Hot Chicken, from Nashville via Maine

by Dan on May 19, 2012 · 0 comments

in blogEATS

The population of Southern food writers and cookbook authors is only marginally smaller than the overall population of the South. Or so it seems. Many of these writers are very good. Last year, in 2011, at least four formidable Southern cookbooks were published. When the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals release each year their three nominees apiece for the best American cookbooks, there must be years, last year perhaps being one of them, when the judges struggle to find a token non-Southern title to include and to decide which of the worthy Southern books to exclude.

Newspaper food sections in the South often are good, too, and the Southern Foodways Alliance’s website is the best U.S.-regional food site around. Its blog is a punchy, opinionated, funny, and insightful read that I enjoy a lot.

Like many of my colleagues in the cookbook-editing biz, I’d love to work on a Southern cookbook. But the competition is so dense and daunting that many of us simply have stayed on the sidelines. Partly as a result of this professional disengagement from the subject, and partly because my travels have rarely included the South, I know very little about Southern foods.

One of the many, many facts I did not know about food in the South is that a signature dish in Nashville is what’s known around town as hot chicken. “Hot” here refers to a heavy dose of cayenne, usually, or another capsaicin-based flavoring. I learned this not because I have been reading the works of one of the bazillion Southern-native food writers, but because I have been an occasional visitor to a fine blog written by Malcolm and Jillian Bedell, who live now in Maine but have lived many places, including Brooklyn and the Yucatan, previously, and who travel a lot, including in the South.

The blog is called From Away. If you have been to Maine, you know that everyone there is either “from away,” meaning they were born elsewhere and lack a Maine accent, or “from here,” meaning they were born in Maine and have the accent to prove it. Some food blogs are written by generalists (any food is fair game), and some by specialists (baking or Italian food, for example). From Away is something of a multiple-specialties blog. Jillian and Malcolm write a lot about restaurants, bakeries, and other food-or-drink establishments in Maine, especially ones that bespeak Maine’s distinct regional food culture. It’s also a blog that has a lot of recipes for Maine dishes. Beyond that, the Bedells have written extensively and lovingly about sandwiches. Last, there’s a road-trip component, in which they check out regional foods in other locales. Recent posts have covered tomato pies in Trenton and taco trucks in New Haven.

The recipe reproduced below from comes from Nashville. The original post is here. I like knowing that there is such a thing as the “Music City Hot Chicken Festival,” and I like the Bedells’ interpretation of one of the recipes that won a prize in that event. Whether you buy or don’t buy the story that the dish originated as a kind of punitive breakfast, I think you’ll agree that it’s a neat recipe.

Nashville Hot Chicken
Adapted from a recipe by Justin Jones, Winner, 2008 Music City Hot Chicken Festival

Is the “Spicy Crispy Chicken Sandwich” from Wendy’s not enough to get your heart racing anymore? Have you beaten every hot Buffalo wing eating contest in town? It’s time to graduate to “Hot Chicken,” the regional fried chicken specialty from Nashville, TN.

Traditionally served on a few slices of white bread, with a sliced sour pickle to take the edge off the heat, what sets Nashville Hot Chicken apart from upstate New York’s saucier contribution to the chicken world, is the thick, spicy, violently red paste that gets applied to the chicken after it comes out of the cast iron skillet. The paste varies slightly from chicken shack to chicken shack, but Nashville’s Hot Chicken experts seem to agree that the base recipe is about 3 parts cayenne pepper to one part lard. The liquefied fat and pepper oozes into all of the nooks and crannies in the crunchy chicken, dripping onto the soft, spongy sliced white bread underneath, which keeps the grease and spice from oozing onto your clothes and into the eyes of any small children that may be standing nearby. The result? Nuclear-strength fried chicken that stays perfectly crunchy, enrobed in layer upon layer of lip-burning, endorphin-surging, sinus-clearing, eczema-inducing amounts of heat and spice.

Though Hot Chicken is served throughout Nashville (and even celebrated in its own annual festival), the technique for producing such incendiary chicken was developed by the Prince family, owners of “Prince’s Hot Chicken.” Located in a nondescript strip mall, sandwiched between a nail salon and a wig store, the Prince family has been making Hot Chicken since the 1950′s. As the legend goes, the great-uncle of the current owner, André Prince Jeffries, was a proud womanizer and Lothario. After being caught by his live-in girlfriend after spending the night with another girlfriend, Thornton Prince’s main squeeze decided to teach him a lesson by cooking up a breakfast batch of the spiciest chicken she could muster (because, evidently, “cooking your philanderer some chicken” was how most domestic disputes were handled in the 1950′s). To his girlfriend’s ever-mounting chagrin, Thornton Prince loved the chicken so much, he began serving it in his own restaurant and, presumably empowered by his newfound spicy chicken-strength, continued sleeping with as many other women as humanly possible.

Since Prince’s keeps their exact technique and ingredients a secret, attempts to copy the Prince’s Hot Chicken recipe reach far and wide. Some insist that some of the heat is applied prior to frying, which seems unlikely, as Prince’s offers four levels of heat, which can all come from the same batch of fried chicken. Other would-be amateur Hot Chicken chefs insist that the paste is made of two parts cayenne pepper to one part “Slap Ya Mama” Cajun Seasoning, or further enhance their spicy chicken paste with garlic, sugar, or additional hot sauce. In 2008, contest judges at Music City’s Hot Chicken Festival awarded their grand prize to civilian Justin Jones’ recipe. It may not be Prince’s original recipe, and it doesn’t claim to be; it may be, however, as close as we’re going to get to authentic Nashville Hot Chicken without taking a serious road trip.

Frying chicken in a cast iron skillet is an art; there’s no shame (at least not amongst we Yankees) in finishing your chicken in a 375 degree oven, if it gets too dark on the outside without reaching a safe 165 inside. Serve it just the way they do at Prince’s: on two slices of enriched white bread, with a few slices of sour pickle on a toothpick. It’s a peculiar combination, but it works. When the chicken is gone, you get bonus points for wolfing down the grease-and-cayenne-soaked bread.

Serves 4, as sandwiches

  • 2 skin-on, bone-in chicken breasts
  • 2 cups buttermilk (or two cups whole milk + 2 tablespoons white vinegar)
  • 1/2 cup self-rising flour
  • 10 ounces plus 2 tablespoons lard, divided
  • 3 tablespoons cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 3/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 4 slices white bread
  • 6-8 slices sour pickle, sliced
  1. In a shallow baking dish or large freezer bag, combine chicken breasts and buttermilk. Cover or seal and let soak in the refrigerator overnight.
  2. In a deep, heavy cast iron skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat, heat 10 ounces of lard to 375 degrees. Check temperature of oil throughout the cooking process using a candy thermometer, adjusting heat as needed to keep oil as close to 375 as possible.
  3. Remove chicken from buttermilk, and dredge in flour. Add chicken to hot grease, and cook, turning every 3-4 minutes, until chicken is golden brown and a meat thermometer registers 165 degrees, about 20-25 minutes. Drain chicken on paper towels.
  4. Microwave remaining two tablespoons of lard for 30 seconds, or until liquefied. Add cayenne, sugar, salt, and garlic powder, and stir well to combine.
  5. Apply to bone-side of chicken using a brush, a spoon, or your hands (wear latex gloves!), flip chicken over (so it is skin-side-up) onto two slices of white bread, and baste with more of the paste. Repeat for remaining chicken breast. Serve with sliced sour pickles and a dozen cans of cheap beer.

 

                                                      Recipe and photo used by permission of Jillian and Malcolm Bedell

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