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Kai Ryssdal: If you happen to have dined out on the cheap lately, fast food is what I’m talking about here. You might’ve noticed there’s something of a chicken war going on. Cayenne and crushed red pepper are the weapons of choice. Fiery hot chicken is where it’s at, at chain restaurants.
A mainstream movement that can be traced back to a Nashville tradition. Blake Farmer reports now from WPLN.
Blake Farmer: Walk into a Church’s Chicken, and there’s a choice to make.
Cashier: Do you want original or spicy?
It’s clear by the cashier’s foam hat in the shape of a flame — she’s pushing spicy. So are lots of other restaurants. Wendy’s marketing is all about spicy nuggets. The Popeye’s line is, “Want something spicy?” Then there’s Church’s.
Kirk Waisner: We’ve taken our spicy chicken and elevated it another notch.
Kirk Waisner is chief chicken officer for the Atlanta-based restaurant chain. Seriously, chief chicken officer. And he says the company’s research suggests people want more burn. He believes Americans are becoming more accustomed to fiery ethnic foods.
This spicy trend is different from something like buffalo wings, where it’s all about the sauce. At Church’s, Waisner says the kick comes from 12 hours of marinating, so the peppery spices have time to work their way into the meat.
Waisner: This has a slower, more complex burn that builds over time.
Farmer: I feel like we’ve got to crunch into it to really get the full effect.
Waisner: You do. Absolutely.
Farmer: Can we do it?
Waisner: Yeah, you bet. I’m going to do the same.
Farmer: I’m going to grab a drumstick here. It’s very crispy.
Crispy, but not all that spicy. However, it’s certainly outside the box for a take-home bucket of chicken.
Andre Prince: We have been outside the box for 60-some-odd years, so other people are just now catching on.
Andre Prince is the second generation proprietor of Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville. Well-known dives like Prince’s have put the city on the map as the originator of this kind of peppered poultry. You’ll find “Nashville hot chicken” on menus as far north as Michigan.
Of course, Prince says people travel from far and wide to taste the original here in Tennessee.
Prince: One man said it took the hair off his chest. Another said it put hair on his chest, of course, that was a teenager.
Not wanting any more hair on my chest, I ask for medium heat. My wing is bright red from all the seasoning in the crust.
Farmer: Wow. That’s got a burn to it.
Farmer: I’ve always had this problem. I hiccup when I eat hot food.
Prince: Are you ready for the next step?
Farmer: No no no, there’s no more steps for me.
But many take it even hotter. Tammy Osborne says it’s worth the wait.
Tammy Osborne: On Friday nights, it’s extremely busy. I have waited three hours for a piece of chicken. My momma tells me I’m crazy. And I’m not the only one. Whole lot of people do it.
Osborne represents the kind of enthusiasm chain restaurants are trying to tap into, says John T. Edge. He’s the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance.
John T. Edge: It’s no stretch to think that large corporations see the value in folk foods and see the value in repackaging that and selling it to the masses.
This year, Chick-fil-A added a sandwich to its menu for the first time in 20 years — spicy chicken. But the fast food version of hot chicken is still far tamer than the original. Edge thinks of the warning labels that are now required on hot coffee cups.
Edge: If you were going to sell hot chicken through at a drive-thru at a fast food, can you imagine the contract you’d have to require? A 20-page contract with three addendums.
And liability aside, imagine driving through that burn.
In Nashville, I’m Blake Farmer for Marketplace.
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