Hot Chicken is So Not Cool

It may be hip, but some things are just not meant to be eaten.

Rick Bragg
Plate of Hot Chicken
Robbie Caponetto

I was warned.

The sign on the side of the food truck read: "Hot Chicken."

"Do you like it hot?" inquired the nice lady inside.

She was a hundred, and in a hairnet. I do not believe she was flirting with me.

"Yes, please," I said, and then I winked at her, in case I had misread the situation. I did not want her to think I was stuck up.

I was in Nashville, and everyone I saw told me that hot chicken was the thing to eat. It was hip, it was cool, and it was happening; indeed, the hippest and the coolest were said to frequent "hot chicken joints," which sounded like something you might stagger into on a back alley in Bangkok, with a gang of drunken Finnish sailors.

So I demurred. I had decided that such a restaurant was too cool for me, like tattoo parlors, and hookah joints, and the Banana Republic. It seemed like the kind of thing that could lead to questionable behavior. One day you order some hot chicken; the next morning you wake up with your belly button pierced and a picture of David Hasselhoff tattooed on your posterior. Point me to a prayer meetin'.

Then, like some dark magic, the hot chicken came to me, rolled right up to me as I walked down the street, like it was fate. Now I know the truth of it: Hot chicken is the fowl of the Devil. He drives a panel truck in Nashville with a sizzling, popping, deep-fat fryer, and his minion looks a lot like Aunt Bee.

For those who have never been exposed, you should understand that this is not spicy chicken, highly seasoned, or even hot by any reasonable standard. I like my chicken to have a kiss of cayenne; I do not mind if it makes me sweat, or even leaves a little burn on my lips.

Nashville hot chicken—at least the bird I had—is not that. It was too hot to consume as food, too hot to stand, and tasted as if it had been marinated in ghost pepper and kerosene. It made my eyes water and my nose run, causing me to rub both of them with my contaminated hands. I went blind. My nose was seared from the inside. I wept and staggered in circles, right in front of the War Memorial. I spiked the offending chicken into a trash can, and wondered, seriously, if I needed medical attention, but could not bring myself to admit to a nurse that I had injured myself with a three-piece dinner.

I cracked the seal on a soft drink and poured it down my throat, but the Devil's chicken could not be extinguished. It had to be flushed from the eyes and nose, like paint thinner, or nuclear contamination.

I am a live-and-let-live man, but it seems to me that some people will do anything to be hip, even immolate themselves from the inside. I blame reality television, where Yankee food-show hosts are fed combustible crawfish and tongue-numbing gumbo, for effect. Good food is not like that. In good food, you taste food, taste seasoning, not an overpowering heat. Everything else is sideshow.

I cannot, of course, condemn all hot chicken. But I'll never look at a panel truck—or a chicken—the same way again.