Our crazy fun college friends group hit Nashville with pot-loads of talk and aspirations. One of these was to manage a meal at Hattie B’s Hot Chicken. So one afternoon we swooped in – that is we paid a hefty parking fee after walking three blocks to find the pay machine, stood in a long line in the heat – and one driver coped with a dead battery – so I guess that wasn’t swooping was it?
We landed in a nice corner table for six. I stared at my chicken tender encased in an armour of something, picked up my plastic knife and fork, and tried to figure out how a person going through a long period of implant surgery on two sides of my mouth might be able to extract and eat a few bites of this famous chicken. I had a side of tempting pimento mac and cheese to keep me at the task.
Around the table my friends had dark lacquered hot chicken of various shapes and heat levels. We were all hungry and all that talk ceased, almost. The armour on most of the chicken put my tenders to shame. I glanced around the table to see which knight might win the joust. Forgetting completely about taking pictures, I mostly concentrated on the task at hand.
What is Nashville Hot Chicken? Why are tourists and locals jamming a modest, not too clean rundown eatery like Hattie’s?
According to Jane and Michael Stern’s essay from Saveur title “Hot County” and reprinted in Best Food Writing 2015 Nashville’s famous hot chicken depends on cayenne and other spices. It’s a pepper red chunk of fried chicken served on white bread with dill pickle chips. You tear apart the chicken and gnaw. Clearly, I did not have the right technique. My friends caught on fast.
Recipes are carefully guarded, or so they say, but the Sterns describe a brine of buttermilk and spices, dredged in flour with more spice and double-fried. Then, fresh out of the hot oil, the chicken is slathered with a buttery paste of lard. Inside the shell one should find “sweetness, juiciness and an umami richness.” By the time we stumbled down the ramp and headed toward our two cars (one with a new battery – thank you Triple A and Lana) we were chock full of chicken and other stuff like greens and mustard sauce. And the line now stretched way down the block.
I did not think the chicken I was trying to eat had ever been bathed in buttermilk brine. Sure enough when I got home and turned to that fountain of information – the internet – and found two recipes for Hattie B’s Hot Chicken courtesy of Lee Brian Schrager and Adeena Sussman at Food Network Magazine and one from Aida Mollenkamp editor of Salt and Wind, Hattie’s chicken is dry brined. Chicken pieces are tossed with salt and pepper, covered and refrigerated overnight or up to 24 hours. Then on with the dipping, the frying (hot sauce and spices) and then the spicy coating: lard, cayenne pepper, brown sugar, salt pepper, paprika, garlic powder. You see the dark red brown that is the result in these pictures from the internet. My tenders described as Southern Chicken were lighter, but most of the chicken around the table was very dark brown.
I guess now-a-days you can order and eat spicy hot chicken around the country. But it is still one of Nashville’s prime attractions. Before too long I’m expecting to be on my way to a place that serves chicken tenders, brined in buttermilk, and so tender even a tooth-challenged person can eat and enjoy. A place where the cutting is easy. I can always ask for more hot sauce.
Hot chicken lovers go right ahead and salivate waiting for you next chance to eat this distinctive treat. Before I visited Nashville, I’d never seen any chicken like it. When you get the chance, grab the greens and gnaw away.