My friend, on his first visit to Nashville, is trying to make his way through a breast of our fair city's strange specialty, hot chicken. On my suggestion, he ordered the Hot, and I am feeling guilty. He is crying. Swearing heavily. His face has turned the color of watermelon fruit and the hue is growing redder and spreading down the neck. His eyes are bloodshot and his lips are puffed out to about twice their size.
“Don't try to talk,” I say.
And he dives back in, droplets of his own sweat and tears landing on each bite of chicken before it reaches his mouth. The thought that he might pass out crosses my mind, but slowly, gruntingly, he manages to finish off the breast.
To my surprise, around midnight, he insists that we make a return visit to Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, and there is no talking him out of it. He is smiling, but his tone is firm and serious: “I gotta get some more of that chicken.”
Though hot chicken is not peculiar to Nashville, the city is uniquely obsessed with the dish (which gets its own category in the weekly paper’s dining listings). Prince’s is Nashville’s oldest hot chicken joint still in business, and the best. Despite the moniker, it’s not actually a shack; the small restaurant is located alongside several hair and nail salons in a small shopping center just off Dickerson Pike in north Nashville, near a stretch infamous as an active pickup spot for the city’s prostitutes.
Prince’s serves its bird piping hot, fresh out of enormous cast-iron skillets, over slices of white bread: crispy-fried breast, leg, or wings, thoroughly marinated in the most savage combination of spices I’ve ever encountered (recipes are closely guarded, of course, but there’s no doubt that copious doses of cayenne are involved). The result is a truculent re-thinking of the very possibilities of fried chicken.
Prince’s chicken is offered in degrees of heat, and you can tell them apart by the color of the crust. The Mild is orange and plenty spicy, what most restaurants would label “hot.” The Medium is dark red and even more sizzling, what most folks would label “unreasonable.” Ordering anything above that will earn you a stern warning from the staff if you’re a newcomer: The Hot is a deep, peppery maroon, hotter than the spiciest Indian or Thai food. Cayenne, much of which has caked into little bunches, has been applied so generously that the entire outer layer, though moist, is also dusty in texture.
The first bite is like taking a punch, the muscles stiffening and the heart beating fast. You feel like every organ in your body is saying, "What the hell was that?" It’s otherworldly, so fierce you’re ready to make up brand new cuss words because no existing exclamation is sufficient.
And that’s the easy part—thereafter, the heat steadily amplifies. The tingle on the lips and the tongue slowly turns to outright pain. Sinuses explode open and everything from the neck up swelters.
Among those eating at the restaurants five tables (still with the original benches from sixty-odd years ago), there’s never much talking. This isn’t a meal, but rather an experience, and getting through it takes a healthy measure of sheer will, endurance, and guts. Once finished, folks wear a different brand of satisfaction on their faces: Not simple fullness or the light afterglow of a pleasant meal, but a sense of accomplishment. Wiping the orange-red coating off their lips, eyes wide and watery, sighing and smiling and sighing again. They look like mountain climbers who have just planted the flag.
Maybe to eat at Prince’s, you have to be a little crazy. To order the Hot certainly requires a basic neglect for personal safely. But for true culinary psychopaths, there is one other option, a fearful choice that sits off to the side on the menu, beckoning the loony.
I have a pretty high tolerance for hot food (I have won bets by putting away substantial lumps of wasabi in one swallow). But this is something altogether different. I already order my chicken Hot and the very notion of a meaner, nastier cousin is almost unfathomable.
But if you eat chicken at Prince’s long enough, if you work your way up to the Hot and start to get used to it (and hooked), the temptation to take that final step becomes overwhelming. For more than a year, in fact, I have pondered taking the plunge. And now, I have decided, the time has come to try the Extra Hot. I pray that I am ready.
I am taking on this mission against the wisdom of anyone with sense. My mother briefly concerns herself with the possibility of an ulcer. Customers in the store guffaw at the very idea. “Make sure you bring plenty of toilet paper," one counsels me. “There's no polite way to put it."
And then there are the dire warnings from those who’ve tried before me.
About a year ago, I was in a parking lot in downtown Nashville, about to hit the honky-tonks and eating some Hot chicken I’d picked up from Prince’s. A homeless guy wandered up to me. “I knew it,” he said. "I could see by the look on your face that you just came from Prince’s." I shared a few bites with him and we agreed that Prince’s served up some life-changing poultry.
“You know,” I told him. “I’ve been thinking about trying the Extra Hot."
The man stopped eating, took a step back, and looked at me like I was a ghost.
"Well, I’ve been eating the Hot for a while,” I said. “I think I'm ready to take the next step."
He just shook his head. “Hot is all right,” he said. “I love Hot. But Extra Hot....” His eyes squinted. “I tried it once. I want you to look at me. Now you can see that I can’t afford to be wasting no food. Well, I tried that Extra Hot, took two or three bites, and had to throw away a whole bird. That there was too much.”
Andre Prince Jeffries has been running Prince’s for twenty-five years. The business opened in 1945 as the Bar-B-Que Chicken Shack, and Jeffries changed it to the family name when she took over in 1980.
