KFC Brings the (Cultural) Heat With New Nashville Hot Chicken

On my first trip to Nashville a few years ago, I heard about a hyper-local delicacy made from three discernible ingredients: chicken, cayenne pepper, and lard.

A few hours later, I was sitting with friends at a picnic table staring at a Styrofoam box of chicken legs, pickle disks, and white bread, all covered in dark red powder. After a few beers and a lot of napkins, our boxes were empty and we sat in contented silence, feeling like we were coming down from an adrenaline high.

This is the ideal result of eating Nashville hot chicken. When it’s properly prepared, the chicken’s overwhelming heat eventually yields to a pleasant taste and texture underneath. When you finish eating it, you feel accomplishment, mixed with warmth from the consumed spice and the sleepy kind of fullness that comes from eating heavy food.

For most of the last century, this was a feeling you could only have in Nashville. But in the last decade, as Southern food turned into haute cuisine, hot chicken became a favorite of gingham gourmands in Atlanta, Boston, Brooklyn, and beyond. This week, the chicken spread further when, literally overnight, everyone in the country got access to it. Hot chicken was added to the KFC menu.

KFC introduced the new product this week with a food truck tour and ads featuring Norm McDonald as Colonel Sanders. It was the type of campaign that tried to be irreverent and trendy, but betrayed too much effort and landed directly in the “uncanny valley.”

The response to KFC’s move has been predictable in certain quarters. Chris Fuhrmeister at Eater declared that hot chicken had “jumped the shark,” while the Tennessean joked that it may be a sign of the apocalypse.

“Everyone’s biggest fear was a chain doing it,” says Timothy Davis, who wrote the definitive book about hot chicken and who is well-connected in the Nashville spicy bird scene. “There’s a certain tendency to want to protect [hot chicken]. It’s like sending your kid to college. You want them to go their own way, but you want to protect them.”

Hot chicken may seem like an odd thing to need protection. According to lore, it was designed to be inedible. In the 1930s, locals say, Nashvillian Thornton Prince upset his girlfriend by coming home too late at night. The next day she made him fried chicken seasoned with all the spices in the house. To her surprise, Prince loved it, and he opened a restaurant to sell the punishment.

True or not, his restaurant, named Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, is widely recognized as the first to sell the dish. The recipe—a paste made up of cayenne, smoky paprika, and possibly something slightly sweet—spread to other restaurants in the city, from cinderblock shanties to slick new spots that are easily accessible to out-of-towners.

“There’s a certain tendency to want to protect [hot chicken]. It’s like sending your kid to college. You want them to go their own way, but you want to protect them.”—Timothy Davis, author of The Hot Chicken Cookbook: The Fiery History & Red-Hot Recipes of Nashville’s Beloved Bird. 

Davis credits the intriguing origin story, Nashville’s recent growth, and the high number of musicians who pass through the city, with spreading the word about hot chicken (indeed, the indie band Yo La Tengo named a song for the dish). And he’s not upset that KFC is selling it now. He says it was inevitable.

But Davis’ opinion isn’t widely shared. The reactions online range from skepticism to rage, with the phrase “ripped-off” appearing frequently. But it’s not clear who is being ripped off. With one exception, every restaurant selling hot chicken is selling something it didn’t invent. “If you believe the origin story, everyone whose last name is not Prince is copying,” Davis says.

Every chef who has put hot chicken on the menu has placed another step between the consumer and the creator. Now KFC is doing the same, but on a much larger scale.

Hattie B’s hot chicken isn’t the original, but it’s quite popular in Nashville. The red coating is a warning for some, and an invitation for many. Photograph by Linda Golden

Hattie B’s hot chicken isn’t the original, but it’s quite popular in Nashville. The red coating is a warning for some, and an invitation for many. Photograph by Linda Golden

“That is the hallmark of our brand. We bring craveable tastes that are almost impossible to make in your own home,” says Kevin Hochman, KFC’s Chief Marketing Officer. This echoes what Colonel Sanders (he was real) did more than 60 years ago, when fried chicken was hard to get outside of a farmhouse, a restaurant, or the South (industrialized chicken farming helped normalize American chicken consumption, too).

“[Hot chicken] is very inaccessible to the vast majority of people,” Hochman says. “One, it’s primarily in Nashville. Unless you have access to a high-end fried chicken restaurant, or you live in Nashville, you probably have not tried it. Second, it’s expensive. A Nashville hot chicken joint opened five minutes away from where I live in Louisville. If you want to get a two piece dark meal with a drink and a side, it’ll cost you $12.” He says KFC’s will cost about half of that, and it’ll come with pickles, just like it does in Nashville.

It’s hard not to see KFC’s critics as naïve (this is what corporations do), protectionist (of something they didn’t invent), or elitist (hot chicken has already been dramatically fancified in upscale restaurants).

And the concern that market-tested, focused-grouped chicken won’t have the same zing as the original is valid, but it’s not up to KFC alone to answer. I’ve had “Nashville style” hot chicken in New York and Washington, and it’s been tasty, but not very spicy. Unless they’re catering to stunt eaters, anyone selling hot chicken for profit is taking a dish designed to be inedible and dialing the heat level down for general consumption.

It's a good idea to order cold or creamy sides (mac and cheese and cole slaw, for instance), with hot chicken. They’ll do more to remedy the burn than water, beer, or the pickles and white bread traditionally served with the dish, here from Hattie's. Photograph by Linda Golden

It’s a good idea to order cold or creamy sides (mac and cheese and cole slaw, for instance), with hot chicken. They’ll do more to remedy the burn than water, beer, or the pickles and white bread traditionally served with the dish, here from Hattie’s. Photograph by Linda Golden

But there’s something more than spice at play here. The questions over whether KFC has brought us to peak hot chicken (see Thanks to America, We’ve Reached Peak Avocado) are questions over how we’re supposed to eat the dish in the first place.

To some degree, all restaurant dining is an act. Restaurants put on a performance for customers. We call the performance service and branding. The issue with fast food is that this performance isn’t enough to distract from the industrial efficiency necessary for the restaurant to function. On a large scale, fast food branding is so powerful that a stylized drawing of Colonel Sanders can be a global symbol for a regional cuisine. On the small scale, though, it’s so transparent that it can exist in a combination Pizza Hut/Taco Bell/KFC.

“[Hot chicken] is very inaccessible to the vast majority of people. One, it’s primarily in Nashville. Unless you have access to a high-end fried chicken restaurant, or you live in Nashville, you probably have not tried it.”—Kevin Hochman, KFC’s Chief Marketing Officer

Fast food commoditizes everything. It relies on accessibility. But cool relies on aspiration and exclusivity. Cool can’t be a commodity. An exclusive experience is impossible in a place that’s designed to be the same in Qatar as it is in Kentucky.

And the experience is part of the value of any regional cuisine, especially hot chicken. You have it with your friends on a long weekend out of town. You challenge yourself to finish a three-piece. It’s a difficult-to-eat-occasion food. And to KFC’s credit, they’re not trying to replicate that. Hochman says the chicken will be spicy, but mellow enough to eat regularly. And the result of eating it, Hochman expects, will be a desire to eat more of it, and not necessarily from KFC.

“We’d never say we have better chicken than the authentic, real chicken houses, but I bet this is going to drive a lot of business to the Nashville hot chicken houses,” he says.

Maybe that’s not so unrealistic. I’ve eaten a lot of chicken wings in my life, but the only time I’ve ever felt the need to tell anyone about it was when I had them in Buffalo.

 

Gabe Bullard is a senior producer at National Geographic and a card-carrying Kentucky Colonel (really). You can follow him on Twitter.

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