Food & Drink | October 2020

By Abby & Kevin Tankersley

Southern Hot Chicken

Being stuck at home this summer got us to reminiscing on trips we’ve taken in summers past. It seems like we head to the South quite a bit. We’ve gone to Mississippi a couple of times, and I was at the University of Mississippi in Oxford a couple of summers ago for a conference sponsored by the Southern Foodways Alliance, which, as its website says, “documents, studies, and explores the diverse food cultures of the changing American South.” John T. Edge has served as the director of SFA since its inception in 1999. He’s also a columnist for Garden & Gun and Oxford American, two fine magazines covering life in the South. Edge and his staff of writers, photographers, videographers and oral historians do an admirable job in producing content for the SFA’s website, podcasts and magazine, Gravy.

On my first night in Oxford, a Sunday before my conference began on Monday, I went to Gus’s Fried Chicken for some hot chicken. And it was a disappointing experience. The restaurant was out of chicken breasts, the place wasn’t clean, and the service was inattentive. I wasn’t terribly surprised when I learned that particular location of Gus’s is no longer open.

I had hoped for a chicken experience more akin to what we had at Hattie B’s, which is the place for hot chicken in Nashville. Our family spent a week in Music City the summer prior to my trip to Oxford, and Hattie B’s was on our list of places we had to eat.

Hattie B’s offers fried chicken at six heat levels, ranging from Southern, or no heat, up to Shut the Cluck Up, which is a “burn notice” level of heat. I’m pretty sure I went with the Hot variety, which is the fourth level, just below Damn Hot. The chicken dinners are served with two sides, plus a slice of white bread and sliced pickles. The chicken was hot from the fryer and had plenty of heat, and I crave it again anytime I hear someone mention Nashville or hot chicken.

On our first night in Nashville, we ate at the legendary Brown’s Diner, which has been in continuous operation since 1927 and lays claim to the oldest beer license in the city. The original portion of the restaurant is an old travel trailer, and it now houses the bar and a small stage for live music, and an add-on building seats additional diners. I think I enjoyed this as much for the experience as I did for the food.

The rest of our Nashville trip consisted of some typical tourist stops, including the majority of one day at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The hall’s website recommends setting aside two hours for a self-guided tour, and we were there for about four. There’s way too much to see and hear and do over the three full floors to get out in two hours. A surprise highlight was running into my old friend John Werner, a longtime sportswriter at the Waco Tribune-Herald. Another day consisted of time spent on Broadway in downtown Nashville. The street is lined with live-music venues that are welcoming to families prior to 9 p.m. and off-limits to those underage after that. We visited Nudie’s Honky Tonk, which has on display dozens of stage outfits designed by the tailor Nudie Cohn, whose costumes were worn by Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams and dozens of other musicians. My personal favorite outfit was Elvis’ gold lame suit which he wore on the cover of his album “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.” (Speaking of Elvis, I could not talk the family into another tour of Graceland as we drove through Memphis, nor could I talk them into a stay at the Guest House of Graceland, a “glitzy hotel with Elvis-inspired rooms.”)

Our rental condo was across the street from Belmont University, which has a lovely campus. On an evening stroll there, our daughter Sophie suggested that I get a job at Belmont, despite the fact that I have a job already at Baylor. However, we’re planning a return trip to Nashville this summer, as Sophie is beginning to consider where she’s headed for college. And Belmont is going to get a strong push from me. There are two locations of Hattie B’s less than 2 miles from campus.

Many recipes for Nashville hot chicken call for up to 6 tablespoons of cayenne pepper for the sauce that’s brushed on the chicken after it’s fried. That’s a lot of heat. In our recipe, we used 2 tablespoons, and we didn’t brush the sauce onto the chicken. We served it alongside for dipping. A full 6 tablespoons might put your chicken in the Shut the Cluck Up category of heat.

The Black-Eyed Pea Salad needs to be made at least an hour before serving to allow the flavors to meld.

