The untold truth of Nashville hot chicken

Everyone loves fried chicken and its many forms, but there is something very special about Nashville hot chicken. Like the name implies, hot chicken is, well, hot. Most places offer various levels of spiciness, but even the most mild variations are going to pack the heat. And while the spice is undeniable, it's not exactly what makes Nashville hot chicken so appealing. Yes, you are going to want a cold drink with your order, but Nashville hot chicken isn't all burn — the flavor is complex with just a touch of sweetness that makes eating it a "punishment and a joy at the same time." 

While you'll have to make a trip to Music City itself to get the real deal, copycat hot chicken spots are popping up in cities from coast to coast and everywhere in between. In fact, some consider Nashville hot chicken the South's "it" dish. If you're just now getting to know about this culinary trend, you may be fascinated to find that Nashville's hot chicken history is as wild as its flavor. From the kitchens of east Nashville to international sensation, this hot lil' bird has come a long way. 

Hot chicken originated in black neighborhoods

Despite its current popularity, many native Nashvillians did not grow up eating hot chicken. Eater writer Zach Stafford explains that while his father would drive a half hour to eat at Prince's on "the other side of the tracks," people in the mostly white suburb where he grew up had no idea what "hot chicken" was. And as writer Rachel Martin, a "a second-generation Middle Tennessean" and "the daughter of a Nashville native," explains, she never even heard of hot chicken before she moved away for graduate school in 2005. When she moved back eight years later, however, hot chicken had suddenly become "cool."

As Martin continued her exploration of the topic, she found that for over 70 years, hot chicken was made and sold primarily in Nashville's black neighborhoods. Nashville — like most cities in the south — was severely impacted by Jim Crow era laws and regulations, dividing neighborhoods with racial segregation. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, African-American neighborhoods developed around Nashville including what is now known as East Nashville, located opposite the Cumberland River across from downtown. Many of the earliest hot chicken shacks got their beginnings in East Nashville, as well as the origin story for the dish itself. 

The legend begins with a cheating lover

Something as flavorful and spicy as Nashville hot chicken shouldn't have a boring origin story — so thankfully it does not! As the legend goes, there once was a tall, handsome man with "beautiful, wavy hair" named Thornton Prince. According to his great-niece André Prince Jeffries, he was "totally a ladies' man" with "plenty of women." Thornton spent his days lovin' and leavin' the ladies all over Nashville in the 1930s.

After stepping out on his main squeeze one Saturday night, one of Thornton's lovers decided to get some payback by sabotaging his favorite Sunday morning meal. When preparing a batch of good, old-fashioned fried chicken, she then doused the bird in plenty of hot pepper in an effort to give it a punishing spice. Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on how you look at it — Thornton loved his punishment. The chicken was so delicious, he started sharing it with family and friends. Eventually, Thornton Prince opened up a chicken shack to start selling the hot stuff himself. 

The original hot chicken restaurant was called Barbecue Chicken Shack

Prince's Chicken Shack is known as the Godfather of Nashville hot chicken establishments. But what some people don't know is that the shack wasn't always called Prince's. Thornton Prince named his first chicken restaurant — located at the corner of Jefferson Street and 28th Avenue – BBQ Chicken Shack. Over the years, the BBQ Chicken Shack occupied various locations around town, hopping from building to building as needed. The place didn't settle into its current East Nashville home until 1989 after Thornton's great-niece André took it over and renamed it Prince's Hot Chicken

As Miss André explains, she has no idea why the original location was dubbed BBQ Chicken Shack. The chicken was very much fried in large cast iron skillets – not barbecued by American standards. And while today Prince's offers heat levels including plain, mild, medium, and extra hot, back then, only one spice level was offered at the BBQ Chicken Shack. 

There's no secret recipe

While the two dozen or so different Nashville hot chicken shacks each have their own, slightly different, recipe, there's isn't some classified blend of herbs and spices that distinguishes "real" Nashville hot chicken from an impostor. Nashville hot chicken simply consists of a chicken parts — be it breast, thighs, legs, or wings — marinated in buttermilk, breaded, and deep-fried to perfection before covered with the heavily spiced, cayenne pepper-based paste that makes up its distinguished "dry" sauce

According to the author of The Hot Chicken Cookbook Timothy Davis, when it comes to making this dish, "there's no secret," just "a ton of cayenne." Even Nashville hot chicken restaurant Hattie B's freely provided their recipe to the Food Network so non-Nashvillians can try to make their own sweet heat from the comfort of their homes. Considering that hot chicken shacks generally provide different heat levels to fit each customer's preferences (and tolerances), it's appropriate that there is no one "right" recipe; just some basic guidelines cooks can use to make the best bird for them. 

