I just spent three days last week at a training session in Nashville, Tennessee. Aside from being Music City, Nashville is also the birthplace of a hot trend sweeping the country – Hot Chicken. It’s moved into fast food. KFC now has Nashville Hot chicken strips. O’Charley’s has a Nashville hot chicken sandwich and Captain D’s has a Nashville hot fish. A hot chicken chain Joelle’s from Louisville, Kentucky, has invaded Ft. Wright, Kentucky, as has a local startup, aptly named Nashville Hot, across the street. Columbus, Ohio, has its Hot Chicken Takeover. Good Morning America just had a feature this past Sunday on Nashville Hot Chicken.
So, as part of my experience, I wanted to try an original Nashville Hot item. I knew that Prince’s was the original hot chicken. But, I also wanted to try one of the cool new farm-to-table restaurants. I found one called Lockleand Table, in the East Nashville neighborhood of Lockeland. They won the 2013 James Beard Award for best new restaurant. It’s in an historically African-American neighborhood, that like our Over-the-Rhine, is coming back with renovated older homes and hip new restaurants. They had one Nashville hot item – crispy fried Nashville Hot Pig Ears, with slaw and pickles, served on a piece of white bread. When I ordered, the nose-pierced, friendly waitress cautioned me it was going to be hot. And it was fairly hot. Although I wasn’t too excited to be eating pig ears, they were sliced thin and tasted a bit like spicy, gamey bacon. After eating it, I asked the waitress how its heat compared to Prince’s. She said they were mild in comparison.
Lockeland Table’s Nashville Hot Crispy Pig Ear appetizer.
The next day at training I grilled my fellow trainees – Nashville locals – about hot chicken. I asked how the spice levels compared to each other and why people liked it. One guy said Prince’s used to fry all their chicken to order in large cast iron skillets and had recently switched to open fryers. This had supposedly changed the taste a bit, and maybe improved their service a bit too. But at such high spice level, could anyone really detect a subtle difference in flavor?
Although the national trend of Nashville hot chicken is only a few years old, it’s been a staple of Nashville for over 70 years. So why has it taken so long to make it out of Nashville? It has to do with racial segregation. Nashville Hot chicken is a product of the city’s African-American community, where it has remained hidden in plain sight until the last decade. Heat apparently transcends racial boundaries. And Nashville Hot Chicken is marinated in heat, breaded in heat, deep fried, and hot sauce-slathered post fryer.
The supposed nativity site of Nashville Hot Chicken was started in 1945 – the Bar-B-Q Chicken Shack– although some sources say it started as early as the 1930s. Its founder was James Thornton Prince, and his brothers. Supposedly Thornton was a womanizer and one Saturday night returned to his apartment and his girlfriend after a long night out on the town with another woman. To get even with him, she added a ton of spices to the typical Sunday chicken breakfast, and he ended up liking it.
James Thornton Prince, the womanizing Grandfather of Nashville Hot Chicken.
According to Andre Prince Jeffries, the current owner of Prince’s, the Sunday breakfast in the Nashville African-American community was something to look forward to. It was like a buffet and in addition to eggs, had other items like fried chicken, fish, fried corn, baked beans, and baked apples.
The Prince Family, turn of the century. Thorton’s sharecropper father, Thornton II (far left in rocking chair) and mother, Mary, center. Brothers John Henry, Boyd, William, Alphonzo, and sisters Fannie, Maymie, and a third sister form a strong African-American family unit.
Thornton took the recipe from his scorned ex-girlfriend. locally known as ‘Girlfriend-X’, and opened his own chicken shack. Sadly, no one knows who this mysterious girlfriend was that formulated the super-spicy recipe. And, old timers in Nashville’s black community say before Prince’s there was a place called Bo’s. So somewhat by default, Thornton is named as the Grandfather of Nashville Hot Chicken.
The first location was at the corner of Jefferson and 28th Avenue. After a few years moved into Hell’s Half Acre, near Ryman Auditorium which housed the Grand Ole Opry. Hell’s Half Acre was a neighborhood in the lowlands north of the capital where the poorest blacks lived. This location was in the middle of an urban renewal project that the city took to make the library and archives. So Prince’s moved a second time. But the third location was too far away from town, and they moved a third time to 17th and Charlotte, in the heart of the black neighborhood near where Krystal’s is today
The business was a sideline for the brothers. Thornton had a farm and his brothers either worked for the post office or other restaurants. They opened after the normal business day and stayed open till midnight on weeknights and till 4 AM on weekends. When Thornton died, his brother Will took over. Will’s son Bruce was next, and in 1980, Bruce’s daughter, Andre Prince Jeffries became the owner. She added the spice levels, so that more people could enjoy the chicken, if they weren’t up for the XXX Hot. She also changed the name to Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, and used a cartoony logo of her great uncle as mascot. They just opened a second location in September near Franklin just south of Nashville.
Current Owner Andre Prince Jeffries.
One of the first offshoots of Prince’s was from Bolton Polk, the disgruntled chef, who left and started his own place in the 1970s called Columbo’s Chicken Shack, where he served his own version of hot chicken with his wife’s chess pies and potato salad. In 1997 his nephew opened Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish with his wife and business partner, that’s still in business today.
The trend took off after the first Nashville Hot Chicken Festival in 2007. Pepperfire Chicken opened in 2010. Hattie B’s opened in 2012, owned by Nick Bishop Jr. and Sr. in Midtown, Nashville. The Bishops had success in Franklin, Tennessee, with Bishop’s Meat and Three restaurant. Their hottest spice level is called “Shut the Cluck Up.”
Both hot fish and hot chicken were around in the Nashville area’s African-American community way before the opening of either Bo’s or Prince’s. So the female creator may go back even further than the unnamed girlfriend.
A mural of Great Uncle Thornton Prince at Prince’s newly opened second location south of Nashville.
Now there are over 15 restaurants in Nashville that serve a hot chicken item, and the trend continues to push its way in the mainstream.