Talking Hot Chicken with Timothy Davis

Originally published via: Trends on Trends

With the ability to make grown men cry (or hallucinate), Nashville’s legendary hot chicken is a buttermilk marinated, spicy paste lathered fiery dish born out of spiteful revenge turned iconic Southern staple served atop slices of white bread with pickle chips.

No longer bound south of the Mason Dixon line, this hot bird is making waves (read tears) up North. Chef Carla Hall is making mouths water in New York with her soon-to-open restaurant dedicated to the phenomenon. Even the Colonel is getting on board and spreading the South’s most trending bird across the nation. Hot chicken takes a variety of avatars across North America.

Nashville-based food writer Timothy Davis takes the Holy Grail of fried chicken and turns it into the definitive hot chicken Bible in his book The Hot Chicken Cookbook: The Fiery History & Red-Hot Recipes of Nashville’s Beloved Bird. We put Timothy in the hot seat to talk hot chicken.

What is it about hot chicken that is catching like wildfire outside of Nashville?

That’s a great question. Hot Chicken is not all about the heat, as odd as that sounds. It’s about the history of a food, and a place, and a people. It’s about a mystery, and a mythology that is as intoxicating as the food itself. It’s about local flavor becoming a taste people everywhere can enjoy. It’s not unlike the city of Nashville itself: It can be down home and cosmopolitan at the same time. And I think not a little bit of it has to do with Nashville’s rise as a destination-type city — people are always told to try Hot Chicken when they visit Nashville, and it seems not a few of them like it enough to try their hand wherever “back home” is.

Like buttermilk biscuits, classic fried chicken, and barbeque, how is it that hot chicken became a more permanent part of traditional Southern cooking instead of fading into legend as a one-time revenge dish used against a wandering man?

I think it’s always been on the periphery of the Southern food conversation, at least to those who have delved deeply into the topic. As to how it’s stuck around as a dish, I think it’s always sold itself, for the most part. Eating Hot Chicken is more of an event than going to get a burger or settling down for a meat-and-three repast. There’s that history/origin story, which helps, and the secretive nature of the recipe(s), and there’s the fact that it’s not what you would call an instant gratification kind of food. Some newer places have streamlined the process somewhat, but you’re generally going to have to wait at least 15 minutes or more (up to over an hour) for your food. It also helps that, at least here in Nashville, people who fake the funk on Hot Chicken generally don’t stay in business for very long. So it’s a pretty self-policing kind of dish, as far as that ever-dubious word “authenticity” is concerned.

How do you think the upward trend of more Nashville-based foods like hot chicken is likely to influence the larger food and restaurant scene in the United States?

I’m often asked how I feel about Hot Chicken’s meteoric rise in food circles, with restaurants opening nationwide — and indeed, worldwide — serving the stuff. It’s always say it’s akin to your kid going off to college: you’re proud to see it off, but you can’t help but feel a little protective of it at the same time. You just hope it stays reasonably true to its raising, as it were, so people can see what all of the fuss is about. Folks are being drawn to things these days that offer a glimmer of authenticity, of “realness,” and Hot Chicken has that in spades. Most of the really great stuff Nashville has given the food world — the “meat and three,” the spice round, Hot Chicken — is what I’d call “food for folks”: simple-enough seeming, but, like a great song, containing a lot of nuance and care and little details that you don’t miss until suddenly they’re not there. To continue the music analogy, you can know all the chords to a song, but that doesn’t mean you’ll ever be able to play it like the original artist does. The best Southern food — any food, really — reflects the particulars of the place that birthed it, I think.

How has the Nashville music scene played a role in the spread of hot chicken?

In two different ways, I think: you have dozens of artists from out of town playing Nashville on any given night. Looking for something to do before the gig, it’s a natural some will venture out to a Hot Chicken joint. Secondly, Nashville’s got a huge music scene of its own, and a lot of these acts — country, rock, whathaveyou — have spread the gospel in interviews and the like over the years. In The Hot Chicken Cookbook, for instance, Joe Kwon of The Avett Brothers and Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo pontificate on the subject (Kaplan, of course, was suitably inspired to name multiple songs after the stuff). Had I wanted to, I could have easily listed a couple dozen more acts/artists. It’s not the driving force, I don’t think, but I certainly wouldn’t discount its effect on the current buzz we’re seeing.

Do you think hot chicken is a passing trend or here to stay and thrive beyond its original regional Southern roots?

Nashville-style Hot Chicken is appearing on all sorts of lists as a ‘Top 10 Food Trend’ for 2016. The interesting thing about this ‘trend’ is that Hot Chicken’s been around, at least in Nashville, since at least the 1940s. It was slow food before it was cool. As trends go, this one has had a much slower, steadier burn than most (pun completely intended). So no — it’ll wane somewhat, of course, but it’s certainly not going anywhere in Nashville/Tennessee/the South. The worst that can happen is that folks in, say, Des Moines will try a lesser version and not see what all the fuss is about. And that will, of course, happen. But McDonalds sells a lot of hamburgers, and that doesn’t stop people from grilling their own or going to get the real thing at Holeman & Finch or In & Out Burger. The quality stuff will continue to stand on its own, that much I’m sure of. You may see less high-end, precious chef-centric takes on it once the newness has worn off, but the dish as it’s served on the ground here in Music City isn’t going anywhere.