Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Snacking State-by-State: Tennessee II - Fryin' Hot Hot Hot

With fried chicken such a ubiquitous part of American cooking in general, and Southern cooking in particular, I am surprised I haven't made more of it.  I did investigate my own home state's legendary Maryland fried chicken with its cream gravy.  But one variation on the fried chicken theme I was hitherto unfamiliar with was something unique not just to Tennessee, but specifically to Music City itself.  Nashville is ground zero for hot, hot fried chicken.

Official Name: State of Tennessee
State Nickname: The Volunteer State
Admission to the US: June 1, 1796 (#16)
Capital: Nashville (2nd largest, but is the largest metropolitan area)
Other Important Cities: Memphis (largest), Knoxville (3rd largest), Chattanooga (4th largest)
Region: South, Middle South or Mid-South; East Central South (US Census)
RAFT NationsCornbread & BBQChestnut
Bordered by: North Carolina (east), Mississippi, Alabama & Georgia (south), Arkansas, Missouri & the Mississippi River (west), Kentucky (north), Virginia (northeast)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: bobwhite quail (game bird); channel catfish (commercial fish); Eastern box turtle (reptile); honeybee (agricultural insect, for the honey); raccoon (wild animal); smallmouth bass or bronzeback (sport fish); tomato (fruit - no, not vegetable)
Some Famous and Typical Foods: Southern foods, including fried chicken, cornbread and so on; Memphis style barbecue (both dry and wet); hot chicken (particular to Nashville); smoked hams; ham and red-eye gravy; Appalachian foods (Brunswick stew, stack cake, etc); anything eaten by Elvis (sure, not many Tennesseeans eat fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, but "the King" would want me to mention it, no?)

Hot chicken is a Nashville specialty, along with the "meat and three sides" combination popular all over Music City restaurants.  But hot chicken is one of Nashville's native recipes, showcased in one of the (literally) hottest food festivals in America.  Kim Severson in the New York Times (2012) gives its very simple description in a piece about the Nashville food scene:
The latter comes in the form of hot chicken, a dish unique to Nashville, made in cast-iron pans in the back of cinder-block buildings and strip-mall storefronts where cooks fry big pieces of cayenne-coated chicken, sometimes infusing even the oil itself with pepper. You eat the dish with white bread and pickle slices. It is ecstasy and torture, a culinary expression of the pleasure-pain principle. [Severson 2012]
The place best known for hot chicken in Nashville is Prince's Hot Chicken Shack, a family run business currently owned and operated by André Prince Jeffries.  His great uncle Thornton founded the business, and according to legend his girlfriend got so tired of his womanizing that she cooked up a special, extra spicy version of fried chicken to teach him a lesson.  It backfired, though I don't think the Prince family minds since it has brought them fame throughout the city (For more info see Malcom Bedell's post on Nashville Hot Chicken [2012] from his Maine-based Far Away blog.  I bet he was on vacation in Nashville.  I wish I had seen his blog when I was looking at Maine, but oh well).

Many hot chicken experts in Nashville will swear that the heat is added before the frying, never after.  However, the recent award-winning hot chicken recipe from the aforementioned Hot Chicken Festival breaks that very rule.  A few years ago, the Nashville Scene website [2008] wrote Justin Jones, whose recipe was crowned 2008's best hot chicken in the city, asking for the recipe.  To their surprise, he sent it!   Jim Ridley writes for Nashville Scene
A few considerations. First, we haven't tried it for ourselves (but O my readers and only friends, you can bet we will). Second, this is not the Prince's recipe, and Justin makes no claim that it is. Third, it's bound to cause some controversy on one front: all the heat is added after the chicken is cooked.e-winning-hot-chicken-recipe [Ridley 2008; author's emphasis]
Nashville Scene even got a nice letter from Jones about his version, which is heated up through a thick paste that is about 3 parts cayenne to 1 part lard.  Jones concludes his letter (the complete version is available on the Nashville Scene website) with a paean to Nashville hot chicken:
I offer this recipe to the city of Nashville as our best available weapon against the tide of ignorance, our best chance to vanquish the timid, the half-hearted, and the destroyers who would bastardize the delicacy we love. For anyone who has ever attempted to recreate Hot Chicken in his or her kitchen, this is my contribution to the solution of that mystery; I do not claim that it is the answer to all of our questions, but I do believe that it is at least a good start. It is offered also as a challenge, with the understanding that whoever undertakes it will improve upon it. I hope any worthwhile improvements will be shared with me. [Jones, in Ridley 2008]
I use Jones' recipe for my attempt at hot chicken below, with one change: since I had no lard on hand, and was not keen on using Crisco, I grabbed the closest thing I could find to fill in: bacon grease.

