Nashville Hot Chicken Rises

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It doesn’t take a food pilgrimage to get a taste of Nashville’s signature dish anymore. Nashville hot chicken has flown the coup, and people can’t shut the cluck up about it.

The cool kids are eating hot chicken

Just when you thought fried chicken was passé (you foodie snob), the master of listicles told the internet to move hot chicken to the number one spot on all the lists. Now it’s mainstream,  must-try cuisine and there’s a hot chicken joint popping up in your neighborhood. The popular dish may have swept in before you figured out what it was. Now, of course, it’s too late to ask and you have to go on pretending you’re in the loop and you’ve been there the whole time.

What is hot chicken?

As most of us know and have known, hot chicken is not extra spicy buffalo chicken. There’s no wet sauce on hot chicken. After being fried, the chicken is coated in a dry paste made of cayenne pepper, other ingredients that vary by recipe, and hot oil to make it hot chicken. The hot oil keeps the breading nice and crispy.

Finally, it’s not an authentic hot chicken experience without dill pickle chips on top and white bread underneath. The bread (lava layer) soaks up all the heat and flavor and melts in your mouth—or melts what’s left of your mouth. Depending on the level of heat you subject yourself to, the line between pain and pleasure is hard to distinguish. There may be tears and you won’t be sure if they’re from pain or joy, or if you’re just sweating out of your eyeballs. Whatever happens, don’t wipe your eyes with your hot chicken-covered fingers! Do use your fire fingers as a weapon if the need arises (like if you’re assaulted, not because someone skipped you in the bathroom line). A quick swipe is as good as pepper spray.

Prince's Hot Chicken started a southern taste craze that has grown in popularity throughout the south

The origin story: A woman scorned, a million mouths voluntarily scorched

Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville, TN is credited for inventing the dish roughly 80 years ago, and local legend traces it all back to the infidelity of tall, handsome Nashville native, Thornton Prince. Turns out, revenge really is a dish best served cold—because if you serve it hot and painfully spicy the person you’re trying to punish will like it, and ask for more.

At least, that’s what happened to the lady friend of Thornton Prince. One Sunday morning, after Mr. Prince had been out with one lady and come home to another, the lady he stepped out on thought to serve her revenge in the form of fried chicken spiked with what she thought was an intolerable amount of hot pepper (she should have added Minny’s secret ingredient a la The Help). Her plate of chicken from hell didn’t earn her the reaction she expected. It hurt too good. Prince loved it and wanted her to recreate the recipe.

They started serving their lip blistering bird to people in the neighborhood, and Prince’s Chicken Shack grew into a Nashville institution, with hot chicken becoming the Music City’s most iconic dish.

Choose from a variety of Nashville hot chicken at the Music City Hot Chicken Festival

From slow burn to wildfire: Hot chicken awareness timeline

So, how did this local favorite sizzle its way into the national limelight? Nashville’s local delicacy has always lured many a food pilgrim to the city’s hot chicken destinations (Prince’s, Hattie B’s, Bolton’s, etc.), but events in the last decade, especially the latter half, have triggered a dramatic increase in hot chicken awareness.

  • 1930’s: Cheating Lover = inception of the dish we now know as Hot Chicken, and the start of Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack
  • 1930’s-2007: Hot chicken becomes a tradition in the African American Community in Nashville. The smell lures white musicians from the Grand Ole Opry to the back door of Prince’s, because complicated race relations don’t matter when that intoxicating aroma hits your nostrils. Bam. Hot chicken ends segregation and is embraced by all Nashville citizens and all Nashville citizens embrace each other (it’s possible that this is an oversimplified summary of events that perhaps gives hot chicken too much credit). Locals bring friends to their favorite hot chicken joints. Those friends tell their friends. Their friends are tourists who add “try hot chicken” to their Nashville to-do list.
  • 2007: The first annual Music City Hot Chicken Festival is hosted in Nashville to further promote the city’s local delicacy.
  • 2012: Hattie B’s Hot Chicken opens in Nashville, serving homemade sides and craft beer alongside hot chicken. It is hugely successful and popular with the youngins who Yelp on the internet and do the Twitter (sounds like a dance).
  • 2012-2015: Chefs across the country are putting hot chicken or hot chicken inspired dishes on their menus. Some, like Carla Hall, open up their own Nashville-style chicken joints.
  • 2016: Finally, to give credit where credit is due, KFC is a huge player in the hot chicken awareness game. The limited-time offer they introduced earlier this year rocketed hot chicken into the mainstream. KFC even had a food truck traveling around the country spreading the Nashville hot chicken love. The truck did a tour through eight cities that included the name Nashville (Nashville Village, OH, Nashville Town, NC, etc.) and didn’t have a KFC nearby. And it doesn’t stop there: a Birmingham, AL Hattie B’s location also opened this year. It’s the first location outside of Nashville for this regional chain.

Anyone craving chicken now?

When you venture to the birthplace of Hot Chicken, you might find yourself needing this list of places to grab a beer in Nashville and cool down after your spicy tango with the local cuisine.