Cars glide in and out of parking slots outside Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. The lot is jammed with vehicles ranging from the Baptist Church van to a worn-out pickup truck with a missing tailgate. Most of the storefronts along the street are vacant. Other than Prince’s, all that is left is the Jesus Rock Café and a hair salon, “where ordinary hair becomes extraordinary hair.” Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack drives all the traffic in and out of this anonymous strip on the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee. Inside the glass storefront, the thump of bass notes from ambient rap music vibrates in syncopation with the crackle of frying oil. Red plastic cloths cover the tables, and rows of painted white benches are lined up like church pews awaiting the faithful.
People have been lined up outside the door all morning in anticipation of the noon opening . . . and the chicken. I make my way past a stack of empty gumball machines to join them in line. At the cash register, where a stream of receipts cascade to the floor, I sheepishly ask owner Andrée Prince for “mild.” When I tell her I am here to learn about hot chicken, she shakes her head in disapproval. “And you’re gettin’ mild?” she asks me in disbelief. And so, nervously, I opt for “medium.” The “hot” and “very hot” alternatives have a reputation that precedes them. “You might as well stick your tongue directly on the grill,” one local warned me.
Legend has it that Uncle Thornton Prince, an inveterate womanizer, was out late one night. The next morning, in revenge, his lady friend made him chicken with lots of hot chili pepper on it. But her revenge backfired: he loved it, told all his friends about it, and asked her to keep cooking more. What was intended as punishment turned into a business that today is supported by faithful followers all seeking their own levels of mouth-searing punishment, dancing the line in the brain between pleasure and pain as they sear their membranes with capsaicin. The burn starts inside your mouth, continues to your lips, when the endorphins kick in and you start sweating. And then you take your second bite.
Locals refer to it as worse than dope. Some are so addicted they will wait for an hour and a half during peak hours for one piece of chicken. But the wait is part of the experience. You pass the time like everyone else, exchanging opinions on chicken parts and swapping stories on your tolerance for heat. “It’s like taking blood pressure medication,” says the woman sitting across from me in the white pew. “I come here about once a week.”
Prince’s, which dates back to the 1940s, draws a diverse clientele ranging from Little Richie, Grand Ole Opry stars, and Nashville city mayors. Overdue pregnant women come in hopes of inducing labor. Prince has one customer who fills up a tub of cold water and climbs in before he begins to eat his chicken.
Prince’s is serious about warning customers not to touch any part of their body after holding the hot chicken until they have thoroughly washed their hands with soap and water. People have been known to overturn tables in agony, tearing through the restaurant to get to the restroom to wash the chili pepper out of their burning eyes.
Andrée Prince calls out order numbers in her twangy southern drawl to the crowd of hopeful eaters: “Fifty fah-wer!?” And then, at last, number fifty-eight arrives, and I ceremoniously retrieve my red crispy chicken leg. The sounds of soft, soulful background music mingle with the drone of afternoon soap opera from the kitchen. I anxiously consider the fate of my taste buds and inspect the two pieces of Wonder Bread tucked underneath, slowly soaking up the orange oil of the chicken. Four pickle slices garnish the top and I ease my way into the experience there. Then slowly, gingerly, I set about to conquer Prince’s “medium” hot chicken.
It leaves a distinct sensation of burning oil in my trachea and stomach lining, a sensation I later learn will stay with me throughout the day. The burn is so dominant that it takes a focused eater to notice any other flavor traits—the vague taste of brined chicken meat, smoked paprika, and lots of salt accompany the heat of cayenne pepper. I like it. Not for the remarkable cuisine that it is, but for the experience that comes with eating chicken as a kind of food sport, one that improves with practice.
And so, in the spirit of practice, and with burning lips, I leave Prince’s to visit a rival, Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish five miles away. The smoldering fire in my stomach reminds me to ask for water before I sample a second round. Proprietor Bolton Matthews offers only one option for heat based on a secret recipe passed down from his uncle, Bolton Polk. The family has been making hot chicken since the 1970s, when Bolton Polk left his job at Prince’s to open his own shop at the foot of the Shelby Street Bridge, by the Titans’ football stadium. Today there are forceful debates among locals on which really makes the best hot chicken, Prince’s or Bolton’s.
“We’re just down home,” Bolton’s business partner, Dolly Graham tells me. The inconspicuous shack by the side of the road is decidedly “down home.” Inside are glossy pink walls in a room bare but for a few plastic tables and a television fastened to the ceiling. A sign tells you to knock on another door when you are ready to order. That is when Dolly, in her shiny black, well coiffed curls, pops out and takes your order.
Bolton’s hot chicken is about as hot as Prince’s “mild” version, but the experience is more like drinking hot oil. The thick liquid slides down and coats my throat, leaving a layer of heat that water can’t assuage. The two slices of Wonder Bread have already soaked up so much of the orange juices and chili spices that they have been rendered worthless as a pain aid. While the fire on Bolton’s chicken is the equivalent of Prince’s “medium” variety, the abundance of spicy oil is more oppressive and the chicken itself drier. Nonetheless, the hospitality in this concrete shed has a decidedly more personal touch.
As I cough violently, Dolly asks me, “you straight?” and tells me that I am turning the color of the walls. Concerned, Bolton calls from the kitchen and wants to make sure I have water. He pops out to talk to me. His hoarse voice and gold-rimmed teeth are about all I can make out through the blurry tears in my eyes.
In Nashville, people appreciate the kind of wild heat that compels you to consider whether it is possible to have second and third degree internal burns. Eating hot chicken is a kind of sport, where people push the lines of pain until they reach a form of pleasure. There seems to be a particular reverence in the South for the many ways to infuse a piece chicken with heat—a dose of cayenne in the frying oil, a splash of Tabasco in the batter, a dash of powdered habañero in the breading, a sprinkle of dried and powdered chili atop the finished product, even a slice of pepper-infused oil on the pickles. And there’s even veneration for the architectural precision with which you stack a quarter-chicken atop two slices of white bread, crowned with pickle slices. It is vernacular art at its highest, a distinctive example of culinary Americana.