Monday, January 9, 2017

Nashville Hot Chicken Sandwich

THE GAME: Alabama vs Clemson

There has pretty much never been a fast food item to which I have looked forward as much as I did KFC's "Nashville Hot Chicken" at the beginning of last year. I mean, it's not like there's a particularly long list; there have only been three, maybe four fast food items that I've heard about and looked forward to. 

But this was definitely at the top of that short list. And I can't even explain why. I'd never had any version of it before. 

In fact, I've never really spent any time in Nashville. 

Technically, I spent a couple of hours there when I was 21... in the Nashville Greyhound station, catching a bus from Tennessee to Denver. I could explain the circumstances or I could just chalk it up to another one of those adventures I had in my misspent youth. 

At any rate, I spent the entirety of my stay in Nashville sitting on a black duffel bag on the bus station floor, reading Blood Meridian, and listening to a deranged man lecture on God and the Devil. I ate a hot dog that contained crunchy bits, a police officer told me I was only the second white man he'd seen in the station all week (the deranged preacher was the first), and at one point a 70-year-old toothless woman offered me a handjob for two dollars. 

It was, obviously, one of the top 5 afternoons of my life. 

But there was no Hot Chicken involved.

And then a year ago I heard about this KFC limited-time-offer and was determined to try it. So the day it came out, I arrived at KFC at about 11:00 in the morning. I was worried I would be the first customer and look kind of pathetic. 

There was already a line of people and at least a half-dozen cars in the drive-through. 

This is what I received:

The sauce was not bad, and spicier than I ever anticipated an insipid chain like KFC to produce, but the chicken was terrible, even by KFC's standards. Rubbery, tasteless chicken that had been sitting on a rack long enough to absorb lines running through the breading like lines on a football field. 

I tried it again twice more - I really wanted to like this dish. But it just wasn't good. 

In the spring, Howlin' Ray's opened in Chinatown and immediately became one of the hottest restaurants to open in Los Angeles in years. My friends Raymond, Melissa and I planned an afternoon trip in the summer, but something came up for two of us and we couldn't make it. 

That evening, out of curiosity, I went on Instagram to see what kind of lines we would have encountered had we gone. It would have been at least a two-hour wait. On a Wednesday afternoon. 

I wanted to try that chicken... but not that much. So I put it out of my mind. 

Fast forward a few months to this past weekend. My teenage cousin was visiting and she mentioned a fried chicken sandwich we'd made together three years ago when she stayed with me in New York City, where I was living at the time. She asked if we could do something like that again. 

It all came together. "Yes," I said. "We sure can. I will make mine a hot chicken sandwich."

What better occasion than the college football National Championship Game? As with Game 7 of the World Series, this is a bittersweet moment: It's the pinnacle of the season, but it also means college football is disappearing until Labor Day. 

(Pitchers and catchers report in 33 days, for those of you keeping track.)

NOTES ON THE FOOD: 
  • I soaked pieces of chicken in buttermilk for 24 hours. Buttermilk is loaded with calcium, which interacts with enzymes in poultry to break down the fibers and tenderize the meat. 
  • I shook off the buttermilk, dipped the chicken pieces in flour, then in egg wash, and into a fried chicken mix. 
  • I used a mix from Sylvia's, the legendary Harlem restaurant. It might not be the best mix I've ever used, but it's how we made our chicken sandwiches in Brooklyn three years ago, so I figured the symmetry would be appropriate. 
  • Once I fried the two breasts, I set them on rack while I mixed up the hot sauce: cayenne, paprika, garlic powder, brown sugar, chili powder, and oil. 
  • I rolled the breast around in the sauce until every nook and cranny was covered. 
  • A handful of pickles and a "Mississippi Comeback Sauce," like Howlin' Rays uses: mayo, lemon juice, chili sauce, Worcestershire, hot sauce, paprika, garlic, and pepper. I didn't go too heavy on this sauce; I just wanted something creamy and cool to balance the extreme spice of the hot sauce. 
  • All of it went on a brioche bun. 
  • This was spectacular. There is more than 97% of the year left, but I'm not sure I will make a better sandwich in 2017.

NOTES ON THE GAME:
  • I enjoyed hearing the announcers talk about how mild and "perfect" the weather is when it's 56º at Raymond James Stadium. It's 57º where I am and I'm wearing a hooded sweatshirt and sitting next to a blazing fireplace. (Remember in L.A. Story when the temperature drops down to 58º and Steve Martin does a special report on it? Underrated movie.) 
  • At what point will college bands stop with the whole 'Seven Nation Army' thing? Does it really fire up a fan base when 85% of bands use it now? 
  • If you're going to go for it on 4th-and-1 against this Alabama defense, is it really a good idea to run a play behind the line of scrimmage? Shouldn't you be trying to go downfield? Am I way off base here?
  • Bo Scarbrough not only has a great name for a running back, but he's just fun to watch. He punishes defenders. That's how I was in college. Actually, that's a lie; I didn't play college football. But that is how I approached Techmo Bowl in the late-80s. 
  • Clemson doesn't look bad, they just look out of sync. I guess Bama's defense can do that to you. 
  • Huge fumble by Watson. I know this is the National Championship game and there is no such thing as a "little" turnover, but Clemson absolutely cannot committ unforced turnovers and expect to have any chance to win. [Ed. note: My bad, I guess they can.]
  • Another Scarbrough touchdown. I don't think Clemson can outscore Bama by 15 in the second half. They have to put up some points before halftime. 
  • Right on cue, Watson leads a 90-second, 87-yards drive for a touchdown.
  • Similar to the NFL game yesterday, the Clemson receiver fielded a punt he should have just let go. It pinned Clemson inside their own five. A beautiful throw from Watson on third down bailed them out.  
  • Clemson has 20 more yards than Alabama at the half. I never would have guessed that. 
  • 66 seconds into the half, Bama with another takeaway, and they turn it into 3 points. It's not over for Clemson yet, but they need to do something on offense. (Other than turn the ball over again.)
  • With three minutes left in the 3rd quarter, Bama stopped Watson's run just shy of a first down. That could be the play of the game. 
  • Sure enough, Bama comes back with a 68-yard TD to their tight end. A complete defensive breakdown on Clemson's part - especially considering Alabama did it to them twice in last year's game. (Though personally speaking, that's my favorite offensive play in all of football.) 
  • Touchdown, Clemson. A three point game with 14 minutes to play. This is getting really good. 
  • Clemson had a nice drive going but the refs missed a PI on Alabama, a Clemson receiver had a ball hit him in the hands and Clemson had to punt. It's hard not to think that they just let their best chance slip away. 
  • Actually, Clemson then held Bama to three-and-out and got the ball back with six minutes left. Okay, this time I'm serious: they HAVE to do something now. 
  • And Clemson scores a touchdown to take their first lead of the game. 
  • That's fourteen 4th-quarter points for Clemson tonight. Alabama hadn't allowed any 4th-quarter points in its last eight games, which is a stat so amazing I don't even know how to put it into context. 
  • Alabama goes right down the field and takes back the lead. Clemson with the ball back and two minutes on the clock. This is as good as it gets. 
  • Clemson scores with one second left in the game to win their first National Championship in 35 years. 
  • Can you really be "the greatest college defense of all time" if you give up 21 4th-quarter points in the championship game? 
  • Any chance for a trilogy next January?

1 comment:

  1. That game just got better and better as it progressed. I sat in the cold car listening to the end of the second quarter on AM radio before picking up my daughter from her Gran's place. I felt very much like a father of old. A hot sandwich would have been a nice addition.

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