Festival celebrates hot chicken cult following

Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 11:00pm
hotchxHORI.jpg

Hot Chicken Festival-goers get down and dirty with plates of the fiery meat made famous by Prince's Hot Chicken Shack.

There's a little-known side of former mayor Bill Purcell that only those brave enough to singe their taste buds got to see.

Far from City Hall and all its white-collar pomp and circumstance, Purcell could be found several times a week sitting in the booth of an East Nashville strip mall, his sleeves rolled up, sinking his teeth into a spicy chicken leg at Prince's Hot Chicken Shack.

“He is the most passionate promoter of hot chicken ever,” said Kay West, a noted local food critic and friend of the mayor. “It’s funny, he was at Prince’s so much I used to call it Metro Courthouse North because he was there so often.”

With its formidable cult following, hot chicken has become to Nashville what pizza is to New York, chowder is to New England and cheesesteaks are to Philadelphia — it's our signature dish to rest our culinary laurels. It's an intensely spicy seasoned cut of leg or breast meat on the bone served on a slice of white bread (which, for you newbies, acts like a sponge for sopping up the fiery sauce and spices).

Purcell's love of hot chicken was so great he decided the signature dish deserved its own day, and with his neighborhood underserved on July 4, he found the perfect fit.

“Bill lived in East Nashville and noticed that even though there were fireworks downtown for the Fourth of July and other events going on around town, there wasn’t really anything going on in East Nashville," West said. "So he began the Music City Hot Chicken Festival three years ago to celebrate Independence Day and of course, his favorite dish, hot chicken.”

Now in its third year, the Music City Hot Chicken Festival has become one of Nashville’s most anticipated attractions. The event will take place in newly renovated East Park. Prince’s Hot Chicken and others including Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish will fill out the roster of hot chicken vendors.

The first 500 festival-goers will receive a ticket for a free sample of hot chicken. Everyone else can purchase their fiery dose for about $5 a pop. If you still need to work your way up to hot chicken, Dee’s Q, Otters Chicken Tenders and Eastside Fish (widely known as having “the crunkest fish in town") will be on hand with tamer fare.

With your mouth on fire, there will be plenty of ways to cool down. Watermelons will arrive by the truckload from the Farmer’s Market, and the beer garden (which will be twice the size of last year’s) will serve up cold brew from Yazoo. Fleur De Lis Flavors will also provide snowballs, a frosty treat from Louisiana that's similar to snow cones.

And, the festival is not just about eating. There will be games for children, and adults can try their hand at the friendly-but-competitive amateur hot chicken cooking contest that will be judged by some of Nashville’s super personalities including Mayor Karl Dean, SouthComm CEO and former Metro Council member Chris Ferrell, WKRN anchor and sports announcer John Dwyer, Fox 17 anchor Scott Couch and country music star Lorrie Morgan.

"Teams will be competing for a tacky trophy and come with goofy team names like ‘Hot as Cluck Fried Chicken,’ and ‘Drivin’ and Fryin,'" said West, who is one of the festival's organizers. "In years past, teams and other festival-goers come fully garbed in hilarious chicken inspired clothing and gear.”

Because no Music City festival would be complete without live entertainment, folk-rock group Shotgun Shooter, alternative rock group The Superficials, The Centennial Hiptet jazz quintet, and jazz/blues group the Bradford Electric will provide the tunes to lick your fingers to.

While taking in the many sights and sounds of the festival, keep your eyes peeled for Andre Prince, owner of Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. She's a star in the world of hot chicken, and a connoisseur — though only loyal to her own product.

“I’ve never even tasted the chicken from another vendor,” Prince said. There's no need, as hot chicken has been a family tradition for generations. Her grandfather, Thornton Prince, started the hot chicken craze more than six decades ago in his modest chicken shack.

Andre has been toiling in the kitchen of her restaurant, getting her hands greasy and perfecting the taste of her chicken since she took over as owner about 30 years ago.

“Back then the chicken had only one level of spiciness, but I introduced different levels of heat so more people could enjoy it,” Andre said.

What: Hot Chicken Festival
When: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: East Park, 700 Woodland St.
Cost: free
Info: nashvillehotchickenfestival.com