The Quest for Spicy Chicken

Prince's Hot Chicken Shack, a tiny restaurant in Nashville, Tenn., started the tradition of making fried chicken soaked in a spicy, peppery sauce. Andre Prince Jeffries, the owner of the restaurant, elaborates on a southern specialty.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

Southern recipes have been my passion since moving to Nashville. Whether it's bright green tomatoes or the perfect cream cheese icing for red velvet cake, I want to get it right. But since my family's Caribbean, I know next to nothing about one of the most popular southern treats, fried chicken.

Luckily, Nashville has more than the usual offerings. Here fried chicken is soaked in a spicy peppery sauce that burns hotter than a Tabasco lover's dream. The dish is a city specialty, and Prince's Hot Chicken Shack, a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant on the north side is considered the place where it all started.

The owner is Andre Prince Jeffries.

Ms. ANDRE PRINCE JEFFRIES (Owner, Prince's Hot Chicken Shack): It's always been known as a late-night place. And when the Grand Ole Opry would get out on Friday and Saturday night, they would come to the Chicken Shack, which was not that far away. And whites ate in the back and the blacks ate in the front.

CORNISH: These days blacks and whites eat together in the front of the restaurant to pick up their orders.

Ms. JEFFRIES: 8, 9, 11; 8, 9 and 11.

CORNISH: Most have followed the restaurant as it's moved from location to location in the city. Alyssa Leonard has been ordering up Prince's hot chicken every Friday for the last 20 years.

Ms. ALYSSA LEONARD (Customer, Prince's Hot Chicken Shack): It's traditional fried chicken. It's crispy, I guess the bang that you get here is the spices that no matter what how you try to do your chemistry at home you never can recreate this flavor.

CORNISH: And several customers have tried to do their own chemistry and opened up similar hot chicken shacks with varying degrees of success. But you just can't dumped cayenne on the bird and call it a day. And Andre Jeffries assures me that Prince's recipe is top secret.

Ms. JEFFRIES: This business has always been in my family for 60-some-odd years. My great uncle started it - Thornton Prince. Of course, I give credit to his lady friend. My great uncle, being a womanizer, had been out all night. And for revenge to get him back, she sprinkled something on his fried chicken for breakfast that morning. And instead a punishment, he liked it, told his friends about it and that's how it really got started.

CORNISH: In the kitchen cooks are frying up the chicken breasts and quarters. When the meat comes out, they spoon a fiery red liquid over the top and set the sopping chicken on a slice of Wonder bread. A toothpick holds down the neon green pickle slice. You can order it mild or hot, which even Jeffries says she can't handle, although new customers often try.

Ms. JEFFRIES: It's real hot. You better...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: Veronica Grant is turning her new boyfriend onto Prince's. Joe Bronson is down from Kentucky to see what all the hubbub is about.

Ms. JEFFRIES: He loves it.

Mr. JOE BRONSON (Prince's Customer): It's great. I do.

CORNISH: Now, what does it taste like?

Mr. BRONSON: Chicken with a lot of pepper on it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRONSON: It's good, and it's a good taste, a good flavor.

Ms. GRANT: It's a good crust.

Mr. BRONSON: Yeah, seasoned good.

CORNISH: How's the heat doing 'cause there's a tear in the corner of your eye here.

Mr. BRONSON: Oh, yeah, yeah. Don't pay no attention to that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: Bronson's tougher than me. The first time I had hot chicken I had more than a tear in my eye. Nowadays I stick to the mild, and I've learned from the folks at Prince's that it's better to have a cool glass of buttermilk to wash it down.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RUFUS THOMAS (Singer): (Singing) You work both arms and you work both feet, use a dab of gravy, you right on the beat, you flap your arms and your feet start kicking, and then you'll know you're doing the funky chicken. Oh, it's all right.

CORNISH: This is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION.

(Soundbite of music)

CORNISH: Speaking of movies, we remember actress Marilyn Monroe. She was born on this day 82 years ago.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

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