Meet the American who gave us Nashville hot chicken, Thornton Prince, man of many passions.
Blistering culinary trend boasts salacious origin story of jilted lovers, revenge, steamy oil and fried chicken
Variety, they say, is the spice of life.
Tennessee tastemaker Thornton Prince was living proof.
A legendary local lothario in early 20th-century Nashville, Prince possessed an appetite for fried chicken — and the ladies.
His passions have made him a legend in American culinary circles.
Prince is the king of Nashville hot chicken.
A blistering food trend across the United States today, Nashville hot chicken comes with a bawdy origin story as hot and spicy as the steamy oil used to bathe Prince’s poultry.
“He was a loving man and he wasn’t bad on the eyes either,” great-grandniece, family historian and Los Angeles hot chicken chef Kim Prince told Fox News Digital.
Born outside Nashville three decades after the Civil War, Prince was gifted with knee-buckling good looks, penetrating eyes, a lean build, a winning smile and a charismatic personality, by all accounts.
Women loved him. And he loved them back.
He was married five times and dallied with many other ladies along the way, according to sources.
“He was a loving man and he wasn’t bad on the eyes either.” — Kim Prince
One of those spurned lovers, according to oft-told lore, sought revenge by spicing up Prince’s favorite fried chicken — secretly, of course — with an intolerable amount of cayenne pepper.
Prince got the last teary-eyed laugh. The pig farmer, jack of all trades and man of many passions loved the rocket-fueled fried chicken.
He began selling it out of his home, fried in lard in deep cast-iron pots, just before or during the Great Depression.
He and his brothers eventually opened a restaurant, the legendary BBQ Chicken Shack, around the time of World War II. (There are conflicting reports about the actual year.)
The scorned lady friend has been lost to history, known in hot-chicken coops of gossip today as “Girlfriend X.”
The story sounds too contrived and salacious to be true — as if born out of steamy southern-fried fiction, complete with mysterious vengeful lover.
Yet the story is the real deal, said Nashville native and historian Rachel Louise Martin, author of the 2021 book, “Hot, Hot Chicken: A Nashville Story.”
“The man really got himself around. He really was married all those times,” Martin told Fox News Digital.
“He had multiple other girlfriends and there were several angry women in his past who might have tried to teach him a lesson.”
Thornton Prince, it turns out, may have cheated one of those women not once, but twice.
Grandson of a slave
Thornton James Prince was born near Franklin, Tennessee, on an unknown day in December 1892, according to records uncovered by historian Martin.
His parents, Thornton and Mary (Maury) Prince, were born in the years immediately after the Civil War. At least one grandparent, his maternal grandmother, Ann Currine, was an enslaved cook on the land in which her culinary legend grandson was born.
“He was tall, good-looking and handsome,” Prince’s grandniece, Andre Prince Jeffries, told Fox News Digital.
Known around Nashville as Miss Andre today, she took over the original BBQ Chicken Shack in 1980 and renamed it Prince’s Hot Chicken “to recognize the family.”
Prince’s Hot Chicken now has multiple locations and is revered as the true taste of original Nashville hot-chicken. It has become in recent years a destination for culinary tourists from around the world.
“There were several angry women in his past who might have tried to teach him a lesson.” — Rachel Louise Martin
Miss Andre is old enough to remember the Prince of poultry.
“He was pleasant to look at. I remember that even when he was an old man and I was child. He had beautiful white hair and he was jolly, just like Santa Claus. He was full of laughs,” said Miss Andre.
She’s become a Nashville legend and de facto ambassador of the Music City’s southern hospitality and hot chicken history.
Prince was born into a culture in which chicken played an essential role, stemming from an era when poultry was the only livestock slaves could own.
“Often called the preacher’s bird or the gospel fowl, echoing its sacred role among West Africans, slaves and their descendants laid the foundation for America’s love with the chicken that is now spreading around the world,” historian Andrew Lawler wrote in his 2014 book, “Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization.”
Girlfriend X provided the entrepreneurial Prince with an exciting new way to enjoy the common chicken dinner.
“Nashville hot chicken needs two things. Great Southern fried chicken and it needs to be dunked in hot melted spice,” Brian Morris, executive chef of Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, said in a promotional video for the 11-year-old Nashville chicken chain.
He calls it a “whirlpool of love with a touch of heat.”
The basic formula is the same at every hot-chicken hotspot. But the spice mixture can vary dramatically from location to location — and to create different levels of heat.
