Somewhere along the way, hot chicken became the undisputed signature dish of Nashville, TN. As aficionados know, it’s not the temperature of the chicken that makes it hot, it’s the ingredients.
Foremost among them is cayenne pepper – and plenty of it.
According to the Nashville Hot Chicken Coalition, a fairly militant group of local enthusiasts who are the keepers of the flame, so to speak, it’s not really Nashville hot chicken unless it has all three original components – white bread, the signature chicken, and dill pickle chips. (Warning: don’t even think about substituting bread-and-butter pickles for the required dill variety.)
Nashville hot chicken apparently was originated by café owner Thornton Price in the 1930s. Today, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack is run by his great-niece, Andre Prince Jeffries, a local celebrity.
The James Beard Foundation put it this way: “A visit to town doesn’t count unless you make the pilgrimage to this joint, set in an abbreviated strip mall alongside a nail salon, for crispy yardbird with a cayenne-soaked coat of armor.”
The media savvy Jeffries apparently is fond of saying that her hot chicken has some profound effects: “It’s a 24-hour chicken. Hot going in and hot coming out.”
She advises that some relief from the heat can come from sitting in a bathtub of cold water while eating her hot chicken.
Wikipedia has weighed in on the how Nashville hot chicken came into its own: “Although impossible to verify, Jeffries says the development of hot chicken was an accident. Her great-uncle Thornton was purportedly a womanizer, and after a particularly late night out his girlfriend at the time cooked him a fried chicken breakfast with extra pepper as revenge. Instead, Thornton decided he liked it so much that, by the mid-1930s, he and his brothers had created their own recipe and opened (a café.)”
Now there are more than a dozen hot chicken restaurants in the Nashville area that have been deemed authentic by the coalition, There's also an annual July 4 hot chicken festival in Nashville that has been embraced by residents and visitors alike. And the hot chicken craze appears to be catching on elsewhere, with hot chicken restaurants opening in Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta and elsewhere.
If you can't make it to Nashville for the real thing, you can make your own hot chicken at home.
NASHVILLE STYLE HOT CHICKEN
10 pieces of chicken, mixed dark and white, with breast pieces cut in half
1 1/2 tablespoons plus 3 teaspoons of kosher salt or sea salt
2 teaspoons black pepper
2 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 tablespoons mild cayenne-vinegar hot sauce
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
5-6 cups vegetable oil or peanut oil
2/3 cup warm heated lard (or hot frying oil)
3-4 tablespoons cayenne pepper, depending on the heat you want to achieve
1 1/4 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon paprika
dill pickle chips, for garnish
sliced white bread
Rub the chicken with 1 1/2 tablespoons salt and 2 teaspoons pepper. Cover and refrigerate 12-18 hours to enhance flavor and tenderness.
Combine and whisk the eggs, buttermilk and hot sauce in a bowl. In a separate bowl, mix well the flour and 2 teaspoons salt. Pat the chicken dry. Dredge each piece in the flour mixture, shake off the extra, dip in the milk mixture, then the flour mixture again, and set aside.
In a Dutch oven or deep fryer, heat the oil to 325 degrees, using a frying thermometer. Place a wire rack on top of a baking sheet. Working in batches, fry the chicken until deep golden brown and crisp, 15 to 20 minutes, turning occasionally. Put the fried chicken on top of the wire rack to drain. Return the oil to 325 degrees between batches.
Next comes the paste that will be basted or rubbed onto the fried chicken. Using a whisk, mix the cayenne pepper, dark brown sugar, garlic powder, paprika and 1 teaspoon salt. Then whisk in the warm melted lard or warm frying oil, mixing well. Baste the mixture onto the chicken, or rub it in wearing gloves to protect your hands from the spicy heat.
Serve the chicken onto 1 or 2 slices of bread per piece, with dill pickle chips on top.
If you want the entire meal to be authentic, use some of the common side dishes used at real Nashville hot chicken restaurants: baked beans, cole slaw, potato salad, French fries.
Cattle drives in the Old American West are part of the nation's folklore and a Hollywood mainstay. But in the 19th century American South, a much more common sight in the fall were huge hog drives -- undulating seas of swine moving along the lanes and turnpikes -- bound for market.
Now a nearly forgotten phenomenon, the number of hogs that flowed out of the Kentucky and Tennessee uplands across the Blue Ridge Mountains and down through the Carolinas and Georgia may have numbered into the hundreds of thousands per season.
Along the way, the hogs and their drovers stayed in veritable "hog hotels" that sprang up in towns such as Asheville NC. A particularly large hotel might accommodate the drovers and in the adjoining barns up to 1,000 of the animals. Since hogs can only walk 8 to 10 miles per day, there were many such lodging places along the way.
