‘Hotchickenfrication’: One Fowl Enterprise

Prince's Hot Chicken served X-tra hot with potatoe salad and cole slaw. (Photo by Alan Poizner/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Prince’s Hot Chicken, the spicy, savory comfort food which has its origins in a spurned lover’s attempt for revenge, has long been a Nashville institution. Sadly, the family-run operation has spawned imitators, from KFC to Shake Shack to a spate of already or soon-to-be-opened restaurants cashing in on the seemingly insatiable appetite for hot chicken.

As Zach Stafford laments at Eater, “hotchickenfrication” — as it’s come to be known in Nashville — is polluting “hot chicken’s actual history, its particular origins in a distinct community…transforming it into a pale echo of what it was — a spicy but soulless joyride.”

Prince’s favorite food was fried chicken, and his lover knew that, making it the perfect vehicle for her pain. While he was sleeping, she went out to the garden behind the house and grabbed a bunch of cayenne peppers she’d grown, then started frying some chicken. As the chicken cooked, she created an unbearably hot spice mix with the cayenne. When the chicken came out of the skillet, still sizzling, she tossed an enormous amount of seasoning all over the bird, thinking it would be agonizingly inedible. Prince awoke and stumbled into the kitchen, almost tripping over the aroma. He took a seat at the kitchen table in front of the pile of chicken; his lover watched, anticipating the first bite of revenge. Her plan was thwarted immediately: Prince loved the chicken so much he wanted more.

What you might call “hashtag hot chicken” is the kind served at Party Fowl, a restaurant that once provided the official hot chicken of the Tennessee Titans football team. Last summer, over plates of its signature hot chicken with bourbon-glazed beignets — a play on chicken and waffles — and hot chicken lollipops, Bart Pickens, the executive chef, who moved to Nashville from New Orleans in 2006, explained the broad appeal of his menu. “ You can take our menu to Chicago; it’s got enough reflection,” he told me, referring to Party Fowl’s wide variety of hot chicken dishes, from poutine to Cuban sandwiches. “If I’ve got to make a Giordano’s deep-dish hot chicken pizza, I can go there.” (He has gone there; I’ve seen the pictures.)

While longtime hot chicken aficionados may cringe, Pickens sees the trend as a natural evolution of local tradition. “Food is up for interpretation,” he said. “My philosophy has always been, you have to know the original to go forward with it.”

Pickens’s views echo those of many of the Nashville chefs I spoke to over the last year. They believe hot chicken is a larger-than-life dish that is fair game for their own interpretations, so they are capitalizing off the trend with a clear conscience despite the dish’s singular creation, rooted in a specific time and place in the city. But the history these chefs and new hot chicken dishes refer to is a tall tale, one they often don’t even fully understand. “There’s nothing worse than a scorned woman,” Pickens said, looking over the vast tableau of hot chicken iterations on the table between us. “How does that story go?”

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