“Nashville hot chicken needs two things. Great Southern fried chicken and it needs to be dunked in hot melted spice” — Chef Brian Morris, Hattie B’s
“The Prince recipe we hold closely to death,” said great-grandniece Kim Prince, who still speaks with her Tennessee accent despite living and working in Los Angeles, where she serves the family’s original recipe under the name Hotville Chicken.
“We’ve always wanted to tell the story,” she added, “in our own Prince family twang.”
Nashville hot chicken ‘ours and ours alone’
The story of Nashville hot chicken was, for at least a half century, told only in that Prince family Tennessee twang — and known only in the black Nashville neighborhoods served by the BBQ Chicken Shack as it moved from location to location.
Nashville hot chicken’s dramatic rise as a national phenomenon has unfolded suddenly here in the 21st century — perhaps not coincidentally with Nashville’s recent explosion as one of the fastest-growing cities in America.
The city’s population has grown more than 20% over the past decade, just as hot chicken gained national and now international prestige.
Author Martin witnessed the rise of Nashville hot chicken in the blink of an education.
The Nashville native left the sleepy Music City for college in 2006 — having never heard of its namesake piquant poultry.
She returned after graduate school in 2013 to a booming city filled with newcomers from across the country seeking mild winters and affordable prices and where, Martin said, “everybody was talking about hot chicken.”
Local poultry pundits credit its national ascension to the first Nashville Hot Chicken Festival, held in 2006.
A wave of glitzy new hot chicken eateries soon opened in its wake, often well-funded with marketing budgets the Prince family never had.
Hattie B’s opened in 2012 and now boasts six locations in and around Nashville and six more around the country, including Las Vegas.
Party Fowl opened in 2014 and has six locations, mostly in Tennessee.
“Please wash your hands before rubbing your eyes or your babies.” — Warning at Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish
Hot chicken is now served at breakfast, lunch and dinner across Nashville, and has found its way onto the menu at sports bars and high-end dining spots.
Party Fowl offers hot chicken Cuban sandwiches, hot chicken tacos and hot chicken queso, among many other choices.
Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish, a no-frills cinder-block hut in East Nashville, opened in the 1980s.
It’s a beloved local landmark and one of the few eateries in town that served hot chicken before it was cool. Bolton’s offers what many believe is the hottest chicken in town — in any town.
“Please wash your hands before rubbing your eyes or your babies,” warns a sign above the order window.
Hot chicken now defines the Music City in ways even its traditional American tunes and songwriters have not.
“Nashville is also the home of country music. But nobody calls it Nashville country music,” former mayor Bill Purcell told Fox News Digital.
“But they do call it Nashville hot chicken. It’s the only indigenous food in the city. The only food invented here and nowhere else.”
Nashville hot chicken, Purcell beamed, “Is ours and ours alone.”
Search for Girlfriend X
Thornton Prince died of cerebral thrombosis on Feb. 15, 1960. He was 67 years old.
He’s buried at Boyd Cemetery in Franklin, Tennessee, said Kim Prince, not far from where he was born and where his grandmother once lived in bondage.
Nashville hot chicken is served coast to coast, adopted by entrepreneurs far removed from Tennessee.
Dave’s Hot Chicken, based in California, was founded in 2017. It’s opened nearly 100 hot chicken eateries from Hollywood to Times Square in the six years since.
“I don’t think there’s been any new category in the food business that’s created more excitement over the years than hot chicken.” — Dave’s Hot Chicken CEO Bill Phelps
The newest Dave’s Hot Chicken opens Friday (Oct. 20) in Massachusetts.
“I don’t think there’s been any new category in the food business that’s created more excitement over the years than hot chicken,” Dave’s Hot Chicken CEO Bill Phelps told Fox News Digital last year.
Hot chicken purists, including members of the Prince family, recognize that their poultry patriarch did not invent what’s now a nationwide phenomenon.
That honor belongs to mysterious Girlfriend X.
Historian Martin identifies five women in “Hot, Hot Chicken: A Nashville Story” linked to romances with Prince, one of whom she believes is the true but unwitting inventor of an all-American taste treasure.
Caroline Bridges, Gertrude Claybrook, Mattie Crutcher, Mattie Hicks and Jennie May Patton, each long deceased, are the likely double-crossed lovers who would have been tempted to seek revenge via hot chicken on the insatiable Prince.
Purcell, the hot chicken enthusiast and former mayor, believes the final chapter in the Nashville hot chicken story is still to be written.
“The woman who first cooked the chicken, Girlfriend X, is lost to history,” Purcell said. “But she did indeed invent this thing.”