' grades with KFC - I got no such incentive with my mum! If me or my siblings dared to get anything other than an 'A' in our report cards, we faced a full 'inquisition' in front of the whole family, usually when we all sat down for the evening meal!

    I struggled with maths up to the age of 12 (if you can call a 'B' struggling...) so was on the receiving end of those such inquisitions on several occasions. Luckily, things clicked into place and I started getting straight A's from mid-teens onwards, but I still remember the dread I felt from those 'talks' I got from my mum!

    I asked my sister if my niece and nephew (aged 10 and 8) had any rare treats - she replied 'Coca Cola - they know it's not good for them but can have it on special occasions if they've been good!'

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  12. I hear you, Weenie! I suspect my tiger mom was way less vicious than many but spoiled eight year old me couldn't tell the difference. I would tell my mom that other kids got rewarded for "B"s, not grounded for nine weeks and she would just say "You are not other kids."

    I kind of love that she did that.

    And I may steal that Coca Cola idea. Soda, on a rare occasion, would be an awesome treat.

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  13. I love KFC - I still buy some a couple times a year. I've never haggled for breast meat though! My favourite - Zinger Box.

    I suspect you're doing just fine with your kids. So long as you're aware as you are, they'll learn enough about life to be responsible and not take your wealth for granted.

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    1. Wait, what's a Zinger Box? That sounds good!

      The kiddo hasn't technically arrived yet but we're on the two month count down. Lots of learning to do in crunch time...

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  14. WOW! This is me to a T. KFC was such a rare treat growing up that it was like Christmas in July whenever my mom decided to stop for a bucket instead of cooking. Even a dinner at Applebee's was such a rarity for our family. We always ate at home.

    Now, if I look at my life I struggle to find the time to cook and often resort to take out or dinners out (though I know it costs more money to do it) and yet my mom still always cooks and she and my dad almost never eat out.

    How do we go and shift our brains to that time? How do we make cooking at home the default choice? That's what I want to know.

    But, I do think that whatever you decide the treat will be for your child, it will still be meaningful and special because it's a tradition you two share. <3

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    1. I hear you on making cooking at home the default, BB. For us, it switched after we got a series of go to recipes that I can cook from memory (my mom's beef and rice, a decent pasta, tacos, fajita, curry, a noodle dish). There's something about being able to cook without looking at a recipe that makes it go so much quicker and easier for me.

      Obviously, it's a learning curve but once we got there, the whole thing got easy enough that it's somehow less of a hassle to cook than it is to get in the car and go out.

      And I was nodding my head about your story with the bucket. It's such a cool surprise!

      I am bugging Mrs. DB40 for us to get some KFC but it up and got pricey. It's like over $20 bucks for a bucket with sides.

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    2. I've made a pretty decent home "fakeaway" version of KFC a few times now. I made it with breadcrumbs and salt pepper and a few random herbs and spices, then shallow fried the chicken in oil, and it was really tasty, albeit not actually very KFC like. I'm sure you could find a more authentic recipe easily enough with a bit of online searching though?

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  15. This indeed was the good life. I would have been stoked if KFC was our reward for good grades. And like you, eating out was a treat growing up.

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    1. Right on, Femme. I know I'm just indulging my nostalgia for the suburban Pittsburgh of my youth...but I really do feel like that was the good life!

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  16. haha. good post. I knew I was weird because I like the mashed potatoes better than the chicken...

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