An Exploration of Nashville’s Hot Chicken
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Nashville, Tennessee

An Exploration of Nashville’s Hot Chicken

On Trend and Tradition

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in The Heat Issue of our printed magazine. Order your copy here.

I stopped counting at 17. Perhaps it was out of amazement, bitterness or the simple fact that drivers on the southbound loop of Nashville’s I-40 drive me that crazy. In any event, I finally figured it best to stop counting the cranes invading our downtown area, and instead, fix my eyes on the road ahead.

For those who grew up in the roaring era of cities such as Atlanta, Phoenix, Portland, Charlotte and Austin, the sense of malaise is all but too familiar. One second I am bragging to out-of-town visitors about how Nashville feels like a big, small town. The next minute (okay, 10 years later), I’m snarled to a complete halt on I-40—with honest thoughts that at the very same moment, L.A.’s I-405 might actually be moving at a faster clip.

Growing pains, they call them. Old-ass man—that’s what my wife calls me.

Me? I’m a romantic. Although I’m not Nashvillian by birth, I have lived in the city for well over a decade—basically before the great surge in loft developments, fusion restaurants, healthcare and tech capital took us by the balls. In the old days, my neighborhoods—East Nashville and Germantown—were known more as a drug ridden war zones than places of sustainability, hipsters and vegan restaurants. Perhaps I shouldn’t be romantic about its troubled past; perhaps progress is a good thing. Listen to me—I’m starting to sound like my wife might be right after all.

Nevertheless, word is out. Nashville is a damn great place to live. And sure, we might be known for our country music, barbecue and hospitality. But this new Nashville is also alluring to those from all over the world—those seeking chef-driven cuisine, indie rock, urban living, and yes, country charm. I’m as proud of my adopted hometown as any other, even if I do say so with the tongue-in-cheek sentimentality of the good ol’ days.

Looking through my newly-minted rose-colored glasses, I must say it has been somewhat of a phenomenon, as a local, to witness the recent declaration of the (un)official food of Nashville. Just as Philly has its cheesesteak, Apalachicola its oyster, and SoCal its tacos, we in Nashville have hot chicken. But what’s up with the sudden claim to fame? After all, haven’t we always had hot chicken?

I got an early hankering for said spicy bird during my first week as a Nashville resident. My buddy, a music agent at William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, had invited me to check out an act he’d signed out of Texas named Randy Rogers—who was playing on a Friday evening bill at the famed Exit/In off Elliston Place. I don’t remember much, but I do remember we didn’t stop drinking that evening. In fact, with much clarity, I remember throwing glass bottled beers from the balcony onto the stage long after the lights had gone dark—after all, shit like that seems like a good idea when you are in your early twenties.

It was a long Friday night that had turned into a Saturday morning, and thankfully, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack stayed open until 4 a.m. This was one of the first tidbits of insider knowledge I gained during my first week in Nashville.

Above: Simone Jeffries of Prince's Hot Chicken Shack

Here’s the deal: if you’ve never had hot chicken, do not immediately think of it in the same terms as a buffalo-style chicken. I made a similar mistake once, sitting in Downtown Cincinnati, ordering a bowl of Skyline chili expecting a spicy, Texas-style dish, fragrant with chili powder and cumin. Instead, I nearly spit out the cinnamony, watery mess that sat abed a bowl of noodles topped with grated cheese. Simply put: I had the wrong expectations at the time. Though let me be clear: I now love Skyline chili—it’s probably one of my guiltiest pleasures. All that is to say, until you’ve tasted it, Nashville-style hot chicken is not what you’re expecting. It’s a deep heat, rooted in the crispy, paste-like batter seeded with a blend of spices, and of course, cayenne pepper.

One thing is certain: Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack is the original, dating back to the 1930s; and they’ve got a qualified story to boot. It’s rumored a member of the Prince family, Thornton, had a penchant for seeing multiple women at the same time—and staying out way past his curfew. Upon returning home after his escapades in the wee hours of the morning, his lady friend at the time decided that revenge was a dish best served, well, hot—spicing his early morning chicken snack with loads of cayenne pepper. The pepper-laden fowl set Thornton’s tongue on fire, and in true Nashville form, his Cheatin’ Heart (cue the tune) now belonged to hot chicken.

Prince’s still remains a family business, and as I chatted with one of the family folks in charge, Simone Jeffries, I’m told flat-out that the recipe is under lock and key. I do purge one secret—Prince’s chicken sits through a marinade, which I can only assume must be a blend of milk (or buttermilk), hot sauce and other secret goodness. You can definitely taste the time and care of the marinade, as it turns out a deliciously flavorful, juicy bird. Jeffries tells me most folks go with a medium heat, even going so far to say that men order more daunting flavors as a challenge, while women tend to honestly enjoy the heat (she says that part with a smile). Oh, and for the ladies struggling in the last few weeks of labor—go eat hot chicken. Jeffries smiles again when she tells me it’s a “24-hour chicken.” What does she mean? Trust me, you will know throughout the next 24 hours that you’ve consumed the dish.

