The following story is completely fictional:
A young couple attending a drive-in movie bought a bucket of take-out fried chicken to eat during the main attraction. As they were enjoying the show, the woman complained that the piece of chicken she was eating tasted peculiar. So the man turned on the dome light over the front seat to have a look at it.To their horror, the couple discovered a rat tail sticking out of the batter-fried piece she had been nibbling.
They sued the fast-food chicken chain and won a huge settlement.
I repeat: To my knowledge this story is untrue, no matter how convincingly you may have heard it told about a fried-chicken chain with a franchise in your hometown. No such incident has ever occurred.
And yet this repulsive legend, which I'll call "The Batter-Fried Rat," has been going around at least since the early 1970s. It gained its widest exposure when Johnny Carson told it in his "Tonight Show" monologue in 1979.
There are various versions of the story, but they all contain the detail that the couple were eating in dim light - by the fireplace, next to a campfire or under a full moon.
Significantly, it's always the woman who bites into the rat, suggesting a contrast between take-out food and the kind Mom used to make, and possibly a criticism of women who disdain their traditional roles as homemakers.
One version I've heard calls attention to this stereotype by stating that the housewife was trying to pass off the take-out chicken as home cooking.
She had lost track of time while watching soap operas all afternoon, and found herself with no time to cook dinner. So she went out and picked up a bucket of take-out fried chicken just before her husband returned from work.
In order to draw attention away from the fact that she hadn't cooked a meal from scratch, she paid careful attention to the fixings - a crisp tablecloth, fancy place settings, candlelight.
There's that dim light again!
She got the ratty piece as a punishment for her deception.
The legend also circulates in equally repulsive European variations. In versions told in England, for instance, a bone from a rat or a cat is found in a bowl of restaurant chop suey. In Germany, native German patrons discover rat meat in food served at restaurants run by foreigners, often Yugoslavians.
A popular Swedish collection of urban legends is called "The Rat in the Pizza" - a reference to the story of a pie with a rather unusual topping.
Another Swedish variation tells of a Swede on vacation in Greece who, while eating chicken salad, chokes on a bone. Rushed back to Stockholm for treatment, the vacationer learns from a surgeon that the bone is a rat's.
While these European versions all focus on ethnic foods or foreign-operated restaurants, the batter-fried rat version we tell in the States has spread around the world too as fast-food chains have established outlets abroad.
During my recent visit to New Zealand, for instance, I was told about a man who came into a take-out chicken franchise and slung a dead possum onto the counter. Then, right in front of a group of customers, he announced: "That's the last one I'm going to bring you until you pay me for all the others I brought in!"
Rats are bad enough, but to a New Zealander possums are anathema. The animal, now known as the furry Australian opossum (always called just "possum" Down Under) have proliferated in New Zealand and are now considered noxious pests.
Tourists tend to think they're cute, and buy tanned possum hides as souvenirs. A small portion of possum meat is even marketed abroad under the name "Kiwi Bear."
But meat of these loathsome rodents never shows up covered with batter at take-out chicken outlets - not in New Zealand, or anywhere else. That's just a legend.
* Jan Harold Brunvand is the author of "The Mexican Pet," a collection of urban folklore. Send your questions and urban legends to Prof. Brunvand in care of this newspaper.