Chatter A lover scorned, a dish created: The tale of Nashville's hot chicken takeover

Chatter A lover scorned, a dish created: The tale of Nashville's hot chicken takeover

June 1st, 2017 by Gabrielle Chevalier in Chatter

Traditional hot chicken is served on a slice of white bread, with pickles.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

When Thorton Prince cheated on his girlfriend one too many times, she decided it was time for revenge. So in the height of the Great Depression, the resourceful woman awoke her sleeping lover with the smell of fried chicken — which she had secretly spiced with every hot ingredient she could find in her kitchen.

Rather than hating that first unknowing bite, Prince adored it. And though the relationship has long since ended, the concept his former lover created in anger has become a family legacy: Prince's Hot Chicken Shack.

Or so the story goes.

A Nashville native, I grew up with the Prince's chicken story before another Nashville eatery, Hattie B's, put hot chicken on the map.

The original Prince's hot chicken joint, which was founded nearly 90 years ago and quickly caught on in the then-segregated, largely black neighborhoods, started the legacy of the now-famous food that has become synonymous with Nashville culture. That flaming-hot and somehow perfectly crispy fried chicken, served with a simple slice of white bread and pickles, is what I remember from my high school years. Well, that and trying to pretend my mouth didn't feel like a roaring fire as the beads of sweat building on my forehead betrayed me.

Few foods have the sort of story that surrounds hot chicken. But as Hattie B's expands to Birmingham and East Nashville's Bolton's brings hot chicken to Chattanooga (and to chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain, who dined there while in Nashville) — and the phenomenon trickles down even to KFC, which is attempting its own version of the fiery food — the folklore of hot chicken has taken a backseat to the food itself.

Henpecked's hot chicken and cheese grits comes with a house-made honey jalapeno sauce.

Henpecked's hot chicken and cheese grits comes with...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Henpecked Chicken, a new concept by Nashville-based Halo Restaurant Group, is the latest addition to the Scenic City's growing hot chicken scene.

The restaurant serves both hot chicken and regular fried and smoked chicken, says Henpecked Culinary Director Dave Story, who opened the Market Street restaurant in late April. But the dish he is most proud of is his hot chicken and cheese grits, served with a honey jalapeno sauce made in-house.

"Who does hot chicken and grits?" he laughs, acknowledging the stretch from the original, simple product that started it all. "I'm from Nashville but I want to bring something a little different here."

Story vividly remembers his first hot chicken experience years ago at Hattie B's in Nashville, where he ordered the second-spiciest option, the "Damn Hot."

"I was with my brother-in-law and my wife," he recalls. "And I was sweating, going, 'I can't finish this.'"

Henpecked is a step below that level of heat, Story adds.

"It is still going to be a good level of heat," he assures. "It'll be traditional hot chicken. You'll have the heat from the cayenne and the garlic."

Those brave enough can venture onward to Bolton's Spicy Chicken and Fish in Brainerd to heat things up a notch. Also derived from a Music City original and longtime family recipe, the chicken is the hottest in town, according to the restaurant's website, though there are plenty of soul food staples to tone down or round out your meal.

If you're ever in Nashville, head to Prince's for an original experience, where Thorton's descendents are still scorching the mouths of masochistic hot chicken enthusiasts. Just be sure to wash your hands immediately afterward to avoid scorching your eyes; a little lesson I learned during my high school years.

Recipe for authenticity

What makes hot chicken “hot chicken”?

Bread: While seemingly simple, the addition of 1-2 slices of white bread placed under the hot chicken has a big, tasty role: to absorb the juices and flavor … and to serve as a salve when you start to breathe fire.

Chicken: This may seem contradictory, but hot chicken isn’t just about the heat; it’s about the heat and flavor. Each restaurant has its own secret spice blend, and those spices are key. It’s this dry rub — not sauce (there is none) — that gives the chicken its heat and unique flavor.

Pickle: Authentic means a few slices of dill pickles atop the cooked chicken. While this is part of hot chicken’s bread and butter, that type of pickle will just have to eat its heart out.