Dollye Matthews, the proprietor of Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish in East Nashville tells me their heat is a thorough heat—not the lip-smacking heat that most folks are used to from eating Buffalo wings. Her humble establishment, founded in 1999, pays homage to her uncle Bolton Pope, who passed along his signature recipe to the family. Bolton’s serves a formidable version of the dish (along with arguably the best hot fish too)—a golden, crispy piece of deep fried chicken topped with pickle slices and served atop white bread. If there’s one commonality of this dish, it’s the way it’s served. Every shack knows that spongy white bread is good for sopping up the heat, and the pickles provide a punch of acidity to get you through to the next bite.

Matthews tells me Bolton’s utilizes a unique blend of spice in their dry rub, but the secret to her recipe is love, joy, peace and happiness. Matthews is full of such lines, continuing to tell me their tiny abode off Main Street is, “A great little place, with a great big taste.” I leave on a high note, mouth thoroughly burning. I learn that the big boys (KFC, O’Charley’s and Long John Silver’s) now all serve Nashville-style hot chicken). But trying to create such a dish shouldn’t rely on science; rather it’s a form of art. And it’s an artform they’ve mastered at Bolton’s.

Then there’s The New Kid in Town (sorry, I’m not sorry for calling out The Eagles). I first sampled Hattie B’s version of the dish at a birthday party for my friend, Chef Sarah Gavigan (owner of Music City restaurants Otaku, Little Octopus and Pop Nashville). She told me it was legit, so I believed her. Kudos.

Enjoying a cold beer with founder Nick Bishop, it all starts to make sense. Keep in mind, they don’t serve beer at Prince’s or Bolton’s, so I am likely a bit biased. Bishop, son of Gene Bishop (who served as the former CEO of Morrison’s Cafeteria), has taken a Nashville classic into the modern age. And in all my old-manliness and former bitterness, I say that with complete positivity.

Above: Nick Bishop of Hattie B's

After leaving Morrison’s, the Bishop family took their years of success in the hospitality business and dove right back in, opening Bishop’s—a meat-and-three located south of Nashville. Following a stint in the music business (most Nashvillians do a tour of duty), Nick went to work in the family business. After concocting a his own version of hot chicken, customers began demanding the dish on a daily basis—even though it was never placed on the line. They were on to something.

A few years back, Bishop opened Hattie B’s, named for his daughter—and now they are planning their third establishment, traveling outside of Nashville to Birmingham, Alabama. Bishop tells me good hot chicken starts with good fried chicken, something his family had perfected at Morrison’s. With Culinary Institute of America-trained chef, John Lasater, Hattie B’s not only serves up delicious hot chicken in the classic manner, but side dishes like pimento mac n’ cheese, southern greens, and black eyed pea salad are also standouts.

With Hattie B’s, Bishop has created an environment and atmosphere that’s friendly and unpretentious, even for such an intimidating dish. He tells me a year after opening, he walked into the dining area to see a burly gang of bikers, cops, Grateful Dead fans, and southern belles all dining closely in enjoyment. It served as his “ah-ha!” moment, and a payoff of the best kind—knowing that good food can bring others of any race, creed or class all together.

After that tear jerker, and with our bellies painfully full, I, along with photographer Emily Dorio, start heading back to our respective homes. That is, until I caught a wild hair. I tell Emily to search Google Maps for the nearest KFC. That’s right my friends—I had to see what the hype was all about.

Keep in mind, I grew up in a family where eating KFC was strictly forbidden by mama. We were the family that showed up to neighborhood get-togethers with mama’s homemade fried chicken—no red-and-white buckets from the Moore house. And truth be told, it was mama’s chicken that was always gone first. And yet, the fat kid in me always meant I craved what I couldn’t have.

Ordering the KFC Nashville-style hot chicken seems strange after the day I’ve had. I realize how humble, original and honest the dish is from the folks at Prince’s. I see that it’s a form of love and art at Bolton’s. I also find it might be ready for the big screen through a modern adaptation at Hattie B’s.

But, it is not ready. At least not in this form. The dish comes out with a biscuit (no white bread), a few pickles, and a molten looking sauce that’s simply been added to the Colonel’s Original Recipe chicken. It’s an effort; but it ain’t hot chicken.

So, my friends, I tell you all: the only way to enjoy the real deal hot chicken is to come visit Nashville.

Just don’t use the interstates or move into my neighborhood. Please, and thank you.

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