How To Sound Like a Nashville Hot Chicken Expert Without Really Trying

By Timothy Davis | June 09, 2016
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Hot Chicken is Jackson Pollock to your ordinary fast-food spicy chicken sandwich’s Thomas Kincaid. Even the poets know that to speak of it is akin to trying to sketch the vagaries of romantic love: an impossible, yet irresistible task. 

All of which didn’t stop me from trying. As I’ve written a book about the venerable dish, I’m often asked -- by Nashville newcomers and longtime residents alike -- if I have any tips for them. Following are a few suggestions to make you seem like a seasoned (pun not intended) Hot Chicken connoisseur in time for this year’s Hot Chicken Festival.

It’s not a competition. Every (good) Hot Chicken restaurant stays in their lane. Some make a hotter bird; others are better suited for the lunchtime rush. Most will tell you to try the other folks’ offerings, too, as what lights up one person may leave another cold. A longtime restaurateur once described it to me thusly: think of Hot Chicken as, say, the NFL. You support the league as a whole, but usually you happen upon a favorite team. As such, you should also be okay with the fact that others have their own rooting interests, too.

Speaking of lunchtime: Don’t go at lunchtime. Hot Chicken was slow food before slow food was cool. Take a late lunch, or consider a delivery service you just have to eat at noon. 

That said, go get it yourself if at all possible. One of the best things about Hot Chicken is the fact that it’s one of those dishes that brings people from all races, creeds, colors and walks of life together. Skip that, and you’re missing one of the big parts of the dish’s allure.

It’s a paste, not a sauce (and moreover, it’s a preparation). Nothing makes you look like a bush-leaguer faster than calling the delicious hot seasoning doused upon Hot Chicken a “sauce.” Sauces can be squirted on a dish. KFC squirts “sauce” on their (ahem) “Hot Chicken.” Which is but one reason you should leave it alone.

Places that fake the funk are doomed to fail. If a place has been open more than a year or two, odds are their bird is reasonably authentic. For every Hot Chicken restaurant in Nashville now, there are three more that have long since been shuttered. When in doubt, 86 the Yelp reviews and ask a local who’s lived here longer than, say, one election cycle.

Don’t believe people who tell you Hot Chicken is a fad or a new phenomenon. Fads, despite what all the recent media attention would have you believe, don’t typically last 75 years, which is right around the time Thornton Prince is said to have started serving The Bird That Burns.

The pickles and white bread serve a purpose. Get extra of both, and thank me later. The pickles don’t quell the heat, but they serve to contain the fire somehow. The white bread? Nothing is better than Hot Chicken paste-soaked white bread. It’s like sopping up gravy with a biscuit: the best part of the meal.

If you’re really hungry, consider skipping the festival altogether. It’s going to be deliriously hot even before you stand in line for an hour for a few bites of Hot Chicken, and, owing to the crowds at the Festival, most of the participating restaurants’ brick-and-mortar locations are open...and with much shorter wait times than usual.


Timothy Charles Davis is a Nashville-based journalist and the author of The Hot Chicken Cookbook: The Fiery History and Red Hot Recipes of Nashville’s Beloved Bird. His food writing has appeared in Saveur, Gastronomica, the Christian Science Monitor, and numerous other publications. 

Article from Edible Nashville at http://ediblenashville.ediblecommunities.com/eat/how-sound-nashville-hot-chicken-expert-without-really-trying
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