Music City, USA. The way I figure it, more music comes out of Nashville than any other place on earth. It’s not a country town or a blues town or a bluegrass town. Nashville is a music town. You’ll find all genres there, but the city was built on the backs of real country music and careers were made by places such as the Grand Ole Opry and Music Row.
It may seem these days as we listen to what we call “country” music that the “Nashville” has left Nashville. As country crooners weave in redneck rapping over Drop D-tuned electric guitars with cookie-cutter choruses about trucks, dirt roads, beer drinking and “country pride,” anyone with a halfway decent ear can hear that the tunes from that city sound less and less Nashville. That’s just the surface, though.
Nashville is still full of some of the finest pickers in the world, who scrape up a living in the bars, restaurants and studios that have more soul than any record label could destroy. That’s the part of its charm we hope never goes away.
There is another thing Nashville is famous for, and it has taken far too long for the rest of the nation to catch on. I am talking, of course, about Nashville hot chicken.
Nashville hot chicken is so popular in that town that there are festivals celebrating it. I hear there are turf wars over which restaurants serve the best. Some go for heat while others concentrate on flavor. Some may be sweeter than others. But they all have one thing in common: the brined chicken is fried (either in a pan or a deep fryer) and then coated with a melted paste made from lard and cayenne pepper.
You may think this is similar to Buffalo wings, where the chicken is fried and then tossed in a sauce that is made from fat (butter) and pepper (hot sauce). Well, maybe the two are kissing cousins but there is a difference. The Nashville way is a method of dressing the chicken rather than tossing it into sauce. And they will use any part of the chicken.
It was my good friend John T. McCook who introduced me to this insane method of tongue torture. We both have an affinity for hot sauce and have shared a few ideas over the years. So I should have known he was giving me something that might have come from Satan’s kitchen when he gifted me a jar of Coop’s Original Nashville Hot Chicken Paste.
I remember it like it was yesterday. I stopped by the Greer’s Deli at Dauphin and I-65 for a mixed box of fried chicken (Greer’s actually has some of my favorite chicken) and headed home to give Nashville hot chicken a try. The directions said I should melt a scoop (Coop’s recommends a teaspoon per piece) and brush over the chicken. I thought I followed directions to the letter. If I did then I must take my hat off to these fine gentlemen. It was more than I could handle.
It was excessively hot. But that was not the problem. The problem was I couldn’t stop eating it. I kept going back for more. My mouth was numb. My face tingled. But I was drawn to it over and over, little pieces at a time.
Looking at the ingredients, I do see Coop’s uses cayenne pepper, the common thread in every recipe. But they also season it up with sugar, sea salt, paprika and one other ingredient: scorpion pepper.
I learned my lesson and now know that this particular product must be used sparingly. No, it doesn’t taste like Buffalo wings. It’s different. I can’t really explain other than maybe it’s sweeter but less buttery.
Nashville hot chicken is making its way to the Port City. Just the other day I noticed The Noble South’s dinner menu included Nashville hot chicken hearts. I’ve yet to try them but it won’t be long before I do. What is really interesting is that they are using the hearts. I wish someone would do livers that way.
This past weekend I paid a visit to Red or White. It’s no secret this is one of my favorite restaurants. It’s close enough to downtown that it can almost be considered downtown. But I really love that it is a neighborhood restaurant and bar. It used to be MY neighborhood bar. So when I saw its Facebook post with pictures of Nashville hot chicken as the special, I dropped all plans.
Chefs Arwen and Mike are making magic over on Dauphin Street. Everything I’ve had there is amazing, so as soon as I walked through the door I went straight to the edge of the kitchen to ask if they had sold out. Lucky for me they had one more Murder Point oyster appetizer and a few dishes of the chicken.
I put my drink selection in the capable hands of Erin, who chose a bottle of chenin blanc for my table (I didn’t share), and it turns out I was smart for doing so. Out came a huge chunk of boneless white meat and a leg quarter. I’m into the dark meat, but this breast portion was so juicy it was tough to beat. Yeah, the dark was better but it was close. The heat level was noticeable but not uncomfortable and the wine was the exact pairing it needed. It was the best meal I’ve had in awhile, and just goes to show I have a long way to go to catch up with these pros in the execution of something like this.
Yes, Nashville hot chicken is a thing. It’s been around for a long time now, but we’ve got it. Now I’ve got to perfect my own. Thank you, Music City, for sending us something good. What took you so long?