Food for Thought: The spicy, juicy, history of hot chicken

El Paso News

In this Friday, March 22, 2013 photo, Keith Graham sprinkles hot seasoning on an order of chicken at Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish restaurant in Nashville, Tenn. Hot chicken — fried chicken with varied amounts of seasoning that make the heat level run from mild to extra hot — is a signature dish of Nashville. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — If we are what we eat, then there’s a lot to be written about those of us who prefer our food fried with a little flame.

From popular franchise competitions between the best spicy chicken sandwich to the origin of Nashville Hot Chicken as a domestic punitive measure, spicy chicken is part of the American palette and psychology. 

Food preference is determined by cognitive mechanisms that have evolutionary benefits. For example, we’re naturally averse to foods that are spoiled or toxic, protecting us from becoming ill, while sweet foods originated from calorie-dense items that were luxuries generations ago because of the scarcity of sugar.

But why do we spice up our lives?

Preference for spicy foods isn’t so much about satisfying nutritional needs but rather because humana adapted to take advantage of the cleansing properties in plants that are spicy.

“If these chemical weapons are damaging to our bodies — as evidenced by the painful or unpleasant tastes that accompany them — it stands to reason they are also damaging to some pathogens which might reside in our food as well. Provided our bodies are better able to withstand certain doses of these harmful chemicals, relative to the microbes in our food, then eating spicy foods could represent a trade-off between the killing of food-borne pathogens against the risk of poisoning ourselves,” reports Psychology Today.

One study tested an adaptive hypothesis of spicy food across the world by examining recipes found in 93 traditional cookbooks from 36 countries.

The study found that more than 40 spices were added to meat dishes and that 93 percent of dishes called for at least one spice. The data suggests correlations between recipes from warmer climates calling for more spices in its meat dishes, most likely to preserve meat dishes from spoiling in the heat.

Spiciness in food has other evolutionary indications, such as tolerance for heat correlating to masculinity. 

A 2015 study by Pennsylvania State University looked at the ways gender and personality differences might sway a person’s influence in taste.

Researchers questioned 246 subjects on their favorite foods, administered a personality survey, and later asked subjects to sample a smorgasbord of flavor-rich foods, such as capsaicin-filled chile peppers. 

The study found that men were much more likely than women to claim to love spicy food in the survey, but the taste test revealed women reported enjoying spicy food more than men.

Other studies have associated spicy-flavored preferences to traits like risk-taking and attention seeking, which leads to Nashville Hot Chicken.

Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack is the cornerstone of hot chicken in the U.S. with an origin story as spicy and juicy as the beloved chicken itself. During the 1930s a woman in Nashville was fed up with the womanizing ways of her partner, Thornton Prince.

According to lore, Prince cheated on his partner on a Saturday night so she soaked his fried chicken in hot pepper on Sunday. Prince apparently enjoyed la douleur exquise of the chicken and decided to open up Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, which still boasts long lines for those ready to taste fire.

The same chemical properties in spices mentioned earlier that help preserve meat also cause a chemical reaction in our mouth that people find irresistible. 

Capsaicin stimulates certain receptors in the mouth that make your brain believe your mouth is on fire. We feel heat when we taste spice.

It’s obviously stressful if the brain believes any part of the body is on fire and the stress produces endorphins to help alleviate the pain/heat in the mouth, which causes the rush often felt when eating spicy food.

Whether you seek the pain or pleasure of spicy food or hot chicken, here are some places in El Paso to try:

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