Saturday, December 20, 2014

Hot, Hotter

You know the scene. Tom Cruise, as a young, gung-ho military lawyer, confronts a snarling Jack Nicholson, playing a ramrod straight officer running Guantanamo Bay in "A Few Good Men." Cruise, as Lt. (j.g.) Daniel Kaffee, prods Nicholson as Colonel Nathan Jessup on the stand. Jessup snaps back at Kaffee, "You want answers?!" to which Kaffee responds, "I want the truth!" In one of the most iconic lines ever, Jessup thunders back, "You can't handle the truth!"

My situation was almost the same. Except it was not a trial and I am not a lawyer, merely a person getting some lunch. The guy behind the counter was no officer, just someone taking orders. And we weren't talking about truth, we were talking about chicken.

Hot chicken to be precise. Philadelphia may have its cheesesteak and New Orleans its po'boy, but if you are in Nashville, you must find time to try the city's culinary specialty. There are a couple of places nationwide that have tried to gain a toehold selling the stuff, but they are few and far between. To get this particular variant you really have to go to the mother churches found in Music City USA.

The basics are simple: you take some chicken, marinade it in buttermilk, coat it with flour, then pan or deep fry it. After cooking, a paste made of lard and spices is rubbed onto the pieces. Consisting of some combination of sugar, garlic and cayenne pepper, the trick is to impart both flavor and heat. The result is served on thick slices of white bread accompanied by slices of dill pickle.

Of course, it's called hot chicken not because of the temperature. Most places make it at varying heats per the wishes of the consumer. At the bottom of the scale is something mildly akin to regular fried chicken. At the other end is something that one reviewer describes as "crying-from-your-eyes-and-nostrils-and-other-orifices kind of heat. Your tongue will curl up in the corner, and pray for death's swift, sweet kiss." Yeah, it's that hot.

Being one who likes spicy food, I thought I could handle something in the middle. So I decided to have my "come to chicken" moment at a place called 400 Degrees, where you order your heat in hundred degree increments. When it was my turn, I requested an order of chicken strips, a side of coleslaw and an iced tea. The gentlemen dutifully wrote it down, then asked me my heat preference. I replied, "Well, I like hot Buffalo wings, so how about 200?" He looked me up and down, sized me up as a newbie, and channeling Colonel Jessup said, "Son, these are no Buffalo wings."

I'm sure he saw the deflation and hurt on my face, because he quickly changed his tone. "Tell you what. Strips come in three, so I will give you two 100 degree pieces, and one 200 degree. And if that 200 isn't too much, you come back and we'll step you up. How's that?" I readily agreed to this face saving compromise. I paid my tab, and went to sit down and wait.  

A while later they brought me a tray. Two of the pieces had a rosy glow, but one was ruby in color. To start, I cut off a piece of the lighter colored strip. It was powerful stuff, flavorful and vibrant, a taste that made you sit up and take notice. After I did a little palate cleansing with the coleslaw, I took aim at the 200. It barely got it into my mouth before my eyes teared up and my nose started running. It had flavor, to be sure. But mixed with that flavor was fire. My tongue tingled, my ears started ringing and all I could think was, My God, what must 400 be like?

Still, I alternated back and forth, enjoying both variations, grateful for the ice cubes in my cup. The guy from the counter walked by and smiled. He returned a few moments later with a small tray. "You look a nice guy, so we made you another piece," he said. Between sips of tea, I thanked him profusely as he put it in front of me, praying to the Lord above that the new piece was colored to the century mark and no higher. Buffalo, forgive me, but you have been bested.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to eat. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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