Hot chicken’s creation has become part of Nashville’s mythology, the sort of tale locals can recount with practiced pauses and wry chuckles. It happened like this:
Back in the 1930s — or maybe it was the 1920s or perhaps as late as the 1940s or even the 1950s — well, anyway, there was once a man named Thornton Prince III. He was a handsome man, tall and good looking, fine as a peacock. “Beautiful, wavy hair,” said his great-niece Andre Prince Jeffries. Debonair, with a dashing sense of style and a touch of Tennessee twang (or so I assume). Women loved him, and he loved them right back. “He was totally a ladies’ man,” Jeffries laughed. “He sure had plenty of women.”
So this one Sunday morning back sometime before most of us were born, Thornton Prince III came in from a long night of catting around, and he told his woman — wife? girlfriend? does it matter? — to make him breakfast. Well, this woman, wife or girlfriend or whatever, she was fed up with his philandering ways.
What could she do with a serial cheater like this? Some women look the other way. Others walk out. A few get even. This one, though, she wanted retribution. She started out by playing it sweet. That morning, just like all their other morning-afters, she got up before him. And she didn’t make him dry toast or gruel. Oh, no, she made him his favorite. She made him fried chicken. After all, Sunday morning was that time of the week when families across the South woke up expecting to enjoy some popping hot fried chicken for breakfast. This woman wasn’t making her chicken with love, however.
I like to think she went out and wrung the neck of the skinniest, stringiest yard bird she could find. No plump church chicken for this sorry son-of-a-gun, no sir. Then, she added the spiciest items she had in her kitchen. Dried pepper flakes? Maybe. Fresh chilies plucked from her garden with all their seeds? Perhaps. Half a bottle of Tabasco sauce? Could be. “She couldn’t run to the grocery store to get something,” Jeffries said. Nobody knows what went into that first hot chicken as she layered on whatever she had on hand. Whatever she added, by the time the bird was cooked, Thornton Prince III’s woman was sure she had spiced it up beyond edibility.
As Thornton Prince III took his first bite, she must have braced herself for his reaction. Would he curse? Whimper? Stomp out? And where was she while he ate? Maybe she was in the kitchen, scraping and seasoning her skillet, or perhaps she’d fled back to the bedroom, ready to scamper if he made a big fuss. I like to think she was sitting right there at the table with him, cutting into her own chicken — unpeppered, of course — ready to push the charade as far as she could.
But her plan for revenge backfired. Thornton Prince III loved that over-spiced poultry. He took it to his brothers. They loved it also.
Soon enough, the woman disappeared from his life, but her hot chicken lived on. The Prince brothers turned her idea into the BBQ Chicken Shack, the business Andre Jeffries renamed Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack when she took it over. “We don’t know who the lady was that was trying,” Jeffries said. “All the old heads are gone. Gone on. But hey, we’re still profiting from it.” She paused. “So women are very important.”
These days, that angry woman’s dish is all the rage. It’s on the list of “must-try” Southern foods in Esquire, USA Today, Southern Living, Men’s Health, Forbes, Travel and Leisure, and Thrillist. It’s been written about in The New Yorker and The Ringer. Restaurants in New York, Detroit, Denver, and even Australia advertise that they fry their chicken Nashville-style. Upward of ten thousand people attend the annual Hot Chicken Festival, held every July 4. In 2013 the James Beard Foundation gave Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack an American Classic Award for inventing the dish, and celebrity chefs make pilgrimages to Nashville to eat it on camera.
Why has this woman’s chicken become such a cultural phenomenon? Hot chicken aficionados and purveyors have offered different explanations for the food’s popularity, for why it seems to grab ahold of certain people’s taste buds, embedding itself in their guts and drawing them back time and again.
Andre Prince Jeffries has an easy explanation for it. “My mother said, if you know people are gonna talk, give them something to talk about,” she explained. “This chicken is not boring. You’re gonna talk about this chicken.”
Copyright ©2021 by Rachel Louise Martin. Reprinted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press. All rights reserved. Hot, Hot Chicken: A Nashville Story will be published in March 2021. Rachel Louise Martin is a writer and public intellectual. She holds a Ph.D. in women’s and gender history from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her work has appeared in O Magazine, Oxford American, The Atlantic online, The Bitter Southerner, CityLab, and Catapult.