Growing up, I never understood the phrase “southern charm.” Everything I knew about the South came from episodes of Duck Dynasty or progressive history lessons on the Civil War. Not to be dismissive, but the South didn’t come out looking so hot. By the time I graduated high school, I had developed a damning mental picture of the South: old plantation homes, segregation, and angry preachers jabbing their fingers in the air.
If I didn’t understand the South, I certainly didn’t want to understand southern cooking. I come from San Francisco, home to farm-to-table restaurants and hipster startups. It’s a hotbed for food snobbery, and as an avid eater and cook, I learned to appreciate certain foods: those that were fresh, local, trendy, and dear god, not fried. With these culinary blinders up, I wrote off all southern cooking as greasy and overdone. I watched Trisha’s Southern Kitchen with a smirk. I rolled my eyes as Paula Deen added another stick of butter to the pan. When Chick-Fil-A opened a restaurant in my town, I bristled.
Despite this southern aversion, I couldn’t avoid the South. Jetblue’s travel deals beckoned, and before I could say “Anchor Down,” I had booked a plane ticket to Nashville for Spring Break.
To be clear, I didn’t intend on having my world cracked open. I came for the live music and Tennessee sunshine. But I had underestimated Nashville and the slow magic of southern cooking.
I knew I was in foreign territory as soon as the plane landed. Country music boomed from the airport speakers, and Jason Aldean’s voice welcomed us to Music City. On our second night in Nashville, we ate at Party Fowl, a restaurant famous for hot chicken. While fried chicken is gospel in the South, hot chicken is a Nashville original.
It’s pretty simple. You take fried chicken and coat it in cayenne, brown sugar, chili powder, garlic powder, and paprika. Restaurants such as Prince’s, Hattie B’s, and Party Fowl serve it atop a thick slice of white bread. As a girl raised on grilled chicken and sourdough bread, I was dubious. But I was also hungry. I ordered the chicken tenders, medium heat. Our server, Jake, had a red Party Fowl cap perched atop a flowing mullet. He told us we were in for a treat.
When I bit down on my hot chicken, I nearly cried. Whether it was the quick burn of cayenne pepper or the crunch of the fried chicken, I’m not sure. Either way, I was hooked. The meat was tender and juicy, as fresh as chicken can be beneath a layer of grease and flour. I cried my way through four more chicken tenders, waving Jake on as he refilled my water glass every three minutes.
“How are y’all doing?” he drawled out, a concerned look on his face. Clearly not all Party Fowl guests cried over their chicken.
My eyes brimmed with tears. I wiped them away with burnt-red hands, covered in hot sauce, and smiled up at him. Maybe southern charm came from this very restaurant, covered in flour and deep-fried to a golden crisp.
The next night, we ate at Peg Leg Porkers, a barbecue restaurant that specializes in everything pork. After Party Fowl, I was ready for another revelatory experience. I ordered a half-rack of ribs, dry rubbed and slow roasted, and a side of smoked green beans and mac and cheese.
As I gnawed on each glorious rib, I thought of summer barbecues in California and my dad’s homemade ribs. I breathed in the smoky aroma, more alluring than any perfume. If food can transport you, then this dinner brought me home, filling me with a sense of comfort and warmth. While I finished up my rack, a man in a camouflage baseball hat and faded jeans walked by. He caught my eye and gave me a solemn nod. I saluted the rack of ribs on his plate and bore back down on mine.
I came back from Nashville a changed woman. I still like my roasted veggies, my sushi, and my arugula salad, but now I dream of smoky pork, hot grits, and a biscuit on the side. I can still hear Jake’s slow, reassuring drawl asking, “How are y’all doing?”
I may not have decoded the South, but I came out of the trip with a clearer picture of a complicated place. And I learned a hidden truth: for every angry preacher, there’s a server like Jake; for every Paula Deen, there’s a Peg Leg Porker. We aren’t so different, Southerners and I. We want our chicken hot and our pork falling off the bone, and we wouldn’t mind a little sweet tea, thank you very much.
Spring Break has come and gone. We have sat in airports and on beaches. Our Spring Break bods have been destroyed by mixed drinks and fried chicken. I hope we all came back a little humbled, a little kinder, or maybe just a little tanner. And when we plan our next trip (summer is just a few months away), I hope we choose somewhere new. Somewhere that challenges our preconceived notions. Somewhere below the Mason-Dixon line.
Who knows? You might just find yourself crying in Party Fowl and praying to have an ounce of southern charm.
Featured Image by Meg Dolan / Heights Editor