STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
On a recent visit to Nashville, somebody told me I really had to try Nashville hot chicken. Didn't get a chance, but that's OK because I could have just gone to KFC.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Straight from Nashville, it's smoky, crispy, spicy. And it's hot.
INSKEEP: Nashville hot chicken is showing up everywhere from fast food joints to trendy restaurants. Here's NPR's Debbie Elliott.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Our tour of Nashville's hot chicken tradition starts in a nondescript strip mall on the northeast side of town.
ELLIOTT: Here at Prince's Hot Chicken Shack, people line up before the doors open to get their fix.
JOSE RODRIGUEZ: Need my hot chicken.
ELLIOTT: Construction worker Jose Rodriguez gets his turn to place an order at the kitchen window.
RODRIGUEZ: Hey, I'm going to get two hot of the breast quarters.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Two breasts hot.
RODRIGUEZ: And one medium.
ELLIOTT: Old-fashioned wooden booths line the walls of the small dining room. The food comes on paper plates served on red cafeteria trays. Drinks come from a vending machine on the back wall.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Number eight!.
ELLIOTT: Writer Timothy Davis says this is the authentic experience.
TIMOTHY DAVIS: Prince's is the ground zero for hot chicken.
ELLIOTT: Davis is the author of, "The Hot Chicken Cookbook : The Fiery History And Red-Hot Recipes Of Nashville's Beloved Bird." The Prince family has been selling hot chicken for more than 70 years and is thought to have conceived the dish. More on that later.
First, we share a plate of Prince's medium, which Davis says is the equivalent of hot anywhere else.
DAVIS: Don't touch anything important afterwards.
ELLIOTT: It's a no-frills lunch, white bread, dill pickle chips and a breast quarter freshly fried, then slathered with Prince's secret hot sauce - really more of a paste.
DAVIS: There's no secret. There's a ton of cayenne in here. Oh, the heat's got me a little tongue-tied.
ELLIOTT: It is a struggle to talk. My lips are burning. My nose is running. And sweat is popping out from my skull. Yet, I can't stop eating the red-hot bird. Chicken Shack owner Andre Prince says that's part of the appeal.
ANDRE PRINCE: It can be a punishment and a joy at the same time.
ELLIOTT: Hot chicken was intended as a punishment directed at her great uncle, Thornton Prince, known for his womanizing back in the 1930s.
PRINCE: He being so tall, handsome and good-looking.
ELLIOTT: The story goes, he stepped out on his lady one Saturday night. Sunday morning, she doused his fried chicken with a heap of hot pepper.
PRINCE: Chicken has always been a favorite meal, as far as our tradition is concerned, our culture is concerned. And I'm sure when he bit into that - mmm - that brought him back around.
ELLIOTT: But there was a snag.
PRINCE: He liked his punishment evidently.
ELLIOTT: He shared it with friends, and word spread. It was so popular, he opened a chicken shack. Back then it was mainly a late-night joint. Today, Prince honors that tradition, frying up hot chicken until 4 a.m. On weekends. Her customers come from all walks of life. It's always been that way, she says, even when segregation was the law - but with a twist in the black-owned restaurant.
PRINCE: Blacks came in the front. Whites came in the back (laughter). That was an eye-opener, but they did. People at the Grand Old Opry came in through the side door after the Grand Old Opry closed.
ELLIOTT: Longtime customer Bobby Meadows remembers those days.
BOBBY MEADOWS: I'm 64, and I've been eating it since I was 12.
ELLIOTT: He comes from Mt. Juliet, about a half hour away.
MEADOWS: It's worse than dope. It has a craving worse than anything. And when you get to thinking about it and your mouth gets to watering, you might as well turn your truck around and go get you some because it ain't going to get no better.
ELLIOTT: The ever loyal customer, Meadows' truck is always steered to Prince's.
MEADOWS: Everybody's trying to copy it, but there ain't but one original.
ELLIOTT: Prince's now draws tourists from around the world looking to try Nashville's culinary quirk. And the popularity of hot chicken is spreading. It's on the menu at KFC and O'Charlie's. Nashville's hot chicken joints have opened in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, even Australia. New places have taken off locally as well.
NICK BISHOP: My name is Nick Bishop. I'm one of the co-owners of Hattie B's Hot Chicken here in Nashville.
ELLIOTT: The restaurant pairs it's hot chicken with traditional Southern sides, like greens, black-eyed peas and pimento mac and cheese.
BISHOP: I think that the beauty of hot chicken is that every place has their own way of doing it.
ELLIOTT: Hattie B's will soon open a branch in Birmingham, Ala. Bishop remembers when he first had Prince's hot chicken as a young teen. It was a right of passage. Now he's proud to be spreading the gospel with his own version.
BISHOP: It's an odd little nugget that Nashville has to offer to the world.
ELLIOTT: Cookbook author Timothy Davis says the newfound interest will keep the tradition going.
DAVIS: I don't think a food survives unless someone else enjoys it enough to have their own spin on it. I mean, a food dies if people aren't exposed to it.
ELLIOTT: Our last stop on the tour is the kitchen, where Davis shares his home-cooked version of hot chicken. While the chicken fries, he starts on the hot paste.
DAVIS: This is bacon grease, which is sort of a cheap code to all Southern cooking I think.
ELLIOTT: He melts a couple of heaping tablespoon of rendered bacon fat into a small bowl, then adds his spices.
DAVIS: I usually don't measure anything, but this is cayenne pepper - probably three or four teaspoons. Let's see, garlic powder, ground mustard.
ELLIOTT: Next he adds cumin, paprika, dill pickle juice, salt and pepper.
DAVIS: And to some people, this is a grave offense, but I had a little sugar.
ELLIOTT: The final step, slather on the deep red paste as soon as the chicken comes out of the frying pan, and prepare for a mouthful of fire you just can't resist. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Nashville.
INSKEEP: The hottest program is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
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And Lourdes Garcia-Navarro.