The restaurant’s founder was Thornton Prince, Jeffries’s great-uncle. According to legend, it was a girlfriend of Thornton Prince who got this whole thing started. Prince was a notorious womanizer, and on one occasion when he stayed out all night long, his girlfriend—an adroit cook—decided to get back at him. If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, she must have figured, it’s not a bad pathway for revenge. She spiked his fried chicken with a vicious bevy of hot peppers. She wasn’t trying to kill him, exactly, but it wouldn’t be too far off to say that she meant to poison the man.
She served it to him, and the strangest thing happened: He loved it. Couldn’t get enough. And so, the story goes, hot chicken was born.
“She was mad, but her madness turned into something good, explains Jeffries. She smiles, adding, “She did it for punishment, but he liked it.”
And that remains just about the perfect way to describe eating chicken at Prince’s—like you’re being punished, but you like it.
“You hear all kinds of things,” says Jeffries. “One man said it took the hair right off his chest, another one said it put the hair on his chest.”
“We’ll have pregnant women come in. I advise against it, of course. But they want it. Some of them come when they’re overdue. They eat this chicken and the baby pops right out.”
If customers don’t call in the order ahead of time, a wait of an hour or even more is not unusual, even in the wee hours (Prince’s is open until four in the morning on Friday and Saturday nights). “This is definitely not fast food," says Jeffries. “We’re known as the mature chicken. This is adult chicken.”
The long wait doesn’t slow down the demand a bit; customers aren’t just devoted regulars, they’re addicts. “I don’t know what it is,” says Jeffries. “It has something to do with the chemistry of the body. It ignites something—have mercy!”
Jeffries is right; it does have something to do with chemistry.
The chemical in question is the active component of chili peppers. While such spices as pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and turmeric have been popular in Europe, Africa, and the East for thousands of years, food as diabolically hot as Prince’s was exclusive to the Americas until Columbus’s landing.
The ante for Old World spice was considerably upped with what Columbus found: scalding New World peppers like cayenne, habanero, and jalapeño. “Mejor que pimienta nuestra," he wrote—better than our own peppers. Just as it’s hard to imagine Italians without tomatoes or Russians without potatoes to make vodka, it’s hard to imagine, say, Thai cuisine without chilies. But all of that came after sixteenth-century fusion using New World c rops.
Capsaicin is what gives these peppers their kick. The chemical is fat-soluble rather than water-soluble, which is why fatty foods or milk ease the residue’s burn and water doesn’t. It’s also the active ingredient in pepper spray (if you eat at Prince's, wash your hands before wiping your eyes!). It would take a whole lot of chili peppers, but a capsaicin overdose is theoretically possible. If you could manage to drink, say, a gallon of Tabasco sauce, you would probably turn from red to blue, pass out, and die from respiratory paralysis.
Capsaicin has also been used as an animal and insect deterrent (birds are not affected, so it’s a good way to keep squirrels away from feeders). Indeed, biologists theorize that the very reason that plants came to produce it in the first place is to keep away mammalian predators. Human beings are the only mammals nutty enough to actually enjoy the painful reaction.
No one knows exactly why this is. One popular theory is that sufficient quantities of capsaicin release endorphins. Endorphins are natural painkillers produced by the pituitary gland. They act like morphine (the name itself is a shortening of “endogenous morphine”). In addition to an analgesic effect, they produce a feeling of elation and euphoria. “Runners’ high” is thought to come from endorphin-release, and riding on a roller coaster is another way to get a dose. Or if you can handle them, chili peppers. A need for the endorphin buzz might help explain why so many Nashvillians can’t go long without a fix of Prince’s.
There ’s another addictive effect of capsaicin, which may or may not be separate from endorphins: It reconfigures the experience of flavor. “Sin chile, no creen que están comiendo!” remarked Bartolome de las Casas, a sixteenth-century Spanish explorer, of the Native Americans. (“Without chili, they don’t think they are eating!”)
When I’m recommending Prince’s, I usually say, “It will change the way you think about chicken.” Imagine someone whose only exposure to dairy had been skim milk suddenly trying a pungent cheese. That’s the kind of new possibility represented by hot chicken. It is flavor mutated, and fresh nuances emerge. (Some folks, of course, think this is a hunch of hooey—and argue that severe heat represents the negation of flavor. This argument is usually expressed thusly, often by a wimp: “It’s so hot I can’t taste a thing!”)
Finally, there’s the simple thrill of grappling with the extremity, the rush of powering ahead despite the danger signals screaming inside the body. “There is no more lively sensation than that of pain,” wrote the Marquis de Sade, on a slightly different subject. “[I]t’s impressions are certain and dependable, they never deceive...."
The most intense varieties of pleasure and pain might feel close to the same. It’s not that big of a jump, in other words, from “this is so good it hurts” to “this hurts so good." A little bit of torture, within reason, can be a lot of fun. Of course, the idea of what’s reasonable varies dramatically from person to person, which is why Prince’s offers different degrees of heat.
Maybe it’s the endorphins or maybe it’s just damn good. Either way, hot chicken takes me somewhere I like to go.
