I was all set to publish this post about Prince’s Hot Chicken, when I found out that a relatively new magazine about the South, “Garden & Gun,” has just released a list of the 100 Southern Foods You Absolutely, Postively Must Try Before You Die. And the first photo in the gallery is from Prince’s Hot Chicken.
John T. Edge writes, “I fear the apocalyptic burn of the skillet-cooked and cayenne-swabbed chicken dished by Andre Prince Jeffries the way I fear the wrath of the Lord. So should you. One taste of a Prince’s drumstick rouses me from a twelve-pack stupor.”
I was going to tell you about Prince’s, because a.) we’re starting a tradition of going to Prince’s for a post-Christmas cleansing, and b.) one of my New Year’s resolutions is to graduate to the “medium.”
Prince’s Hot Chicken is a dive, a little hole-in-the-wall in a plaza in a neighborhood that doesn’t have an Applebee’s. You can’t miss it. The front window shows a prince wearing a crown, holding up a whole, cooked chicken on a platter. Bordered in twinkly lights. It’s a yuppie’s nightmare, but if you have any sense of adventure, you’ll love it. Former Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell used Prince’s as his second office.
There’s been a Prince’s in Nashville since the mid-40s. The story is that its founder, Thornton Prince, was a big-time womanizer. One night, he stayed out too late, and we he got home, his lady friend offered to fry him some chicken. Which she peppered. And peppered. To teach that man a lesson. But he loved it and shared it with his friends, and a legend was born.
Today, Prince’s has cult status. Some people eat there every day it’s open, waiting up to 90 minutes for their chicken. It’s a road trip destination. A rite of passage. Overdue women eat at Prince’s to bring on the birthing.
So, what’s so special about Prince’s? They are all about the chicken. Not the decor (teal walls, checked floor, Southern Foodways Alliance “Guardian of the Tradition” Award hanging next to styrofoam plates signed by Titans players). Not the parking. And definitely not the service. They’ll open and close whenever they damn well please, and maybe even watch a little “Divorce Court” while they’re taking orders. But the chicken … That’s where the love is. It’s not waiting under heat lamps. That chicken is pan-fried to order in cast-iron skillets, and no matter whether you order the mild, medium, hot or extra-hot, you’ll feel the burn.
You might lick your fingers while you eat it, but you’d better not touch your eyes. Or any mucous membrane.
The mild is so hot, it’ll chap your lips.
The medium brings on a sweat.
They won’t sell the hot to first-timers.
And the extra-hot comes in a paper bag with a big red “X” on it. They call it the “24-hour chicken” or the “cleansing chicken,” because you won’t be able to be too far from a bathroom for about 24 hours after you eat it.
The menu is limited to hot chicken, fries, white bread, a cup of pickles, baked beans, coleslaw, potato salad, Ranch dressing and pie. There’s an eternally sold-out Coke machine on the floor and a fridge filled with Purity Dairy drinks in the back. You want to order SEVERAL Purity drinks when you order your chicken. Go for the water, lemonade or fruit punch. Carbonation will only increase the burn. And if you run out of drinks, you’ll have to go to the back of the chicken line. INVEST IN DRINKS.
Whether you’re eating inside or getting take-out, your order will come in a greasy paper bag. If you’re dining in, you’ll have to fight for a seat on one of the white, church pew-like benches. There’s seating for about 20. When you finally open your paper bag, you’ll notice the chicken comes on two slices of white bread. People live for that spicy, chicken grease-soaked white bread. The portions that are still white will help cool the burning, but those oranges patches will set your soul on fire. And by “soul,” I mean “ass.”
The chicken is the color of flames. Most of the heat comes from the spicy rub, which contains a lethal amount of cayenne, but the meat has plenty of heat, too. I took a bite of Jeff’s “medium” chicken and broke into a sweat. Last time we went, the day before Christmas Eve, I ordered a “mild” breast quarter and sneezed fire.
It’s a heat that makes your entire body feel different. Your mental faculties sharpen. Your blood pumps. Your chemicals activate. And you digestive system works like a missile-launcher.
Here’s a short documentary on Prince’s Hot Chicken, filmed by the Southern Foodways Alliance and the Center for Documentary Projects. If you enjoy fried chicken lore and bathroom humor as much as I do, it’s well worth the 8 minutes and 53 seconds.