It used to be that any time I drove through Nashville I would make sure to stop at Ham n’ Goodys in the West End, a very southern bakery that sold…wait for it…ham sandwiches and goodies, i.e. cookies and cakes. My favorite thing there was the glazed tea cake, a round cookie about the size of a child’s head, dunked in a sweet glaze that I presume was made of confectioners sugar and cream. The tea cake itself was tender, soft, and tasted mostly of butter, sugar, and vanilla. The first time I had one, on the insistence of a friend who lived in Nashville, I thought, “yeah, it’s good. But not amazing.” But an hour later I wanted another. The tea cakes were quietly, subtly addictive. Luckily I had bought a dozen, so I could indulge, and indulge, and indulge…
I started developing a Pavlovian craving for tea cakes every time I got near Music City. I would always buy a dozen, plus some of their lemon cookies, and eat one every few hours while on the road. And then, a few years ago while passing through, I tried to go to Ham n’ Goody’s and discovered the Nashville location had been closed. (There is still one in Knoxville, thank God.)
Nashville lost its appeal after that.
But that’s because I didn’t know enough about it! My editor is from Nashville, so when she heard that I was going to her hometown over the weekend of Oct. 12 and 13th, to participate in the Southern Festival of Books, she had two recommendations: I should eat at the Loveless Cafe, and I should see the puppets at the downtown public library. I had one other item on my Nashville bucket list: Eat hot chicken at Prince’s.
I first heard about Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack from an article I read in the Oxford American, about a man who dared to order the stuff, “VERY HOT,” something that is advised against even by those who cook it. Prince’s, you see, comes in four flavors–mild, medium, hot, and very hot–and the mild is spicy enough to get your endorphins going. Legend has it that eating the “very hot” could require medical intervention.
I didn’t need to show my chutzpah by eating the chicken very hot, I just wanted to eat the chicken. Because in addition to being spicy, Prince’s chicken was supposed to be damn good. I didn’t really think we’d get a chance to go though, because usually at book festivals you tend to stay around the area of the events, and schmooze with others, and go hear people’s panels, and not really explore the city all that much. And then a friend of mine, Kelly Alexander, emailed to say she’d be in town for the festival, and did I want to get dinner? Kelly is a food writer, and a cookbook author, and a foodie, and she thinks about food a lot, so, when I suggested Prince’s she immediately jumped on it, saying she’d been wanting to go there for years.
We went after the author party on Saturday night. Kelly’s friend Miriam, also a food writer, went with us, along with Sam. Prince’s is only a few miles away from downtown Nashville, in what is probably a bit of a rough area, at least judging by the fellow standing in front of the restaurant wearing a gun. (I think he was restaurant security, but I’m not positive.) The restaurant itself was packed with families with children, couples, and friends. The lady who takes orders helped us figure out what we were doing, as there is a system in place at Prince’s, and we didn’t yet know it. (You don’t get your soda till they bring you your chicken, for example, and you have to wait on the chicken for about 30 minutes after ordering it. They are busy, after all, and I think they fry the birds to order.)
We sat and waited and talked and I got to know Kelly and Miriam better. They are both delightful. Miriam once cooked for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York which just impressed the hell out of me. Finally our order number was called, 88, and Kelly let out an audible cheer. Sam went to get the chicken. What he placed before me was a sight to behold. I had ordered the breast, mild. It sat upon a slice of white bread with a dusting of red pepper (cayenne?) and salt on the bread itself. The breast included the wing, and the whole thing was topped with two dill pickles. (What is it that makes pickles go so well with fried chicken?) The crust was thick, substantial, and a deep, dark brown. I cut into the chicken, put the piece in my mouth, and oh my Lord. It was the best fried chicken I have ever eaten.
Listen, I grew up in Georgia, and have eaten A LOT of fried chicken. I make it myself, following Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock’s recipe, brining it first in salt water then buttermilk, and it is delicious, really, really good, but not as good as Prince’s. Prince’s chicken was moist, juicy, and flavorful, but even better was the crust. It was so salty and spicy and crispy. All I wanted to do was eat the crust, and I’m one of those annoying southern lady eaters who usually only allows myself half the crust on a piece of fried chicken for fear of fat and calories. Not this time, man. I ate everything on my plate other than the bones. All the skin, all the meat, all the bread soaked with meat juices and spices, all the pickles. When I finished, I wanted to order another plate–but refrained. I turned to Sam, “If they’re open tomorrow, let’s go back before we head home.” Sam readily agreed. But we looked at the hours of operation, and Prince’s is closed Sundays and Mondays. Turned out by going on a Saturday night, we’d made it just in the knick of time.
I used to go to Nashville for the tea cakes, but they have nothing on the addictive nature of Prince’s. Because listen, I’m getting hungry for their fried chicken just from writing this entry. And the terrible thing is, I live four hours away from the restaurant! I’m going to have to figure out a way to fix the stuff myself, but I don’t imagine I’ll ever make anything as good as the real thing. And oh my God, if their anti-gay corporate policies didn’t already do it for them, Chick-fil-A would really be put to shame by Prince’s.
I forgot to go see the puppets that my editor told me about. And we couldn’t get to the Lonesome Cafe in time before my event. So I guess I need to go back to Nashville to do those things, huh? Like, soon. I’ll just make sure not to go on a Sunday or a Monday. Nashville, I hear you calling my name.