Hot Chicken Wars Traced back to Nashville Tradition

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There’s a battle blazing in the fast food world. The weapons: cayenne and crushed red pepper.

A trend toward fiery chicken has chain restaurants in something of a spice war. The mainstream movement can be traced back to a Nashville tradition.

Walk into Church’s Chicken on Nashville’s West End Avenue, and there’s a choice to make – original or spicy. It’s clear by the cashier’s foam hat in the shape of a flame; she’s pushing spicy. So are lots of other restaurants – Chic-fil-a, Wendy’s and Popeyes, to name a few. Church’s has taken its spicy chicken and made it even spicier.

“This is in response to what our customers are telling us that they want from Church’s,” says Kirk Waisner, chief chicken officer for the Atlanta-based chain. Seriously, chief chicken officer.

Waisner says the company’s research suggests people want to burn a bit. This spicy trend is different from something like buffalo wings, where it’s all about the sauce. At Church’s, Waisner says the kick comes from 12 hours marinating in a mix of peppery spices.

A Complex Burn

 

“A lot of times all the heats on the outside, it hits your lips first and you get the red lips and all the heat at once,” Waisner says. “This has a slower, more complex burn that builds over time.”

Crunching into a spicy drumstick, there’s certainly some heat, but maybe not a full-on burn. However, it’s certainly outside the box for a take-home bucket of chicken.

“We have been outside the box for 60-some-odd years, so other people are just now catching on,” says Andre Prince, the second generation proprietor of Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack.

Prince’s is a well-known dive off Dickerson Pike. Nashville eateries like Prince’s and a short list of others have put the city on the map as the originator of this kind of peppered poultry. Foodies have found “Nashville hot chicken” on menus as far north as Michigan.

Of course, people travel from far and wide to come get the original too.

Hot Enough to Either Put On or Take Off Chest Hair

 

“One man said it took the hair off his chest,” Prince says. “Another said it put hair on his chest. Of course that was a teenager.”

Hot chicken is traditionally served with fries and a piece of white bread. At Prince’s, the crust is red from all the seasoning in the batter. Prince warns customers not to touch their eyes after handling it.

Even chicken with a “medium” rating is enough to keep the lips warm for an hour. But many like it even hotter, and they’ll wait for their hot chicken fix.

“On Friday nights it is extremely busy,” says customer Tammy Osborne. “I have waited three hours for a piece of chicken. My momma tells me I’m crazy. And I’m not the only one.”

Of the many hot chicken diehards, the most public figure is Nashville’s former mayor, Bill Purcell, who started the Hot Chicken Festival on the 4th of July. It just finished its 4th year and continues to grow.

Corporations Cashing In on Folk Culture

 

John T. Edge, with the Southern Foodways Alliance in Oxford, Miss., says he’s not surprised to see fast food chains picking up on a piece of southern culture like hot chicken.

“It’s no stretch to think that large corporations see the value in folk foods and see the value in repackaging that and selling it to the masses,” Edge says.

There’s also just not that much you can do with fried chicken that’s new and exciting. But the fast food version of hot chicken is still many spice-notches away from the original. Edge thinks of the warning labels that are now required on coffee cups.

“If you were going to sell hot chicken at a drive through at a fast food,” Edge says, “can you imagine the contract you’d have to require? You know, a 20 page contract with three addendums that said ‘here’s the problem, here comes hot chicken.‘”

True Nashville hot chicken may just be too hot for the masses to handle.
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