So, What Is Nashville Hot Chicken?

Today, Nashville hot chicken is a quintessential dish of the American South but it hasn’t always been so beloved, or even known, by the general public. While it was invented nearly a century ago, as recently as 2013, some residents of Nashville—let alone Austin, Miami or Los Angeles— were unaware of this spicy delicacy served in their own backyard. How did hot chicken grow from an obscure local specialty to become a national obsession?

Thorton Prince’s Revenge Chicken

Back in the 1930s, Nashville resident Thorton Prince liked to spend long nights out on the town away from his “steady girl,” to use the local term of the time. One morning after he returned from yet another night spent away from home, she decided she’d had enough of his wandering ways. While he slept, this woman who has remained unnamed throughout history fixed him a plate of fried chicken—his favorite, but with a catch: this bird was coated in a staggering amount of the hottest spices she had on hand.

When the moment of sweet revenge came, the chef was unfortunately disappointed as instead of finding the chicken painfully inedible, Prince fell in love at first bite. He took the chicken to his brothers and they loved the spicy dish, too so around the end of World War II in 1945, they opened Prince’s BBQ Chicken Shack on Jefferson Street in what was the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Hadley Park.

It’s the Racism, Stupid

After Reconstruction, African-Americans who stayed in the South sought refuge from the terror of the KKK and inequality of Jim Crow laws in large, thriving communities in cities across the region (What does this have to do with spicy chicken? Keep reading). After a few years in Hadley Park, Prince moved the Shack downtown to another African-American community, Hell’s Half Acre, very near the famous concert hall, the Grand Ole Opry.

It wasn’t long before white country fans wandered into Prince’s BBQ Chicken Shack after concerts, enticed by the smell and the fact it was one of the only places serving until 4 a.m. City law at the time dictated that Prince must separate his customers by race. He cleverly flipped the standard at the time: white patrons walked through the restaurant and ate in a room in the back while black patrons enjoyed their meals up front. Prince understood that this also satisfied the white customers’ desire to dine in secret to avoid being shamed for visiting an African-American-owned establishment by others in their echelon.

Eventually racist zoning policy and aggressive urban renewal pushed Prince’s to the edge of the city, but it was too far out for the business. He moved again, this time to the African-American community just north of Downtown Nashville. After decades of prevailing over segregation to build a successful business, Prince died in the ‘70s and a few different family members took over before its current owner, Prince’s great-niece, André Prince Jeffries (known as Ms. André), assumed responsibility towards the end of the ‘80s. She swapped out the “BBQ” in the name for “Hot” and relocated Prince’s hot chicken Shack to its present location on Ewing Drive on the north side of Nashville. Ms. André also expanded the heat index and created six levels of spicy, with the original mix now dubbed “Medium,” though she won’t eat the two hottest options.

A Football Stadium, a Festival And a Fanatic

One of Prince’s local imitators, Columbo’s, was razed when construction began in the late ‘90s on what’s known today as Nissan Stadium in Downtown Nashville. State congressman and brokenhearted Columbo’s patron Bill Purcell, who worked nearby, lost his favorite lunch spot and so one day drove over to Prince’s, overcome by hot chicken cravings.

Like Prince, Purcell immediately fell breast over thigh for this particular blend of spices and soon made the restaurant and its eponymous dish an all-out lifestyle. He insisted that Prince’s stay in his district when his fellow politicians were gerrymandering; on the day he retired from the State House, he pushed through a resolution naming Prince’s the best restaurant in Tennessee. After Purcell became Mayor of Nashville in 1999, Ms. André sectioned off an official reserved seat in his name so he never has to wait in line. With the city’s bicentennial approaching and his second term winding down in 2007, Purcell declared that the city would hold a festival in honor of its only indigenous food: hot chicken.

And so, the flight of the hot chicken began. The festival was intended to cement its status as the signature food of Nashville, and Ms. André agree to participate—after all, an opportunity to greatly widen Prince’s customer base would be foolish to pass up. It paid off. The festival was a huge success and became an annual tradition, with more and more customers stopping into the Shack year-round. It’s now the place for a hot chicken restaurant to establish itself on the scene and was the launch pad for the national craze.

It’s on the menus of KFC and Shake Shack, along with scores of independent eateries around the nation (and counting). Food Republic went so far as to name 2016 the Year of hot chicken and you can watch David Chang suffer through it on his Netflix show Ugly Delicious. Don’t get it twisted, though, and let the dish become a false icon of gentrification. Everyone should enjoy hot chicken but make sure to give Ms. André, Thorton Prince and that anonymous godmother of the dish their due respect while you do.

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