The Current Hot Chicken Craze Is Also about Race and Gentrification

Photo by Sean Russell (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Food trends always say something about the cultural moment in which they burst onto our collective consciousness, and Nashville’s beloved hot chicken is no exception. At The Ringer, Danny Chau recounts three days enjoying the addictive pain of cayenne-coated fried chicken, while also exploring a history of racial tension and the changing vibe of the neighborhoods that gave America its Bourdain-approved, spicy food of the moment.

Hot chicken has become one of the biggest national food trends of the last few years, but I didn’t come to Nashville to Columbus a dish that has existed for nearly a century. I did come to see, from the source, why America’s fascination with hot chicken is exploding at this particular moment. As recently as 10 years ago, hot chicken wasn’t a universally acknowledged dish, even in its birthplace. For the majority of its existence, it was largely contained within the predominantly black East Nashville neighborhoods that created it, kept out of view under the shroud of lawful segregation.

Prince’s old location was close to the Ryman Auditorium, where the Grand Ole Opry performed for more than three decades. Its late-night hours were perfect for performers, and early adopters like Country Music Hall of Famer George Morgan helped build a devout following. But in the segregation era, to get their fix, they had to walk through a side door. Prince’s was operated like a white establishment in reverse: blacks order in front, whites out back.

Even after desegregation, hot chicken remained hidden in plain sight for much of Nashville, due to what Purcell described as “comfort” on both sides of the racial divide.

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