CHICKEN SHACK BOOGIE

Nashville’s Annual Hot Chicken Festival brings pain, pleasure and excruciating heat — and we wouldn’t want it any other way

  • Former mayor Bill Purcell talks about one of his great passions in the same friendly, easygoing manner that made him such a wellliked politician. It’s only when you consider the subject matter that you realize there’s a touch of crazed obsession behind that even tone.
         “One day my scheduler said Prince Charles’ girlfriend’s son wanted to meet me,” Purcell says. “I wasn’t sure about that, but she said, ‘He wants to eat hot chicken.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m in. Let’s go!’”
         At the time, the Royal Consort’s progeny, Tom Parker Bowles, was traveling around the world, researching unique and local food for his book, “The Year of Eating Dangerously.” The mayor was happy to accompany Bowles to the location Purcell often referred to as his “second office,” Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack.
         “He had heard this talk about hot chicken,” Purcell continues, “and he wanted to try it. He said, ‘I’ll have the extra hot.’”
         “I said, ‘No, don’t have the extra hot.’”
         “He said, ‘I’ll have the extra hot.’”
         “I said no, and he said, ‘Well, I’m having the extra hot!’” I guess with Prince Charles’ girlfriend’s son there’s some point where you have to let him have his way. It was significant because when the book came out, it was one of the few times when someone actually said in print that the mayor was right and he was wrong. He said he thought he was going to die.”
         Purcell punctuates the end of his story with the knowing smile of a true fan of the culinary trial by fire known as Nashville hot chicken. Like Purcell’s tale, the story of how a uniquely Nashvillian spin on Southern fried chicken came to be the city’s signature food, the centerpiece of an annual festival, and a culinary export is a story of unbridled passions, unexpected consequences and unearthly spices.
         Although Nashville now boasts a variety of hot chicken choices, local legends agree that the birth of Nashville’s nuclear-powered fowl was the result of revenge gone awry. In the 1930s, Thornton Prince, the founder of Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, was a notorious rounder. After a late night of carousing, he returned home to his regular girlfriend who offered to fix him a fried chicken breakfast. In a legend-spawning moment of pique, the wronged paramour laced the poor cluck with a mega-dose of cayenne pepper. Although Prince most certainly suffered a burning comeuppance, the incident also inspired a transcendental vision of gastronomic delight. To paraphrase a well-worn adage, with great hot chicken comes great responsibility. By the late ’30s, Prince was hawking the hot-chicken gospel to hungry Nashvillians.
         For the next 60 years, Prince’s remained the royalty of Nashville hot chicken. Eventually a handful of competitors, such as Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish, brought their own variations, but it would not be until the 21st Century that Nashville hot chicken blazed its way onto the world’s menu.
         During his term as mayor (1999 to 2007), Bill Purcell became an outspoken champion for Nashville hot chicken and the East Side restaurant where the gastronomic incineration began. Purcell’s passion for Gallus gallus infernicus led directly to the founding of the Nashville Hot Chicken Festival in 2006.
         “We were celebrating our bicentennial as a city,” Purcell says. “As we thought about what makes us special and unique, our thoughts turned to food, and we realized that the only truly indigenous food, the food that was utterly unique to Nashville, began in Nashville, and was available nowhere else in the world, was Nashville hot chicken.”
         For the uninitiated, the idea of hot chicken might sound like a pleasant challenge — “How bad can it be?” But although “spicy fried” and “Nashville hot” may both dwell on the same spectrum, their positions parallel the range between a lowly candle flame and the raging heart of a thermonuclear bomb. It’s only after the incineration of various mucous membranes that panic sets in for the regretful hot chicken novice. Immolation may seem imminent, but once the burning passes, the urge to return once again to the test range begins to grow. “Well, it wasn’t that bad,” one thinks. “Perhaps I’ll try it a little hotter the next time.” And so the circle of Nashville hot chicken addiction begins.

