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Hot chicken: Meet your new food obsession

Theresa Edwards

by

Shark Wrestler

Theresa Edwards is a freelance writer and professional whiner. She lives in Dallas, Texas with her family where she enjoys reading, roller derby, and complaining about the heat.

Everything you need to know about this hot 'n' happening fried chicken dish

Forget about Low Country boil, chicken and waffles, fried okra and pecan pie. There's a new reigning monarch of Southern delicacies: hot chicken.

Curious? Maybe you've heard of it during a jaunt to Nashville. Or maybe, like me, it's new to your lexicon. Either way, you're in for a treat: SheKnows spoke to Timothy Charles Davis, a Nashville resident, expert on the dish and the author of the forthcoming cookbook The Hot Chicken Cookbook. And when we say expert, we definitely mean it.

Davis' cookbook reads almost like a travel journal, packed with origin stories that are just dubious enough to be believable, insights from chefs, musicians and Nashvillians of all stripes, plus all the gorgeous food porn you can handle.

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The recipes for the iconic Nashville dish itself — plus tasty-looking sides — are interspersed throughout, making the book not just a hot chicken bible of sorts, but a fun, fascinating read as well.

SheKnows: How about a quick-and-dirty explanation for the complete hot chicken newbie? What is hot chicken, in a nutshell?

Timothy Charles Davis: Hot chicken is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Wait, that's the beginning of Steinbeck's Cannery Row. But that’s a great question.

On a nuts-and-bolts level, hot chicken is fried chicken, sometimes brined in buttermilk, sometimes in pickle juice — it all depends upon the restaurant — which is then floured and fried, and then seasoned at the end with a piquant cayenne-based pepper paste.

But there are as many variations as there are hot chicken restaurants — dozens upon dozens, in places as far-flung as Louisville, Los Angeles, Dallas and Australia. But real Nashville-style hot chicken is not all about the heat, as odd as that sounds. It's about the history of a food and a place and a people. It's about a mystery and a mythology that is as intoxicating as the food itself. It's about local flavor becoming a taste people everywhere can enjoy.

It's not unlike the city of Nashville itself: It can be down-home and cosmopolitan at the same time.

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SK: What got you interested in the dish? What makes it so special?

TCD: Moving to Nashville about a decade back introduced me to it in person. I was previously aware of its existence through my study of Southern foodways. What makes it so special, I feel, is all the mystery behind it paired with the fact it's a "slow food," if you will, and that's attractive to folks again. Measured and careful and unique are in vogue again thanks be to the hipsters.

SK: What's the biggest difference between hot chicken and your garden-variety hot sauce-slathered chicken wings?

TCD: The differences are myriad. That said, the biggest difference is hot chicken is not just a wet-style hot sauce mixed with butter, as most Buffalo-style wings are. It's a spice mixture that, depending on the restaurant, can have from five to 15 ingredients. It's a dry rub in a few cases, but usually more of a paste-like coating.

SK: For true devotees, what would a hot chicken pilgrimage look like in Nashville?

TCD: If you've nothing to do the next day, I'd say hit what I call the "Big 5": Prince's, of course, but also Hattie B's, Pepperfire, Bolton's and 400 Degrees. But go mild at least some of the time. Your body will thank you.

SK: Will we see new takes on hot chicken or hot chicken dish hybrids? Nashville meets Korea or France, perhaps?

TCD: I feel like most cultures, especially Asian, have at least a few spicy takes on chicken, so this is a natural. If it's not already being done, I imagine it will be!

SK: Is there a way for people who are maybe a little Scoville unit impaired to get in on this? A starter hot chicken dish for delicate palates, perhaps?

TCD: Most if not all Nashville joints have a mild heat level, which is a good place to start. This allows you to get in on the unique flavor profile without singeing your eyebrows off. If your palate is truly delicate — like, say, my mother's — you're probably just better ordering the plain fried chicken, which any good hot chicken place will do for you.

SK: On to the chicken itself: How is it best eaten? Sandwich style? Knife and fork? How about condiments?

TCD: It's best eaten any way you so desire! I think most folks probably tear into it with their hands, being careful to not get their hands anywhere near their eyes or other sensitive parts. Condiments are OK if negligible in heat extinguishing.

A fair amount of folks like ranch dressing with it — of course, there are a fair amount of folks who like ranch with everything! — so you see that offered fairly regularly. I feel like there's so much going on with the flavor of hot chicken that other condiments usually only serve to get in the way.

SK: What's behind the sudden trendiness of hot chicken?

TCD: The interesting thing about this "trend" is that hot chicken's been around, at least in Nashville, since at least the 1940s. It was slow food before it was cool. As trends go, this one has had a much slower, steadier burn than most — pun completely intended.

I'm often asked how I feel about hot chicken's meteoric rise in food circles, with restaurants opening nationwide — and indeed, worldwide — serving the stuff. I always say it's akin to your kid going off to college: You're proud to see it off, but you can't help but feel a little protective of it at the same time. You just hope it stays reasonably true to its raising, as it were, so people can see what all of the fuss is about.

Folks are being drawn to things these days that offer a glimmer of authenticity, of “realness,” and hot chicken has that in spades.

More: 50 Hearty one-pot meals for an easy comfort food fix

SK: Speaking of which, say you do want to make hot chicken at home. What are the fundamentals home chefs need to keep in mind if they want to attempt the dish?

TCD: There are a couple recipes in the book. The key is that, as regards the spice paste, you can always go up in heat, but not down. Start out with a moderate temperature level, and adjust to your liking. And start with the best chicken you can find.

SK: Any unforgivable hot chicken mistakes to be made in the process?

TCD: I see some recipes mentioning saucing the chicken before frying it. I've never seen that done here in Nashville — ever.

Davis ended our chat with an apt metaphor for Music City's signature dish:

TCD: Most of the really great stuff Nashville has given the food world — the “meat and three,” the spice round, hot chicken — is what I’d call “food for folks.” They seem simple enough, but like a great song, they contain a lot of nuance and care and little details that you don’t miss until suddenly they’re not there.

You can know all the chords to a song, but that doesn’t mean you’ll ever be able to play it like the original artist does. The best Southern food — any food, really — reflects the particulars of the place that birthed it.

Next: Davis' recipe for hot chicken

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