The Recipe: Nashville Hot Chicken (done in an unconventional fashion by Justin Jones of Nashville, Tennessee)

For Justin's Hot Chicken, I assembled the following:

Justin gives no directions for frying up chicken, which really you should know how to do already.  So I just made a simple shake and bake fried chicken using flour (bread flour in this case), cornmeal and, of course, Old Bay.

* I went lazy and just got a few whole chicken legs, about $3 per lb at Whole Foods (I felt like the quality stuff this time).

For Justin's "not-Prince's" hot chicken spicy paste, assemble the following:

* cayenne pepper (I needed 3 tablespoons, or 1/8 cup, of this)
* lard (or if you don't have this on hand, bacon grease - it's the closest flavor to lard that I had in my kitchen, plus I like bacon grease.  Only 1 2/3 tablespoons of this)
* salt, sugar and garlic powder
* It's also handy to have a pastry brush on hand to brush on this hot chicken paste.

To get as close to the real thing as possible, make sure to have plain white bread and pickle chips on hand.

First, heat up your oil for frying the chicken.

I mixed my cornmeal, flour and Old Bay in a ziploc bag...

...and threw in the chicken.

Shake away...

...and fry up for about 20 minutes, turning once.

Meanwhile, make the hot chicken paste: put your fat in a bowl.

Smother it in cayenne pepper and the other dry ingredients.

Mix it all together.  You will be brushing this on your chicken once it's done.

Mmmm, the smell of someone fryin' chicken.

Drain the chicken and prepare to kick up the heat.

Take a boring old piece of plain white bread.  This thing won't know what hit it in a minute.

Put a piece of chicken on it, and brush each side of the chicken with the hot chicken paste.

Stab it with a toothpick and spear some pickle chips on it.  Eat and sweat away.

He wasn't fooling around with this stuff: this is hot. But hot in such a great way!  I swear my tongue was burning for a good 10 minutes after I finished eating, and I had to keep a few paper towels around: one to wipe my hands, one to blow my nose (that happens when I eat very hot food), and one to wipe the sweat off my brow.  And was it worth it?  Hells to the yeah, it was!  Many commenters at Nashville Scene say that this tastes very much like Prince's, although they acknowledge that this is not how Prince's makes its hot chicken.  But the paste does a beautiful job of heating the chicken, and creates the grease that had not started sopping into the bread all that much when I took this photo.  By the time I was done, I couldn't find the bread.  It was just a dark red blob of bready goodness smooshed somewhere into the middle of the plate.


Bedell, Malcolm.  "Nashville Hot Chicken". Far Away: Cooking and Eating in Maine, posted April 3, 2012.  Copyright 2010-2012,  All rights reserved.

Jones, Justin.  Personal correspondence to Nashville Scene website.  Published in "Bites Exclusive: Winning Hot Chicken Recipe!" by Jim Ridley, Nashville Scene, posted July 31, 2008. Copyright 1995-2012, City Press LLC.  All rights reserved.

Neely, Gina, and Patrick Neely, with Paula Disbrowe.  Down Home with the Neelys: A Southern Family Cookbook.  Alfred A. Knopf: New York, NY, 2009.

Raichlen, Steve.  "Memphis Dry Rub Ribs".  Food & Wine Magazine website, 2012.  Copyright 1997 - 2012, American Express Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Ridley, Jim.  "Bites Exclusive: Winning Hot Chicken Recipe!Nashville Scene, posted July 31, 2008. Copyright 1995-2012 City Press LLC.  All rights reserved.

Severson, Kim.  "Nashville’s Rising Stars: The Kitchen Is Their StudioNew York Times, published June 18, 2012.

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.  "Appalachian Foods".  From "Appalachia: Heritage and Harmony" Resources Page for the 2003 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, 2003.  Copyright 2003 by the Smithsonian Instution.

Tennessee Gen Web ( "Stack Cake".  From "The Table of Our Ancestors, Old Time Southern Recipes".  Family recipe from the family of Hilda Marsh, Knoxville, TN.  Date unknown.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Tennessee" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Tennessee".