    It’s a circle that’s continued to expand. Now in its ninth year, Nashville’s annual Hot Chicken Festival, held in East Park each Fourth of July, draws more than 5,000 attendees. It’s a group that includes both hardcore hot chicken fans and first timers. Although the festival continues to grow, it has remained one of the most efficiently run and low-cost events on Metro’s calendar, thanks to the dedication of the all-volunteer committee that organizes the event each year, the volunteer staff and a loyal line-up of local vendors and sponsors.
         Local food writer and committee member Kay West recalls how former Mayor Purcell set the tone for the annual event. “I think it was his last day of office,” she says. “He called the committee down to the courthouse to the mayor’s conference room, and he made us promise that we would carry on the Hot Chicken Festival.”
         Fellow committee member Jesse Goldstein confirms the dedication of the organizing committee and all of the volunteers. “Every year,” he says, “everyone is completely exhausted and says, ‘This is it, I’ll never do this again,’ but by the end of the day we’re all looking at each other. It’s such a great day and it’s like, ‘When’s the next committee meeting?’”
         As one might expect, the main focus of each year’s festival is hot chicken, with the most prominent Nashville purveyors of peppery pullets in attendance and selling their blistering wares, as well as providing free samples to those attendees willing to show up early in the day. This year’s line-up will include Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish, 400 Degrees, Pepperfire, Hattie B’s, and Smack Yo’ Mama. The festival also features a small, select group of other food vendors.
         “We try to be true to Nashville hot chicken and not just let anyone in who is just selling a piece of chicken with hot sauce on it,” West says. “The first year we only had hot chicken vendors. We’ve added more vendors, but we have a limited amount of space. They have to have some type of relationship to hot chicken or offer something cold as a counterpoint — chicken tacos, barbecue, ice cream and sno cones.” Some vendors have won a spot in the festival by offering their own unique tie-ins to the honored bird of the day, such as Biscuit Love’s acclaimed “Princess Hot Chicken Biscuit.”
         One of the most significant vendors and sponsors is Yazoo Brewing Company, who has been a major part of the festival since 2007. “The Festival would probably not happen if it wasn’t for their support,” West says. “Every penny from what they sell goes back to the event. It would be one thing if they donated some beer to sell, but it’s so much more than that. They come to the meetings, submit ideas, and they show up with their team of people and manage all the sales.”
         The beer sales are particularly important, not only for funding the festival, but also for supplying the majority of the annual operating budget for the Friends of Shelby Park. The community organization’s board president, Richard Bess, says that current Vice Mayor Diane Neighbors was instrumental in founding both the Friends of Shelby Park and the Hot Chicken Festival. She recognized an opportunity to link the two.
         “Friends of Shelby Park pays for the Festival and all the proceeds come back to us,” Bess says. “We turn around and use that money for different projects in Shelby Park that can range from invasive plant removal to special events at the community center and restoration of park facilities like the mission lodge picnic shelter.” Future plans for Shelby Park improvements that will be financed by proceeds from the Hot Chicken Festival include a dedicated bike-ped path from the Shelby Avenue entrance to the Shelby Bottoms Greenway, renovation of tennis courts, restriping of roads and a proposed re-routing of traffic to untangle the park’s “spaghetti junctions.”
         Along with the sales by professional vendors, the Festival includes the Amateur Cooking Contest in which non-professional cooks square off against each other to produce the best soul-searing yardbird. The winners receive a special trophy that Kay West lovely refers to as the “ugliest, most coveted trophy in the world.”
         Jesse Goldstein supervises the amateur competition each year. “The winners are great, and the failures are spectacular,” he says. “We’ve had three separate winners that have turned it into a business. It’s been fascinating to watch the amateur contest and see how people’s concept of hot chicken has changed. I’ve seen how that definition has narrowed into something pretty consistent. You’ve got to have white bread, pickles on top, and what’s in the middle really has to be a Nashville-style hot chicken.”

    In the last year, Goldstein has focused even more attention on the parameters of what constitutes “Nashville-style” hot chicken. “In 2006, other than Purcell and a few diehards, there were few people promoting hot chicken,” he says. “But now there are restaurants in New York, Chicago, and Asheville, N.C. — all claiming to be Nashville-style hot chicken. It started to concern us. There should be someone guarding the definition. We were already a group of volunteers, and a non-profit organization, so we took the opportunity to protect the guys that are doing it right.”
         While every hot chicken cook has their own “secret recipe,” in general the very guarded process includes a marinade, frying in castiron skillets or a deep fryer, a cayenne pepper sauce or dry rub, white bread and pickles. The process of refining a definition has led to a proposed organization, the Nashville Hot Chicken Coalition, with the motto, “To Protect and to Burn.” The coalition will include all the Nashville hot chicken vendors, establish the basic guidelines of what constitutes Nashville-style hot chicken, and promote the local hot chicken scene with a “hot chicken tour” or other promotional ideas.
         In addition to the hot chicken, the festival also includes live music and the “world’s most efficient parade,” which kicks off each year’s festivities with its short two-block path down Woodland Street between 6th and 8th. But perhaps the most popular activity is the annual “hot chicken virgin viewing” that Goldstein describes with a smile.
         “For anyone who hasn’t been to the festival before,” Goldstein says, “I would say park yourself in one spot where you can watch people take their first bite of hot chicken. There is a lot of amusement that comes from that.”
         The soul of the Nashville Hot Chicken Festival can be found in its sense of humor and absurdity: eating blistering hot chicken on a blistering hot day. It’s a mix that speaks to Nashville’s unique combination of traditionalism and weirdness. After all, Nashville is a city renowned for simple songs of country life and values sung by performers decked out in the most outrageous, rhinestone-encrusted finery. No city on Earth has produced more music that equally honors sin and salvation, Saturday night and Sunday morning, the depths of despair and the joy of life. So what could be a better embodiment of Nashville’s soul than hell-spawned spice and heavenly flavor?
         Hot Chicken Ambassador No. 1, Bill Purcell, hopes the searing poultry tribute to Nashville’s yin and yang continues. “What has happened in many other cities is that a homegrown event, a celebration of place, becomes a kind of generic party. My hope is that the Hot Chicken Festival remains a celebration of how special Nashville is as a place.”
         Jesse Goldstein also sees that special “Nashville-ness” in each year’s event. “There’s a real communal spirit, and I think it speaks to the hot chicken fan base. One of my favorite memories from last year was Neil McCormick from Yazoo standing on top of a table leading hundreds of people in a rousing rendition of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ before last call.
         “It’s incredible to see how many people come out on what is inevitably one of the hottest days of the year to sweat and experience an interior chemical peel. Last year was the first year we had rain. Of course I was there first thing in the morning, and I was moping around — ‘Who’s going to come out in this rain?’ I was walking by the Biscuit Love truck and Karl Worley saw my face and said, ‘If people come and stand in line to get hot chicken in 100 degree heat, they’ll do it in the rain.’ And he was right. They did.”