The Heat Is On
East Nashville author serves up the lowdown on the city's hot chicken craze
Prince’s, Bolton’s, Hattie B’s, Pepperfire; Nashville is on fire with hot chicken. It’s national. Even KFC’s gotten in on the act. So the time was right for a comprehensive reference for all things hot chicken — and now we have one, courtesy of East Nashville writer Timothy Charles Davis and his (suitably named) The Hot Chicken Cookbook. Davis’ reasoning behind writing such a book is laconic to a suitable Southern degree. “Somebody was going to write a book on hot chicken,” he says. “Might as well have been me.”
The Hot Chicken Cookbook is as much a history of Nashville’s lethal delicacy as it is a recitation of recipes. Essays from aficionados — former Mayor Karl Dean, Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, and Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern, to name a few — and interviews with experts (including a number of influential hot chicken chefs) sit side-by-side with tutorials on hot chicken, hot tempeh, hot Cornish game hen, skillet-fried okra, and the much-treasured pimento mac and cheese. (“A lot of people go to eat the sides as much as they do the chicken,” Davis says.)
And weaving all the way through the book from beginning to end is a delightfully wry and readable rundown of what we can know about how hot chicken came to be. Spoiler alert: No one really knows, but the embraced tradition is that many years ago, Thornton Prince III, a strapping field hand with a wandering eye, came home to his best girl after a night of philandering. The next morning, bent on revenge, his wronged woman made Thornton a nice fried chicken breakfast, only she loaded the bird with a brain-searing dose of cayenne, garlic, and lord knows what. Rather than recoiling at first bite, however, Thornton liked it! As a matter of fact, he liked it so much he dedicated his life to perfecting the recipe and spreading the napalm yard-bird gospel hither and yon. That’s the story anyway. At the time when the mother church, Prince’s Hot Chicken, came to be in North Nashville many years back, no one saved newspaper clippings or printed up the restaurant’s history on the menus; there was no anticipation that one day people would like to know such things as who invented it and when. So the tale of Thornton will have to do.
A genial 40ish bearded chap with a passing resemblance to Richard Thompson, Davis sits in Pepperfire on Gallatin Road tucking into some medium heat tenders. (Initiates would do well to know that medium heat generates lip sweat.) An accomplished freelancer who has written for Savuer, Mother Jones, the Oxford American, Gastronomica, the Nashville Scene, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon, and The East Nashvillian, among others, Davis is a Charlotte, N.C., native, where he graduated from UNC Charlotte and went on to get an MFA at Queens University. He got his start writing at local arts bible Creative Loafing, which led to newspaper staff writing jobs. “I got into it doing music- and book-related stuff,” he says between bites, “but my jobs in both Charlotte and Myrtle Beach were staff writer jobs, so I ended up writing about everything, and I sort of got into food writing by accident. I did a piece for Gastronomica, on a barbecue symposium, and I got people from food magazines calling asking if I would like to write for them, so I totally backed into it.”
He developed his own slant on food writing. “What I’ve always written about food-wise was always the stories behind the food,” he says. “When I had the job at the newspaper in Myrtle Beach, they asked me to be the food critic, which I did for a few months, and that’s not my thing. I like to eat, but I’m not into passing judgment on people.”
Davis landed in Nashville in 2007, and the love affair with hot chicken began. “I had Bolton’s and Prince’s not long after I’d gotten here, and like a lot of people I talked to in the book, I found myself a week later wanting it again. I started having it once a week, probably. These days it’s often twice a week, especially now that everybody wants me to eat it.
“Matthew Teague, who became my editor for the book, used to be a literary editor at the Oxford American, and we ended up having lunch often,” Davis recalls. “One day we were at a hot chicken restaurant, and we thought about how there’s a fair amount of information about hot chicken, but not in one place. We planned it out — not exactly on a napkin, but very similar to that — and I immediately started on it. That was August of 2014, and it took a year, start to finish, to have the book ready.”
The book has already gone into a second printing — no small achievement in this Kindle kind of world — and response has been mainly positive, save the odd Buffalo, N.Y., native thinking that their wings are the origination of hot chicken. The book has even passed muster on the Fraternal Order of Hot Chicken Facebook page (“where things can get ‘heated,’ ” Davis quips.)
“I think a lot of people like the idea that they have something they can point to or hand off to a newbie when the subject of hot chicken comes up,” Davis says. “And that’s part of why I wrote it, to make a compendium of hot chicken information, along with a history and recipes, in one volume. Some have said they really like the tone of the book, which was somewhat on purpose. It’s kind of an eccentric dish to begin with, so I wanted to try to kind of match that.”