In Search of Southern Cooking in
America at Large:
A Tale of Two Chickens
Fried chicken is a bit of an attention hog. What was once an occasional celebratory meal in the slave-belt has morphed into a hipster-foodie darling; even at its most understated, the dish is rich with fat, salt, and umami. These days restaurants will cover it in anything from bacon grease to foie gras, upping the popularity quotient with each extra calorie. Lines stretch around blocks for the newest and coolest in fried chicken. Heck, I’ve waited in all kinds of lines in search for the real deal—standing for hours outside the Screen Door in Portland, Oregon (in the rain); wiggling my way to the bar for the Tuesdays-only special at Watershed in Decatur, Georgia; and camping outside of a brand new Chick-fil-A for a chance to eat their sandwiches free.
Yet for all its hype, fried chicken is often sadly disappointing. I find myself a bit irritated that I waited so long for over-cooked lackluster bird with a greasy crust. But the best fried chicken has to exist somewhere, right? Maybe I’d just been looking in all of the wrong places. My recent move cross-country gave me the perfect opportunity to seek out some old-school chicken shops, born before Instagram, Yelp, and Foodgawker.
“All good food in Nashville is from strip malls,” explained my friend as we pulled into a parking lot on the east side of town. This particular strip mall was at least a couple miles from the hipper, gentrified East Nashville, instead sitting smack dab in the middle of a sea of abandoned buildings, liquor stores, and chain-link fences. The mall would have seemed bleak if not for the pulsing hip-hop from the countless cars in the lot and the family selling jewelry on the sidewalk. We scooted on past these distractions to a storefront window hand painted with the words “Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack.”
As the story goes, hot chicken was an invention born of adultery. The man behind the shack, Thornton Prince, was known to be a womanizer. After spending one too many nights out on the town, his girlfriend whipped up a heavily spiced fried-chicken breakfast as punishment for his behavior. Instead of suffering, Prince loved the chicken—and used the recipe to start his restaurant. Prince’s grand-niece, Andre Prince Jefferies, now owns the place, supervising the production of the infamous chicken from a perch just to the side of the counter.
These days there are countless hot chicken restaurants in Nashville, and even a hot chicken festival every year at the beginning of summer, but Prince’s is still a favorite. Late-night diners wait in line for upwards of an hour for a fiery meal to soak up their liquored bellies and food personalities flock to the shack to document every moment of the intense meal. Despite its relatively recent spike in foodie popularity, Prince’s insistence on maintaining its family tradition makes it the perfect spot to experience old-school chicken.
Each piece of chicken is still buttermilk-brined, breaded, and fried in lard (some insist that spices are added to these initial steps, others claim the chicken lacks heat at the beginning). After it comes out of the fryer, things get serious. Next to the fryer is a pot of cayenne-lard paste (mixed at a 3:1 ratio of spice to fat) that is painted on the freshly fried chicken. The hot paste soaks into the breading, turning the coating from golden brown to an ominous dark red. Prince’s caters to a range of spice tolerance, offering four levels of heat: mild, medium, hot, and extra hot.
I’ve seen plenty of videos of diners, famous and otherwise, attempt, or at least talk about attempting, the extra hot. Each person sputters, sweats, and blushes through the meal. Watching each bite reminded me of the time I tried hot sauce made from pure capsaicin. Not pretty. While I’m sure it would have been funny to try to eat such a dish, I was after dinner, not a few painful bites.
So I ordered a hot leg quarter along with a side of creamy potato salad in an attempt to counteract the heat. Three out of four of my friends also stepped up to the plate and ordered hot (one succumbed to the temptations of the milder “medium” chicken). I secretly wished someone had ordered extra hot just for the entertainment; alas, we were all a bit too sane.
Our meals arrived on splattered wax paper with each piece of chicken smashed haphazardly on a couple slices of white bread and speared with slices of neon green pickles. Even the lard splatters were a menacing neon orange, their color signifying pain upon consumption just as the brightest, most decorated butterflies warn of their poison to potential predators.
We gingerly dug in with forks and knives (to protect our fingers from the burn, of course), but quickly eschewed cutlery for the simpler, yet risky, hand-held maneuver. The first few bites weren’t much to write about, spice-wise. Sure, the chicken was juicy and tender with shatteringly crisp skin like any brined and fried bird should be, but it wasn’t until about bite five that the tears came. I glanced up from my meal to see each of my friends coughing and tearing up between laughs. “Fuck, it’s hot,” we murmured while racing through the chicken as if scarfing the meal down faster would limit the burn. I paused a few times for bites of potato salad and gulps of water, both a slight refuge from the heat.
Five minutes later, my chicken leg was reduced to bones. But the meal wasn’t over. Remember that white bread sitting underneath the bird? “The bread is like dessert,” say hot-chicken experts. By the time diners unearth the bread from beneath the chicken, it has soaked up each and every bit of rouge lard-cayenne paste making for a hellfire of a dessert. I gobbled it up before my stomach could protest, and the bread did indeed melt in my mouth like piquant porky pudding.
Despite the evening of, er, intestinal distress following this meal, I’d eat hot chicken again. Frankly, the spice is addictive enough to warrant a long wait in line and then another long wait for the chicken to come out of the fryer. Add to that the hilarity that ensued from eating a whole table of hots with friends, and the meal was pretty fantastic. I’d be hard pressed to say if Prince’s chicken is the ultimate in fried chicken, but I’d surely argue against any intimation that hot chicken is purely popular gimmick.
The next day, we drove north out of Nashville, figuring that if a fast-food enterprise could be built on the notion of Kentucky Fried Chicken, there must be some damn good fried birds in the Bluegrass State. Jane and Michael Stern (of Roadfood fame) directed us to the northern-most reaches of the state to find a former mini-mart in Henderson called Bon-Ton. A few other notables have visited Bon-Ton (namely, the Travel Channel), but the restaurant still flies under the radar.
Indeed, when we walked inside we were greeted not with long lines and eager twenty-somethings, but with a few farmers in overalls and a table of nurses from the nearby hospital. A family in the corner was talking softly and smoking cigarettes. The interior was sparse, save for a little kitsch and a soda machine. A small chalkboard indicated the choice of sides and pies for the day.
“Everything is pretty fast except the chicken,” explained the man behind the counter. “That’s made to order, so it takes about thirty minutes.” We settled in for a wait, content to sip iced tea and watch the ladies in the back whip up our chicken.
Unlike the chicken at Prince’s, Bon-Ton chicken is brined in a salty marinade loaded down with dried spices (these are, of course, a secret) and Ac’cent seasoning. The chicken sits in the marinade for what seems like an outrageous amount of time—at least twenty-four hours—before being breaded in spiced flour (with more Ac’cent), rested “to get doughy,” and then finally fried in vegetable oil. The chicken emerges from the fryer glistening and golden, the skin slightly puffed and expertly crisp.
It only took one bite to know that this was it. Imagine standard issue KFC. Now take this KFC and picture it with fresh chicken, cooked by hand, fresh out of the fryer. Imagine KFC coated with just enough golden breading to shatter and crunch between your teeth while still clinging to the chicken. Imagine its meat so juicy its bright, rich liquor bursts into your mouth with each salty bite full of more than just eleven secret spices. Picture this chicken and perhaps you’ll come close to the experience of eating at Bon-Ton.
There is nothing outlandish about Bon-Ton chicken—it isn’t double fried, coated in extra lard, or served atop mounds of biscuits and bacon. Bon-Ton’s chicken is a celebration of the best that fried chicken can be in its own right. No lines, no hype, just straight-up Kentucky cooking.