But there is a "right way" to serve it

So there's no single, perfect hot chicken recipe, but there is a right way to serve it. Unlike its wet-sauced Yankee cousin Buffalo chicken, Nashville hot chicken shouldn't be served with a side of ranch or blue cheese dressing for dipping. Rather, Nashville hot chicken is always served with a side of dill pickle rounds for a hint of vinegar-y goodness that can cut the spice should you need it. Furthermore, hot chicken is served with a slice or two of white bread — always placed under the chicken to absorb the juices. 

Of course, as the dish becomes more popular and widespread, chefs and cooks have played with ideas. But the most traditional way to serve Nashville hot chicken has always been and will always be considered the "right" way for fans and purists of the dish. 

Late-night hours are part of the tradition

Because the restaurant wasn't Thornton's main source of income, he usually opened after working his day job. That meant the Barbecue Chicken Shack was known for staying open until the wee hours of the morning. And even though current owner of Prince's Chicken Shack confesses she originally had "no idea why anyone would want to be out that late," the restaurant maintains the tradition by staying open until midnight during the week and until 4 a.m. on the weekends. Now Miss André classifies herself as a night owl. "That's one tradition that I try to keep, being open that late," she says. "It's grown on me."

While Tennessee is a pretty conservative state, Nashville is known for its nightlife and live music. Staying open late allows enough time for tipsy honky tonk-attendees and exhausted nightclub dwellers to get their hot chicken fixes before they finally head home. Of course, they'll have to trek all the way to Prince's to get it — joints like Bolton's, Hattie B's, and Pepperfire have their own, earlier closing times.  

A competitor's hot chicken shack began in the 1970s

Prince's is considered "ground zero" for Nashville hot chicken for good reason — even their competitors have a history rooted in Thornton's endeavor. In the late 1970s, BBQ Chicken Shack's cook Bolton Polk left the restaurant due to a falling out with the family. Polk went on to open his own place called Columbo's Chicken Shack where he served up his own unique recipe. The first Columbo's location was right around the corner from Prince's off Charlotte Avenue. Eventually, Polk moved Columbo's near downtown Nashville at the foot of the Shelby Street Bridge. In fact, it was in that location where former Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell — who is widely credited as the one who made Nashville hot chicken an attraction for tourists — first encountered the dish.

Unfortunately, Bolton Polk was forced to close his restaurant in the 1990s. However, he was kind enough to pass down his recipe to his nephew Bolton Matthew who honors his uncle's work and legacy through Bolton's Spicy Chicken & Fish. Fans of the Columbo's recipe can still get their hot chicken fix in addition to their spicy fish plates and sandwiches.  

But Prince's Chicken Shack is always considered the best

People can have their personal preferences when it comes to their favorite place to get Nashville hot chicken – taste is subjective, after all. But one thing people can find consensus on is the respect that is due to Prince's Hot Chicken Shack. As Hattie B's head chef John Lassater puts it, "Prince's is the godfather of hot chicken, and we can only tip our cap to them and pay them a visit here and there." 

From its charming and sly origins story to the simple fact that this is not just a business, but a restaurant that has stayed open since the 1940s, you can't help but be awed by Prince's. Simply think of how much Nashville has changed since the 1940s — from desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement to the current gentrification issues residents have to deal with, Prince's has been a beloved constant in a city that is continuously evolving. Prince's hasn't just survived and thrived in Nashville, it's come to define it. And that's why Prince's Hot Chicken Shack is recognized as the "true originator of hot chicken" as well as "the absolute best in town."

