A Few Thoughts Regarding KFC’s “Nashville Hot Chicken”

As longtime readers know, I’m a big-time advocate for Nashville-style “Hot Chicken.” It strikes most of my food-related pleasure receptors: It’s hyper-regional, largely unknown (until recently) outside of its narrow geographic origins, which means eating it evokes very specific memories of a time and place in your life. Its preparation is also unique, in that the spice from the chicken comes not from the dredge, or from any kind of sticky sauce, but from being dipped post-cooking into a vat of chicken fat and pure cayenne. Eating it requires technique, too, since the heat is so blinding, that you try to keep contact with your lips and fingers to a minimum, until you eat the fat-and-spice-soaked slice of Wonder bread that served as a plate for your chicken, desperately gobbling up a few stray slices of sour pickle to cool the fire. And finally, Hot Chicken has a great backstory, having been invented to punish an unfaithful husband’s serial infidelity.

Since first sampling it in a tin-roofed shack on the wrong side of the tracks in Nashville, I’ve been pretty obsessed with the stuff. I’ve served it in slider form on my food truck. I’ve backed Kickstarter projects designed to bring Hot Chicken to the masses. I’ve urged everyone passing anywhere near Nashville to make a point of stopping to try it for themselves. It was with some trepidation, then, that I approached the new “Nashville Hot Chicken” offering from KFC. From the website:

“AUTHENTICALLY NASHVILLE! ALSO AUTHENTICALLY HOT. ALSO AUTHENTICALLY CHICKEN. Get that flavorful, spicy, smoky Nashville Hot Chicken. Now with pickles! It’s finger lickin’ hot! (The chicken, not the pickles. The pickles are more like soothing lozenges for your mouth.)”

KFC Nashville Hot Chicken

A two-piece leg and thigh meal, with cole slaw, a biscuit, and a sweet tea set me back $5.49. At first, I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw when I cracked off the lid, which optimistically promised that I was about to taste “The Best Spicy Chicken [I had] Ever Had.” Expectations set ridiculously high, I was happy to find an extra crispy leg and thigh, with plenty of that craggy KFC coating, plenty of dark red seasoning fused into the skin, and a pool of orange oil pooling in the bottom of the container. I had been worried that KFC, in order to mass produce Hot Chicken, would put some kind of fast food spin on the dish, and coat it in a spicy sauce, or try to combine their own signature spices with the pure blast of cayenne you expect from Hot Chicken. Instead, it seems KFC did try to keep their Hot Chicken in line with the traditional preparation, even flipping a few discs of sour pickle onto the top of the proceedings. Admittedly, I greedily wolfed down every scrap in just a minute or two.

KFC Nashville Hot Chicken

The "Hot Chicken" of creepy singing androids.
The “Hot Chicken” of creepy singing androids.

And that’s when I started to feel really sad. Sometimes, even when a massive chain like KFC seems to be paying attention to the details, the resulting product only serves to let you down even more. It’s like the “Uncanny Valley” of fast food, that concept from robotics or video games where the more human a character design gets, the more unsettling it becomes to the viewer, because there is something that is just off, just not quite right, even as it strives to be a perfect copy.

That’s what it’s like staring into the cold, dead eyes of the two piece Nashville Hot Chicken meal from KFC. Eating it reminds me of everything that it’s not. The flavors are there, sure, but the spice has been dialed way back to mass market-friendly levels, about on par with a “Spicy Crispy Chicken” sandwich from Wendy’s. And in terms of “atmosphere,” the run-down, serially underperforming combination Taco Bell/KFC on the outskirts of Rockland, Maine in the wintertime just ain’t much to look at.

I want eating Nashville Hot Chicken to be something of a religious experience; I want the spice to make the tears well up in my eyes, to make my mouth swell and blister, for each punishing bite to cumulatively increase the assault on all my senses. I want to feel the rush of adrenaline as I confront that schmaltz-soaked slice of soggy bread, awash in more spice than anyone should be able to handle. I want to hear Hank sing about pain on the crummy in-store sound system. I want to look at a menu board with white plastic slide-on letters, slurp up a side of collard greens that feature more bacon than green, feel the heat from the patio heaters at Pepperfire, wonder aloud if I locked the car parked in the super sketchy gas station around the corner.

I know. Hot Chicken is starting to appear in plenty of places around the country, cooked by outstanding chefs who honor the tradition of the dish, and crank out perfect replicas of the stuff you find down south. There was no way that it could have been kept a secret for much longer. I just want eating Hot Chicken to be part of a larger, richer experience, that unfortunately, KFC’s superficial copy can’t hope to reproduce.

KFC Nashville Hot Chicken

Malcolm Bedell is co-author of the critically acclaimed "Eating in Maine: At Home, On the Town, and On the Road," as well as the taco-centric blog "Eat More Tacos," and the junk food-centric "Spork & Barrel." His contributions include Serious Eats, Down East, L.A. Weekly, The Guardian, and The Huffington Post and his food truck, "'Wich, Please," was named "Hottest Restaurant in Maine" for 2015 by Eater. Finally, he finds it very silly to be trying to write this in the third person.

1 Comment

  1. It is fast food but it ain’t cheap food at KFC. Their stores seem to be closing at a good clip. Their prices have driven me to the 7/11 type convenience stores that serve Krispy Krunchy brand fried chicken. It is real good and you get more chicken. ie: 4 pieces and a biscuit for $5.89 or just chicken, 8 pieces for $6.99. You can get it regular or hot. For a Super Bowl party I purchased 16 pieces for $14.00. Try doing that at KFC! You would need to take out a 2nd mortgage.

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