As often happens, a spirited discussion in "Wingaddicts Community" (Facebook’s largest network of chicken wing enthusiasts), inspired me to look into the origins of Nashville Hot Chicken. Is it a cooking style? Is it a flavor? Is there a debate? And, as usual, there’s a story.
Chicken wing enthusiasts well know the tale of how Buffalo wings were born that fateful night at the Anchor Bar. They also know of the original “wing man” John Young who began to popularize “Mumbo wings” even before that. So let’s take a look into a different phenomenon that began even before both, further south, and the origin of Nashville Hot Chicken.
One Sunday morning, back in the 1930’s, a groggy Thornton Prince rose for breakfast after a late night of carousing in Nashville, Tennessee. A Sunday morning fried chicken breakfast was tradition in the African American communities in the south, and Thornton’s jealous girlfriend (believing that he’d been unfaithful last night) was plotting her revenge as she prepared it on this particular morning.
Though history doesn’t remember her name (she’s referred to today as “Girlfriend X”), Thornton Prince’s girl doused his chicken with a triple-x dose of cayenne pepper to pay him back for his indiscretions. The problem is, he LOVED it! And, as legend has it, “hot chicken” was born.
Thornton got the idea to open a chicken shack and sell this new hot chicken sensation to the public. He was a pig farmer by day but (along with two of his brothers) found a way to open up “The Bar-B-Q Chicken Shack” on the corner of Jefferson Street and 28th Avenue in north Nashville.
The Prince boys all worked full time jobs by day, so the restaurant opened at the end of the work day and remained open until midnight and 4 am on weekends. Operating solely in some of the poorest black neighborhoods in the city, the location moved three different times before ultimately finding its permanent home in 1989 at a strip mall in East Nashville.
Thornton Prince died around 1960 and left the chicken shack to his brother, Will, who then left it to his nephew, Bruce. In 1980, Bruce’s daughter Andre Prince Jeffries (now 77) became the fourth owner and changed the name to Prince’s Hot Chicken to honor her founding great uncle and immortalize the family legacy.
Somehow, the hot chicken sensation did not make its way out of Nashville, remaining embedded strictly within the black community there. But with the explosive development and expansion of the Music City, and the creativity of Andre Prince Jeffries, it blossomed into a local obsession sometime around the beginning of the new century.
Nashville began an annual Music City Hot Chicken Festival in 2007, Hattie B’s Hot Chicken came onto the scene in 2012 and when KFC added it to the menu in 2016, it spread out across the rest of the country and “hot chicken” became “Nashville Hot Chicken.”
Then something else happened. Our friends who coined the sacrilegious term"boneless wings" - Buffalo Wild Wings - introduced “Nashville Hot” wings to the whole world. From there, it went viral.
Nashville Hot Chicken Wings?
Nashville "hot chicken" is traditionally marinated, dredged in flour spiced with cayenne pepper and fried on the stovetop in lard. It is then covered in a spicy cayenne pepper/ lard paste and served on white bread with pickle chips.
Similar to the evolution of “Buffalo-style” wings, which also didn’t pick up its geographical tag until gaining popularity much later on, “Nashville Hot Chicken” has now become an actual flavor. And while it was never intended strictly for chicken wings specifically; it was a natural.
Hot chicken joints are popping up like pizza places, according to Ms Jeffries, and many still don't even serve chicken wings on the menu. Those that do, normally serve them as part of combo packages or separate in the full three piece (drums/flats/tips) format.
And just like today’s "Buffalo wings" which are served breaded or naked or fried or baked or smoked or grilled and come with hundreds of variations well beyond the traditional Frank’s-and-butter recipe, “Nashville Hot wings” can now say precisely the same thing. It's a sauce.
Ingredients like vinegar, garlic, paprika, brown sugar, honey and molasses have made their way into different “Nashville Hot” sauce recipes over the years. Many of the major sauce companies like Frank’s Red Hot, Sweet Baby Ray’s and Buffalo Wild Wings offer a Nashville Hot sauce and the recipes vary. There are even Nashville Hot dry rubs on the market.
But ultimately, as a true wing aficionado, I like to understand the difference between Nashville Hot Chicken the dish and Nashville Hot, the flavor.
And now you know.
Tommy Wyatt is co-founder of Wingaddicts and author of “Under the Wingfluence” for Wingaddicts.com.
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* The photos used in this blog were borrowed from "Prince's Hot Chicken's" Facebook page.