With this kind of heat, strategy becomes important. Ordering with fries is a must, and one must be careful to conserve them, as well as the two slices of bread and four slices of pickle. The pickle is a surprising coolant and the carbohydrates are your lifeline.
Though sodas are offered, they’re a bad idea; the carbonation prickles too harshly on the way down. I always go with lemonade. Technically, nothing water-based can provide relief, but I find that holding the drink and swishing it around is a comfort, however fleeting.
The other key is to not pause in the eating for too long. The scorching inside the mouth only gets worse. Like a drug, when eating hot chicken, the only cure for the pain is more of that which causes the pain.
Then there are more creative approaches. “We have one man who always gets the Extra Hot to go,” says Jeffries. “He takes it home, runs a tub full of cold water, and eats his chicken in the bath.”
Once consumed, hot chicken affects different people different ways.
“There’s a prostitute who picks up men at the truckstop and brings them here every Saturday night,” Jeffries tells me. “She makes them buy her this chicken before they get involved. She always gets the Hot. It turns her on. One time she just couldn’t wait. She got out there and did the final act right on the hood of the car. That chicken—it does something to her.”
New Jersey indie rockers Yo La Tengo came upon Prince’s while recording in Nashville and were so smitten that they have named several songs in honor of the restaurant—including “Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1)" and “Return to Hot Chicken.” Nashville mayor Bill Purcell, a longtime regular, had Prince’s officially designated as the best restaurant in the state of Tennessee in 1996, when he was the majority leader in the state House of Representatives. “It was my last act, using all the powers of the office, which were unlimited—at least that's what I decided on that day,” says the mayor, who always has the Hot and conducts business meetings at Prince's with anyone willing. “Hot chicken is Nashville’s one unique food. It’s unlike anything you’ve had before. It’s an immediate connection. I find myself renewed for all purposes. Eating it immediately reinforces whatever is best about you.”
Jeffries herself has never gone past Mild. She’s a solid and sensible woman, one gathers, who just happens to be in the business of feeding maniacs.
When I tell her I’m planning to give the Extra Hot a go she pulls back and sighs. She looks half like she wants to scold me and half like she wants to give me a hug. “Just make sure you get an Alka-Seltzer,” she says, patting my arm. “And don’t travel any long distances.”
It’s a good twenty-five-minute drive from Princes to my house, which I decide I’d better keep to myself.
“When you get done, lay down a little while, rest yourself,” she says. “Get comfortable. This is what I call twenty-four-hour chicken. Be near a restroom. This is a cleansing. This is a filter. Allow it to just filter on through.”
My day of reckoning comes on Friday, January 28. The whole day is spent on prep work. In the morning I do some stretches, some jumping jacks to get loose. For lunch: two toasted bagels. This seems solid. I mix some aloe vera juice with my orange juice. I try to visualize success. I have read about basketball players picturing the ball leaving their hand and falling through the net before a game; I try to imagine picking up the final bite with a corner of bread and wiping my mouth upon completion, but other more disturbing images come to mind: the collapse of several internal organs, taste buds swollen beyond function, a breast of chicken personified as a fanged, marinated devil, etc.
I arrive at Prince’s around 7:00 PM. Though I called ahead, my order’s not quite ready. I pace around the restaurant, trying without much success to appear calm and collected. I rub my belly.
Someone finally calls my name and casually repeats my order: Extra Hot breast, fries, and a lemonade. At the mention of “extra, ” a couple of heads turn. “Oh boy,” says one guy, and his friend just stands there trying not to laugh. The chicken is several shades darker than blood. It’s almost brown; almost black, in fact.
A customer has just left, so I’m lucky enough to have a table to myself. The bread beneath the chicken has been entirely soaked through with red. I break off a small piece and use it to pick up some chicken. I take it in. The crust crunches softly under the bread. There’s the jolt, but at first it’s more or less the same as the Hot. Okay, I think, I can do this. Then comes the afterburn: It’s as if a chute of lava enters at my throat and runs down the length of my body and right back up. I can feel the prickling all the way to my fingertips. I try to calm things down with a french fry, but it’s no use. I have to keep going. With each bite, the crust singes every nerve in my mouth. Only the tender white meat inside briefly eases the burn.
About halfway through, sweaty and a bit dizzy, I start to wonder whether I’ll be able to finish. Every breath hurts. I feel a bit faint. My vision seems to be going.
An ambulance happens to pull up. For a moment, I honestly think that it has come for me. I am fairly certain that I might be dying.
I stop and breathe slowly. I eat a small piece, and another. Then it happens: The fire starts to feel good. I feel the surge of what distance runners call a second wind. I may be a little woozy, but I am in the home stretch. I’m a cartoon character with steam coming out my ears; I can’t wait to take another agonizing chomp. I can no longer feel my lips. It no longer matters.
“How was it?" someone asks me as I scoop up the final morsels of fiery skin with my remaining dabs of bread. “Are you all right?"
But I can’t answer him. I can’t even speak. I am gone, on some other planet, loving it, burning away.