Southern Stories
Shop
Hellfire and Legbones – A Perspective on Nashville’s Hot Chicken
Aug 26/16

Hellfire and Legbones – A Perspective on Nashville’s Hot Chicken Posted by: Aaron Stearns | 0 Comments

My first day of work, I walked into the endcap of a north Nashville business park to find my new boss, Dave, hunched over a telephone in a corner office, head in hands and speaking a strange jargon full of temperature gradients and poultry fractions. Truth be told, I wasn’t exactly certain what I’d signed up for, but I hadn’t expected this. “Fifteen quarter breasts, hot. Fifteen leg quarters, hot. Eight of both, medium.  Eight halves, hot. Bunch of slaw.” Dave carried on like a day trader for some underground futures market. His eyes darted up suddenly and saw me looking on in wonder.

“Sorry, man…hang on just a second. We’re shipping something to the CEO.”

Turns out, Dave wasn’t making a shady commodities deal. He was merely placing tomorrow’s lunch order for one of the richest people on the planet. A thousand miles away in a big glass building, a billionaire was craving a Nashville delicacy—hot chicken.

Although Nashville’s signature cuisine is the home cooking of its meat-and-threes, no single dish lives in the marrow of the Music City quite as much as hot chicken. It’s a simple food. Take fried chicken and introduce a paste made of lard and cayenne pepper (this may happen at various stages in the cooking process), slap it on a piece of white bread (Bunny or Bimbo if you’ve got it), add a few pickles on top, and there you have the basic elements of the form. The seemingly undisputed progenitor of this fiery grub is Thornton Prince, whose great niece, Andre Prince Jeffries, now operates Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack out of a modest strip mall that neighbors a boarded up Kroger and a beauty supply store.  Hot chicken seems to have had an accidental genesis after one of Prince’s scorned lovers prepared some especially spicy chicken for him as recompense for bad behavior. But instead of feeling burned, Prince made a restaurant out of the concept. Others—including Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish (a family relation of Prince’s), 400 Degrees, and Pepperfire Spiced Chicken—have followed suit, trying to keep pace with Nashville’s insatiable appetite for spicy bird.

But why do we love hot chicken so much, and how has it come to represent the ethos of Nashville? For one thing, there is nothing pretentious about hot chicken. And in a town where reinforcing some genuine connection to a working-class reality is almost an Olympic sport, an affinity for hot chicken makes an expedient accessory. (Take as another indicator this fact I gleaned by eavesdropping on a conversation between two liquor distributors: nowhere on earth is the per capita consumption of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer higher than in Nashville.)  In addition to hot chicken’s autochthonous devotees, politicians, uber-Christians, industry players, hipsters, and musicians of all stripes pledge allegiance to it.  Former Nashville mayor Bill Purcell—who helped found the Hot Chicken Festival, held each July 4th in East Nashville—jokingly lists the marked increase in hot chicken production and consumption as one of the crowning economic achievements of his administration. (Purcell was twice elected in Nashville.)

To fully understand its populist allure, one needs only seek out hot chicken during the witching hour. Inevitably you will find yourself perched like some drought-thirsty animal at a crowded watering hole in the Ngorongoro Crater. Everyone is there in peaceful co-existence, leveraging instinct against necessity, waiting patiently for that life-giving stuff in a grease-soaked paper bag.

Hot chicken’s presentation is largely without frills, and it shares this trait with its host city.  Indeed, while the rich, rolling hills to its south and west have been developed into havens for middle Tennessee’s well-to-do, Nashville proper is a vivisection of interstates, asphalt, and accident. The built environment along its arterial routes is a who’s who of Southern culture on the skids: check cashers, wig shops, muffler specialists, pawn, porn and convenience stores that walk both sides of the line between commerce and desecration.

The storefronts of hot chicken’s major purveyors are likely to be found in this mix. Pepperfire, a newcomer that opened in 2010, sits just across Gallatin Pike from the bright orange façade of the Yes We Can! Discount Tobacco and Beer store, which was temporarily shut down for selling synthetic marijuana. When Aqui Simpson had to move her 400 Degrees store out of its original spot in one of Nashville’s roughest areas, it wasn’t by design. “It was hard to move out the neighborhood,” said Simpson, who grew up in the area. “But I try to keep up with all the people over there.” Striking and effervescent, Simpson herself is a story of humbling trials, having opened her restaurant after a stint on the wrong side of the law. “I’m trying to show people that somebody like me can make it,” she said. “We’re working real hard to bring Nashville the best hot chicken we can.  And I think we do that.”

Hot chicken also emulates its home turf in that it’s such a damn mess—and deliciously so. Whether you’re negotiating a breast quarter, or just trying to go across town, there is often no good way to get there. You have to develop your own method and simply try not to have any accidents. As far as the chicken is concerned, you will get its spices under your fingernails and inevitably into your eyes and other places. It will shut down parts of your face. Loved ones will instruct you not to touch them or really even talk to them except from a safe distance. You will ruin a good pair of pants. In your rush to get home and eat it, you will forget you dropped your girlfriend at Walgreen’s and were supposed to pick her up on the way back. Then there is the next day, when your intestinal sturdiness may be very much in doubt (make no mistake, it will repeat on you).

Why risk these calamities for hot chicken? It’s simple. In this epoch of dietary prudence, eating hot chicken is a distinct act of rebellion, the type of which Southerners are wont to indulge in, even to their ultimate undoing (just look how we’ve rallied around bacon, for Christ’s sake).

Some tout the various health benefits of capsaicin, found in cayenne pepper (loads of vitamin C, as well as mildly stimulant or even anti-depressant effects), but hot chicken is, after all, just a pan-fried treat covered in a sort of edible magma. Eating it effectively says, “I don’t care about today, and tomorrow can kiss my ass, too.”  Every now and then, that can be a pretty healthy perspective on things (provided you wash your hands). And what could fit better within the pray hard/sin harder framework of the Southern moral universe? To be sure, there are those who frequent Nashville’s hot chicken shacks like delinquents attending church.

It’s worth proselytizing, and there are those, like Pepperfire’s Vincent Brown, eager to spread the hot chicken gospel far and wide. “We’re hoping that eventually…this will be all over the country,” Brown said. But the great diffusion of spiced yardbird may occur not through the acts of men, but by ordination from on high.

In hot chicken we have the sin, the retribution, and the redemption all wrapped up in wax paper and Styrofoam. You need only wait for your number to be called. Indeed, hot chicken may be God’s own perfect food.

 

Will Churchill is over nine feet tall. At least once weekly, he eats half of a chicken, leaving only the legbones. He lives in Nashville with two feisty women and a cat.

Meet Andre Prince Jeffries, and learn all about the addictive hot chicken craze in North Nashville. It’s hot, and it’s fried.


SHARE STORY


LEAVE A COMMENT




Comments have to be approved before showing up

;