Going to KFC for Nashville Hot Chicken is like going to McDonald’s for Japanese sushi. That’s the first thought that came to me when I saw KFC’s new offering and then I wondered if “Japanese sushi” were redundant. Aside from the difference in certain ingredients what differentiates sushi in Japan from the sushi I get here in Nashville?
If the recipe’s the same would it still be Nashville (Tennessee) hot chicken if it were made in Nashville (Indiana)? It’s not like KFC—formerly Kentucky Fried Chicken—is really from Kentucky, at least not anymore.
Nashville hot chicken, by the way, is spicy fried chicken that, I think, really started to come to prominence with the 2007 start of an annual festival, although it also got a mention in 2002 on Dave Attell’s show Insomniac. He stopped and got some of the very hottest chicken at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack–where hot chicken is generally believed to have been invented–and sweated through several bites.
And that got me thinking about the fact that I can stand in my backyard and throw stones and hit restaurants that describe themselves as Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Mexican, Chinese, and Korean. Although I wouldn’t do that. If I’m going to stand in my backyard and throw stones I’m going to throw them at the squirrels and chipmunks that insist on chewing up the wiring under our cars, but that’s another story.
It’s amazing to me that I live in a neighborhood—and that, for that matter—we live in a world—where such a wide variety of cuisines are available. I love being able to go just down the street for some pho, although it frustrates me that they won’t let me order the jellyfish salad. Admittedly I understand. The waiters don’t know I’m an adventurous eater and that even though I’ve never tried jellyfish salad and can’t say whether I’ll like it I’m willing to give it a try. But I’ve been in restaurants and seen somebody of my particular ethnic group order something exotic only to start yelling, “Yuck, I can’t eat this! Take it back!”
I’m sorry to say that’s a true story. And it’s why I don’t blame the waiters when they look at me and tell me, “No, you don’t want the jellyfish salad” and bring me chicken with lemongrass instead.
This also brings to mind another pet obsession of mine: eating locally. I’m not a locavore, but as much as possible I stay away from chain restaurants. When I visit friends in other cities I sometimes drive them nuts. “Let’s go to [GENERIC CHAIN]!” they’ll say, and if you’ve ever heard anyone speak in brackets you know how disconcerting it can be. And I’ll say, “No, no, no, let’s do something local!” When I’m in an unfamiliar place I don’t want familiar food. If I could get the same thing at home what’s the point of traveling?
And yet travel is a luxury that’s not available to everyone, nor is it possible for most of us to go everywhere we’d like to go. As much as I would like to I’ll probably never get to visit Sri Lanka, but a Sri Lankan restaurant is one way to experience the culture. Or is it? Is a Sri Lankan restaurant in the middle of a US city an authentic representation of the culture? And given the increasing interconnectedness of the world and the ease of travel it’s hard to say what authentic culture really is. Going to and from work every day I travel farther than most of our ancestors would in their lifetimes. Being able to share so much with the rest of the world is a wonderful thing but I also wonder what’s being lost. Should some things be kept strictly local?