Here’s how much I wanted to try Nashville’s famous hot chicken: I rented a car. Paid for it myself and everything. Just so I could sneak away from the downtown hotel where I was staying during a book festival to Prince’s Hot Chicken, the place that started the city’s style of fried chicken souped up with vinegar and red pepper.
I headed over right after the lunch rush, grabbed a booth and waited almost 40 minutes for fried chicken that’s so full of cayenne pepper, it’s red. They don’t start frying it until you order it, so I also arranged to meet an old friend, Timothy C. Davis, who used to write about food and music at Creative Loafing in Charlotte. A Charlotte native, he’s been a freelance writer in Nashville since 2008.
Here’s the thing about hot chicken: After you eat it, the endorphin rush from all that spice renders your brain a little sluggish. I don’t remember much about my talk with Davis that day, other than a funny picture he took of me with a portrait of Guy Fieri in the background.
I do remember that we talked about book deals and how hard they are to get. Two years later, Davis has done it: He’s now the author of “The Hot Chicken Cookbook: The Fiery History & Red-Hot Recipes of Nashville’s Beloved Bird” (Spring House Press, $19.95).
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Davis is no longer a drinker, but back when he was hanging around in bars, he met an editor for the magazine Oxford American who now has a publishing company. They were always meeting up for food adventures, and it hit them one day: “ ‘Somebody should do a book on hot chicken. You have a publishing company and I write. Let’s do it.’ ”
How do you do a whole cookbook based on one dish? It was easy, he says: There are versions of hot chicken all over Nashville, and they all vary. There’s Prince’s, the original. There’s Bolton’s, Hattie B’s, and 400 Degrees, Helen’s Hot Chicken and Pepperfire Hot Chicken.
He came up with other recipes that play with the idea, like Hot Fried Turkey and Hot Tempeh for vegetarians. (“That one’s really good, and I say that as a dedicated meat eater.”)
Davis also scored high-power help. Celebrity chef Carla Hall, a Nashville native, wrote the foreword and kicked in a recipe, and TV host Andrew Zimmern wrote the introduction. He interviewed music legends like Joe Kwon of the Avett Brothers and Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo – musicians who stop in Nashville are part of what spread the word on hot bird.
He also added recipes that play well with hot chicken, like Pimento Mac & Cheese and Fried Pickles.
Davis hit the hot-chicken craze right at the cusp, apparently. KFC has come out with a version, and restaurants outside Nashville are starting to play with it. If you want to experience the original, though, Davis’ book is a good place to start.
“A lot of people think just because they’re first seeing it, that’s it’s something new. This is a food that’s been served in middle Tennessee since the ’40s. It’s not just some new, hot hipster thing.”