The hotels were charged with feeding the hogs substantial meals of corn so that they would not lose too much weight walking to market. In his book "Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig," author Mark Essig quoted one eyewitness account of 1,000 hogs chowing down for dinner: "The music made by this large number of hogs, in eating corn on a frosty night, I will never forget."
Hogs are not easily organized into moving herds, it turns out.
According to Essig: "Whenever a roadside creek or pond appeared, the pigs flopped into the mud and commenced wallowing. The secret, one drover said, lay in not exerting too much control. 'Never let a hog know he’s being driven. Just let him take his way, and keep him going in the right direction.' The start of the journey was especially difficult, for during that stage loud noises could send pigs stampeding back toward their home farms. One solution was to sew up their eyelids: temporarily blinded, the pigs clumped together and kept to the road by feel."
A local history written by Alex S. Caton, then director of education at the Smith-McDowell House Museum in Asheville, said that during peak fall season, there was an "almost continuous string of hogs from Tennessee to Asheville." Most of them were bound for the end markets in Charleston SC and Augusta GA.
Caton found correspondence from Zebulon Vance, a mid-19th century governor of North Carolina, who wrote of a sight in Asheville at the time: "The rain continues to fall, and our streets are almost impassible with the mud and thousands upon thousands of hogs moving through the town add to the general filthiness (sic) of everything around."
Hogs thus played a significant role in the economic history of the South. They sparked road construction, thriving corn farms along their routes, substantial lodging establishments, slaughterhouses, and food for the Southern dinner table. Railroad and trucking alternatives have long since eliminated the hog drives, but the place they came to occupy in the Southern palate certainly endures.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, when unemployment hit staggering levels and American families were desperate, men took to the road to find work – any work. They came to be called hobos, and many thousands of them ended up going impossible distances in their quest.
On Southern farms, there was likewise plenty of deprivation during the Depression. My father once recalled that during that era, there were whole years when he couldn’t remember his parents buying much of anything from a store – resources can get stretched when you have nine children to take care of.
On the Morgan family farm in rural Vienna GA, the hobos and vagabonds intersected with my family because of railroad tracks, within easy eyesight of the house and barns, that bisected the eastern crop fields.
The hobos needed food, and my Morgan grandparents sometimes fed them.
Those railroad tracks, if you followed them in both directions, led down to the ports of Savannah and Jacksonville on one end, and all the way up to Chicago and the Upper Midwest on the other. The hobos used the tracks to search for work along the way, riding freight trains when they could and walking when they couldn’t.
My uncles told a common story about how the hobos somehow knew my grandmother was a soft touch. They would approach the house, probably with hat in hand, and she would give them a meal in exchange for chores.
The mystery was: how did these threadbare strangers from far away, who were just passing through on their way to somewhere else, know that the Morgan farm above others was a likely place to approach for a meal?
Now, it wasn’t as if there wasn’t plenty of available labor around the farm already. In addition to my nine young uncles and aunts, there were at least two outlying homes where the farmhands and their families lived.
But my grandparents chose to help the strangers, and it is a source of enduring family pride that they did so.
In those days in the rural South, people were much closer to their churches – there were no giant federal welfare programs, and churches and individuals had an active hand in contributing to the care of the poor and needy. Charity literally started at home.
Years later, my uncles figured out why the hobos knew to approach the Morgan farm. They had noticed old rock designs along the railroad right of way that went past the farm. The designs were the work of human hands, and seemed to signify something as they obviously pointed toward the farm.
Somehow, they learned there was a hobo “sign language” used by those lonely men who tramped by. Among the symbols used by hobos back when were those that meant “kind hearted woman,” or “food for working,” or “sleep in barn,” along with other symbols that have since been documented by sociologists. (See the graphic above.)
Freight trains still rumble along the tracks in that same spot where the Morgan farm grew fields of cotton and peanuts and soybeans and melons. The wheels still squeal and creak as they go past, and the locomotives sometimes still blow a long nighttime whistle as they approach.
We can remember the freight line names on some of the cars that once slid past – Seaboard, Atlantic Coast, Southern Railway, Georgia Southern – but they are all extinct, all gone, all receding on the tracks in the far heat-wavy distance, like the faceless men who walked by for years on their way to somewhere, or perhaps to nowhere at all.
My grandparents must have given a sigh sometimes when yet another stranger approached the back yard, unwashed and with his belongings gathered into a sack hanging from his back, shoes scuffling in the dust, another mouth to feed.
Yet each of those men left behind a gift when they finished their meal and went on their way, so humble and unassuming: Even now, they help us know who are, and where we came from.