United States of America
This is how I come to meet Nick Bishop, owner of Hattie B’s Hot Chicken. Having spent the morning gorging on biscuits, country ham and fried green tomatoes at the Loveless Cafe, pitmaster George Harvell and brand manager Jesse Goldstein ask about other quintessentially Nashvillian dishes I’ve tried. There’s barbecue and meat ’n’ three, sweet tea and grits.
“What about hot chicken?” asks George.
“I’ve had chicken-fried chicken,” I reply. “Is that the same thing?”
At which point they laugh, shake their heads and point me in the direction of Hattie B’s. “Don’t order anything hotter than the medium,” Jessie offers as a final piece of advice.
At Hattie B’s the menu – basically chicken, with five levels of heat from Mild to Shut the Cluck Up, and sides – is written on a board. The chicken arrives in a basket, sitting on a piece of white bread with two slices of pickle on top. Dishes of mac ’n’ cheese and coleslaw come as the sides. The medium chicken is hot. Damned hot.
Satiated for the second time in about three hours, I drop my empty basket at the return station and head out. A man is standing in the sun.
“How was your meal?” he asks.
“Absolutely delicious,” I tell him without a word of a lie.
“That’s great to hear. Y’all have a good day.” About to walk off, I twig that this man probably isn’t just a random well-wisher. It turns out he owns the establishment and, sure, he’d love to chat about hot chicken.
“Hot chicken has enjoyed a resurgence in the past four or five years,” says Bishop. “Local people have always eaten it, but it’s got a lot of publicity lately. Here’s what you’ll find in the States: things that were old are now new. People want old, they want tradition, they want the way things used to be.”
That’s what he gives them, albeit with some tweaks. Most southern-fried chicken is soaked in buttermilk, breaded then fried. Not hot chicken. Some places soak it in hot sauce; at Hattie B’s the chefs make a blend of cayenne pepper, dried habanero and other spices. “Then it’s mixed with oil to make a type of demi-glace,” says Nick. “Depending on the level of heat it’s either brushed on or dunked into the infusion. The Shut the Cluck Up has some extra spices shaken over it.” Those extra spices include scorpion powder, made from the hottest chilli in the world. “It puts people in a euphoric state,” he explains, then laughs.
It’s not hard to feel on top of the world in Nashville. The capital of Tennessee isn’t a huge city – the population is about 600,000 – and still has a down-home charm. The Loveless’s Jesse Goldstein, a born-and-bred Southerner, isn’t surprised. “I always say folks know they’re in Nashville when they get to the four-way stop signs – people are so nice here, they’re often waving everyone else on to go in front of them,” he explains.
While parts of the city are changing rapidly, you don’t have to go far to taste tradition. At Monell’s in Germantown, guests sit at communal tables and platters of Southern classics – fried chicken, corn pudding, biscuits – are passed to the left with everyone helping themselves. The rules are thus: take as much as you can eat but eat what you take, and never answer your mobile at the table.
This combination of tradition and hospitality wins hearts. Four years ago Matt Farley moved from New York, and in 2011 he became executive chef at The Southern. The updated Nashville classic on the menu is meat ’n’ three. “I had no idea what a meat ’n’ three was before I moved here,” confesses Farley. It’s basically a protein – anything from pork chops to meatloaf – with three sides. Mac ’n’ cheese is popular, then there’s mashed potato, fries, coleslaw, baked beans and collard greens.
“It’s comfort food,” he explains. “It’s heavy and warm and makes you want to go to sleep. If we want to lighten it up in the restaurant we do, especially when it gets warm – and it does get hot here.”
His cooked-to-order meat ’n’ three is quite different to the traditional version served buffet-style at spots across the city, some of which, like Arnold’s Country Kitchen, still pack them in. The Loveless Cafe is another original. Its former owners, Lon and Annie Loveless, started selling chicken and biscuits from their home in 1951 to travellers driving along Highway 100 between Nashville and Memphis. They converted rooms into dining areas before the Interstate eventually bypassed them. “By the time that came about the Loveless was already doing really well,” explains Jesse. “There’d be nights after the Grand Ole Opry when they’d call and say ‘Keep the kitchen open, we’re coming out’ and they’d all pile here and take over.”
The Loveless is famous for its buttermilk biscuits, salt-cured country ham, fried chicken and, of course, barbecue. George Harvell arrives at 2.30am to start his 12-hour(ish) shifts. First he shovels out the pit and gets a fresh fire started using indigenous hickory wood. He cooks pork butts for nine hours then wraps them in foil and puts them back in the pit overnight. The process takes about 21 hours. As we talk he’s ‘pulling’ the pork – separating the meat you eat from what you don’t – while it’s hot. “It’s gotta hurt when you’re doing it,” he says.
He’s been barbecuing for almost 30 years. “I learned from a friend who owned a catering business,” he explains. “He taught me how to do it his way and I’ve added little things. And I listen. You know, there are some old country boys in bib overalls who walk through here who’ve been doing this all their life and they’ll give you little tips. You don’t learn anything when you’re talkin’ all the time.” He laughs, and continues pulling pork, greeting people who walk by his barbecue shed: “Morning y’all. Welcome to the Loveless.”
You can create degrees of hotness by choosing the sauce in the marinade wisely. If you want a milder flavour, go easy when you brush the spice mix over at the end.
8 cups water
½ cup hot sauce
½ cup salt
½ cup sugar, plus extra ½ teaspoon
1½ kilogram chicken, quartered
2 litres vegetable oil for deep-frying
1 tablespoon cayenne powder
½ teaspoon hot paprika
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
2 cups plain flour
In a large bowl, combine the water, hot sauce, salt and sugar and mix until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Add the chicken pieces, cover and marinate in the fridge for about an hour.
Make a spice mixture by heating about 3 tablespoons of oil in a small saucepan.
Add the extra sugar, cayenne, paprika, garlic powder and a pinch of salt. Cook until fragrant (about 30 seconds), remove from heat and set aside.
In a large bowl, season the flour. Remove the chicken from the marinade and dredge each piece in the flour, shaking off the excess. Rest on a wire rack.
Get yourself set up by placing a wire rack over a baking tray and warming the oven to about 100ºC. Heat the oil in either a deep-fryer or a large heavy-based saucepan on the stovetop to 180ºC. You need to keep it at this temperature to ensure the chicken pieces cook through without burning. Dredge the chicken pieces in the flour again, shaking off the excess. Put half the chicken in the hot oil, and cook until it’s a deep golden colour and the chicken is cooked through (about 25–30 minutes). Transfer the chicken pieces to the tray in the oven, and repeat with the remaining chicken. When all the chicken is cooked, brush with the spice mixture. Hot chicken is traditionally served on top of thick slices of white bread with a couple of slices of pickle.