Take that, turkey! In praise of Nashville's indigenous burning bird — hot chicken 

Heart Burn

Heart Burn

If there's anything Tennesseans love, it's a bird that's tough on the outside but tender inside. Our state bird is the mockingbird — a typically monogamous avian that can reproduce the lustrous trilling of other songbirds, yet will divebomb a cat or attack a much larger owl without a moment's pause. It's a creature that inspires fierce love (see Harper Lee), well-heeded fear, and no small amount of respect.

Nashville has a bird like that too. Except ours nests atop two pieces of grease-soaked white bread, toothpicked, with pickles and breading the color of pressure-washed brick.

We refer, of course, to hot chicken — curer of colds, scourge of colons and savior of many a stumbling-drunk Nashvillian when the Waffle House just couldn't cut it. This weekend, while everyone else is sleeping off the narcotizing effects of turkey, we choose to celebrate the joys of the bird that slaps you awake.

The South is studded with regional specialties — shrimp and grits in the coastal Low Country, chopped pork barbecue in North Carolina, the Mississippi slugburger — that locals revere with an intensity usually reserved for sports teams. But there's something unique about Nashville's hometown delicacy, a variation on Southern fried chicken fortified with a gunpowdery pepper bang.

With its tongue-scorching ratio of pleasure to pain, it's as much a dare as a dinner. Connoisseurs of spicy food pit themselves against its escalating levels of heat the way mountain climbers charge up the face of K2. As such, it's becoming as much a tourist attraction as a food — a challenge visitors just have to take.

In part, that's because almost everything surrounding Nashville hot chicken adds to its mystique. Nothing about hot chicken appeals to a diner's comfort zone. Essentially a secret handshake among local eaters over the past 60 years, it's available at surprisingly few places despite its increasing popularity. (A partial list appears on p. 14.) The best ones take some scouting, in neighborhoods that often leave lily-livered suburbanites looking around anxiously. Hours can be willful. Online menus? Facebook pages? Hah! It's the exact opposite of fast food — at the best places, an hour's wait isn't uncommon. Like tantric sex, it's something you don't rush.

What's more, it comes surrounded by decades of lore. Aficionados can rattle off a virtual user's manual: Drink lemonade, water, milk or fruit punch with it — nothing carbonated (that just stirs it up). Choose sides that cool it down (see p. 12). Don't rub your eyes after eating. For god's sake, wash your hands before you go to the bathroom. Yet all the cautions, waits and inconveniences somehow only make the chicken that much better when it arrives. Hot chicken resists everything mass-produced and watered-down in the culture.

In recent years, its fame has gone viral. That seems to have started in the '90s, thanks in part to former state Rep. and later Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell, a staunch (some would say sadistic) ambassador for the fiery fowl. Around that time, revered indie rockers Yo La Tengo not only made hot chicken a must on their Nashville recording dates, they named a succession of songs "Hot Chicken" in its honor. But that was just the beginning. Noted food writers such as The New York Times' Julia Reed and Vogue's Jeffrey Steingarten made hot-chicken pilgrimages. On his Comedy Central show Insomniac, comic Dave Attell was memorably shown turning the shade of an eggplant after an unwise encounter with the extra hot.

Gwyneth Paltrow GOOPed it. The Arcade Fire dug it. Patton Oswalt begged for it during his brief Nashville stay. The Food Network and the Travel Channel have profiled it. Even Thomas Keller, the world-renowned chef of French Laundry fame, accompanied The Tennessean's Jennifer Justus on a hot-chicken run earlier this year. On the FX series Justified, set in Kentucky, the lanky lawman played by Timothy Olyphant brokered a hostage standoff at a prison. Among the terms under discussion: an order of Nashville hot chicken.

Almost all these citations involve the mighty Prince's Hot Chicken Shack, a storefront located in a humble strip mall off Dickerson Pike that has gone from near-total obscurity to international renown. As the folklore goes, if Andre Prince Jeffries' great-uncle hadn't agitated his woman to the point she spiked his fried chicken with a payload of punishing cayenne, the dish might never have been invented.

Throughout the civil rights era, as Jeffries told the Southern Folkways Alliance in a must-read oral history, the Prince family served their specialty at various locations where white folks ate in the back. Such an arrangement was more common than you might think in the segregated South, says John Egerton, whose 1987 book Southern Food remains a landmark study of regional cuisine. The lure of good food tended to undermine racial barriers, and even to this day, Prince's Hot Chicken Shack stands as one of the most integrated places in a city that's still divided in many ways.

Thank the power of the chicken. On weekend nights, while a broad swath of humanity cools its heels, the breast-quarter sandwich at Prince's blazes away in cast-iron skillets into the wee wee hours. Over the years, Prince's cooks have peeled away and opened their own places, but the original recipe has been guarded for generations. Most speculate the heat comes from a paste applied after the chicken is removed from the skillet, probably a mix of lard, cayenne and some mysterious X the Unknown. The seasoning turns the crust a fiery, ruddy red, leaves the bread underneath saturated with splotches of tangy grease, and subtly permeates the moist meat.

Most people can't handle anything hotter than medium. And yet those who dare find that for all their suffering — burning lips, watering eyes, a scalded tongue that practically turns water to steam on contact — a kind of euphoria results from the upper registers of heat. That's one reason you'll see the same people over and over at Prince's narrow counter: They're hooked on that sweet, sweet burn.

There are plenty of other reasons, some anecdotal, some apocryphal. Is hot chicken an aphrodisiac? It might be, it just might be (and we'll say no more). Is it medicinal? Cold sufferers trudge into chicken joints in winter, swearing hot chicken works better than Nasonex on clogged sinuses. Is it a colonic? Let's just say those warnings about when to time your travel aren't old wives' tales. (See "Exit Strategies" on p. 16, if you dare.)

With the founding of East Park's annual Hot Chicken Festival four years ago — one of Purcell's great legacies to the city — it would seem that hot chicken is no longer the secret it once was. Just this year, Steve Harvey gave Prince's a Hoodie Award honoring the nation's finest community businesses. Restaurants in San Francisco, Michigan and even Brooklyn have started serving up their own versions. Even fast-food outlets such as Chick-fil-A and Church's have tried to grab a piece of the action. But there's no beating the sometimes elusive, often pain-inducing, always mysterious and rewarding original — the city bird that hurts so good.

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