Country musicians tried to hijack the hot chicken idea

Of course a dish originating in Music City has at least one story connected to country music. According to Bolton Polk, Grand Ole Opry star George Morgan — a "very nice man"– would come by often to pick up hot chicken to-go. Polk remembers meeting Morgan's daughter Lorrie when she was "about 11 years old," as well. So when Lorrie Morgan and her then-husband Sammy Kershaw opened their own hot chicken joint called HotChickens.com (yes, that was really the name), rumors popped up that Polk gave his recipe to the Morgan family — a rumor Polk vehemently denied. "[Lorrie's] a very nice girl. But I didn't give my recipe to her daddy, he told Nashville Scene. "I won't sell it either."

Food writer John T. Edge described HotChickens.com as "a gingham-trimmed fast-food outlet" that "reflects the peculiar Nashville geek-in-a-cowboy-hat zeitgeist." The recipe was rumored to be closer to Prince's, whose devotion Edge loyally proclaims. In the end, HotChickens.com was less-than a success – debts from the restaurant ended Kershaw in Chapter 13 bankruptcy and the country music marriage ended in divorce with mutual restraining orders on top of a failed business. 

There is a whole festival dedicated to hot chicken

In 2007, Mayor Bill Purcell decided to cement Nashville hot chicken as the signature dish of the city with The Music City Hot Chicken Festival. Purcell, a longtime fan of the dish, was no stranger to showing hot chicken some love. As a State Representative in 1996, he officially declared Prince's Hot Chicken Shack the Best Restaurant in Tennessee. As the mayor of Nashville, however, he decided to find a way to express that love in a way that could also possibly draw some of those sweet, sweet tourist bucks to the city's economy. 

The Music City Hot Chicken Festival is held every 4th of July weekend in Nashville's East Park. The fact that a hot chicken festival is held in the punishing heat of a Tennessee summer is a bit cruel, but also appropriate considering the dish's "enjoyable punishment" roots. According to Purcell, the choice was civic-minded — Independence Day is "the one day of the year where you could be sure that everybody would be thinking about what it meant to be a person in Nashville, in America."

Hot chicken has gone hipster

There's nothing quite as hipster as taking something that has been around for decades — likely originated by people of color — and turning out a version of it that can be sold as "cool." When Food Republic writer George Embiricos introduced readers to Hattie B's John Lasater as "the man who launched the Nashville hot chicken craze" and made the food "cool," that was about as stupid-hipster as you can get. As we've explained thoroughly, Nashville hot chicken originated in black neighborhoods and was popularized by Thornton Prince's restaurant and epic backstory. And while one can argue that Prince's didn't put hot chicken "on the map," as writer Betsy Phillips puts it, Embiricos "doesn't even give the right white guy credit for clearing the way for white people to eat hot chicken." Mayor Bill Purcell should obviously be the one credited with making hot chicken a tourist attraction. 

As Nashville's hipster scene grows, hot chicken has definitely gone through the re-invention ringer more than a few times. Today, you can find weird spins on the dish including a Hot Chicken IPA from Tailgate Brewery and sushi 101 classes with a hot chicken twist. These takes on the dish may be dumb and hipster-y, but they're generally harmless. Enjoy as you will. 

Even The Colonel has gone Nashville

The easiest way to know if a trend has really taken off in the United States is if it's been apprehended by a corporation for mass production and consumption. So when fried chicken giant KFC announced in 2016 that they'd begin selling "Nashville Hot Chicken" and "Nashville Hot Tenders" in its US restaurants, it was safe to say that hot chicken was a hit. Even those who don't live in a city with a hot chicken joint suddenly had access this fiery delicacy — though not quite. 

The KFC version of Nashville hot chicken is, to put it kindly, lacking. According to writer David Pemberton, the meal he received at his San Francisco franchise was a "cruel homunculus, a doppelgänger, a shadow monster" of authentic Nashville hot chicken." He described the taste as "vague" with a distinct lack of heat that is "unforgivable." "What KFC has created isn't spicy at all," bemoans Pemberton. "It's just red." 

As writer George Embiricos puts it, what KFC puts up is a fast food product. At the end of the day, that's what it's going to taste like. The Yum! Corporation likely doesn't care that critics find it a cheap imitation of the real thing. Even at its worst, Nashville hot chicken sells. Following their trial run in the Pittsburgh area, KFC stated their Nashville hot chicken had "the most successful product testing in the company's recent history."