If you overdo it on the cayenne pepper in the chicken and it’s too hot, don’t drink water, iced tea or beer to quench the burn. That just moves the heat around in your mouth. Instead, drink some milk or, even better, some chocolate milkshake. For this recipe, we used Promised Land Dairy Midnight Chocolate whole milk. It was expensive — a bit more than $4 for 52 ounces, a little more than a quart-and-a-half — but it helped make a thick, rich milkshake.

The Recipes

Nashville Hot Chicken

  • 2 whole chickens, cut up
  • 1 quart buttermilk
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • About 10 cups vegetable oil, for frying
  • For the sauce:

  • 2 tablespoons cayenne pepper (or more, depending on desired heat level)
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup melted butter
  • White bread and sliced pickles, for serving; optional

A day or two before cooking the chicken, place the chicken pieces in a large bowl or baking dish. Add enough buttermilk to cover. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least overnight.

In a shallow bowl, whisk together flour, garlic powder, cayenne pepper and paprika.

When ready to cook, remove the chicken from the buttermilk and place on a baking sheet. Season liberally with salt and pepper.

Dip the chicken pieces into the flour mixture, turning to evenly coat. Place the chicken on a baking sheet and place in the refrigerator or freezer for a few minutes while heating the oil.

Heat the oven to 300 F. Place a sheet pan or baking pan in the oven.

Pour the oil 2 inches deep into a deep skillet or Dutch oven and heat over medium-high until a thermometer registers 350 F. Working with 1 or 2 pieces at a time, carefully add the chicken to the hot oil. Fry the chicken until it’s golden brown on both sides and an instant-read thermometer reads 160 F for white meat and 165 F for dark meat. Place the fried chicken on the pan in the oven. Let the oil heat back up to 350 F between batches before adding more chicken.

To make the sauce, in a small bowl, whisk together cayenne, brown sugar, chili powder, garlic powder and paprika. Add the honey and melted butter. Brush the mixture onto the fried chicken just before serving, or serve alongside the chicken in a small bowl. For a true Nashville hot chicken experience, serve with white bread and pickle slices.

Makes about 8-10 servings.

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Black-Eyed Pea Salad

  • 2 1/4 cups black-eyed peas, cooked, drained, rinsed and cooled; or canned black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
  • 2 1/4 cups corn kernels, cut from about 2 ears of fresh corn
  • 1/2 cup diced green bell pepper, about half of a pepper
  • 1/2 cup diced red, yellow or orange bell pepper, about half of a pepper
  • 1/2 cup diced purple onion, about 1/4 of a medium onion
  • 1 jalapeno, sliced, seeded and ribs removed, optional
  • 1/4 cup canned green chiles
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro, or to taste
  • 2 1/2 cups cherry tomatoes, quartered
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • For the dressing:

  • 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole grain spicy mustard or Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 3/4 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika, hot or sweet
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper, optional

In a large mixing bowl, add the peas, corn, bell peppers, onion, jalapeno (if using), chiles and cilantro. Set aside.In a lidded jar, add the vinegar, oil, mustard, garlic, salt, oregano, thyme, paprika and cayenne pepper. Shake until well-mixed.

Pour the dressing over the salad and stir well to incorporate the ingredients. Fold in the tomatoes. Taste and add more salt or pepper if needed.

Makes about 8 servings.

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Snow Biscuits

  • 1 1/4 cup warm water
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 3 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 package yeast
  • 3 cups sifted flour

In a large bowl, pour the warm water. Add the sugar, salt and butter. Add the yeast and stir until it’s dissolved. Add the flour and mix until a soft dough forms. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 5 minutes. Let dough rest for 10 minutes.

Heat oven to 425 F.

Roll dough out to 1-inch thickness and use a 2-inch cutter to cut into biscuits. Place biscuits in a shallow, buttered pan. Cover and let rise for 30 minutes. Bake for 15-18 minutes or until golden brown.

Makes about 18-20 biscuits.

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Chocolate Chocolate Milkshake

  • 3 cups chocolate ice cream
  • 1 cup chocolate milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Add the ice cream, milk and vanilla to a blender and process until the milkshake is smooth and creamy. Pour into glasses and serve immediately.

Makes 2 servings.
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