Column: I went searching for hot chicken and rediscovered Nashville instead
Growing up in Nashville, I spent most of my time trying very hard to leave.
None of my teachers would have called me studious, but I crammed furiously for the SATs because I knew college was my ticket out. When the time came, I applied primarily to universities on the coasts: UCLA, NYU and Tulane. I didn’t care where exactly — I just wanted to be as far away from Tennessee as I could.
Someone has probably written a country song about this. I could cite it for you if I hadn’t felt so alienated by that culture: maybe something about a ramblin’ man and a one-way ticket on a westbound plane with a one-horse town in my rearview mirror.
So it was with some chagrin that, in 2010, four years after achieving escape velocity and settling in Los Angeles, I read in the New York Times that Nashville was one of “39 places to visit before you die.”
Seemingly as soon as I left, Nashville had become the place to be. My hometown had a new, hip moniker: “Itville.” My friends would visit and come back with fantastic stories of a wondrous land where everyone grows up eating hot chicken and life is one long bachelorette party.
These friends would invariably ask me for recommendations and my responses were always disappointing. The touchstones of a wasted childhood in the suburbs don’t make for great vacation fun. Perhaps a cherry limeade at Sonic? Captain D’s hush puppies? The Cool Springs Mall? How about one of the five or six Chinese restaurants my parents ate at on a rotation?
And so I felt a little consternation when I saw that Howlin’ Ray’s in L.A.'s Chinatown had the longest lines for food in the city. I refused to go, unable to stomach the irony of waiting in a three-hour line for Nashville hot chicken after spending most of my life trying to leave Nashville behind.
But the new Nashville was inescapable, and so was its chicken. Its legend had grown and found me in Los Angeles. It was at the grocery store, in the frozen aisle. It was a potato chip flavor. There’s a hot chicken place two miles down the street from my house. The other day a friend even asked me for my hot chicken recipe.
It was around that time that I decided I needed to go back to Nashville and get to know this new, hip place that I had grown up in with no knowledge of. So last week, I flew back to Nashville to try to see my erstwhile hometown with new eyes.
It’s been 15 years since I lived in Nashville, most of which I’ve spent falling in love with Los Angeles and making this city into my home.
I wear a Yasiel Puig jersey most weekends. I get homesick for burritos when I go abroad. I’ve become a semi-regular at a few dim sum places in the San Gabriel Valley. I have a tattoo of a map of Los Angeles on my right bicep, a Langer’s baseball cap and a Tito’s Tacos T-shirt.
Fitting in was always easier in Los Angeles because everybody here seemed to come from somewhere else. In Tennessee, it always felt like we were just pressing our noses up against the glass. We were not white nor Christian in a place where most people were.
But Nashville has changed so much since I’ve been there, and I was ready to see it with new eyes. The greater metropolitan area has grown by a half-million, with dramatic increases in Black, Latino and foreign-born populations. A tidal wave of investment has poured into the city, gentrifying multiple neighborhoods and attracting migrants from across the country and world.
I began my journey in East Nashville, where many have placed the origins of Nashville’s hipness renaissance.
East Nashville reminded me of any gentrifying neighborhood in a large city. Here, a bar with an ironic Patrick Swayze mural. There, a dive bar that serves an unexpectedly good burger. Everywhere, coffee places that make that one drink, where coffee is slowly dripped through a device that looks like a hip hourglass, full of people with more tattoos than average. In one food hall there was even a taco place selling California and Mission Style burritos.
At Hugh Baby’s, a burger place that serves burgers with pulled pork as a condiment (unsurprisingly delicious), I met Steve Haruch, a Korean American journalist and editor of the book “Greetings from New Nashville,” which has been an invaluable text for understanding Nashville’s rise.
From Steve’s book, I learned that the statue I had driven by nearly every day on I-65 was not just some dusty Civil War figure, but in fact depicted Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Also that floods and tornadoes have accelerated Nashville’s gentrification through the process of disaster capitalism.
And I learned that much of Nashville found out about hot chicken around the same time as I did. Until about 2012, there were only two restaurants, patronized primarily by Black Nashvillians, that served hot chicken.
We talked about skyrocketing home prices and how we tend to have a blind spot for the places we grow up. It turned out that Steve had left the suburbs of Chicago for Nashville for many of the same reasons I left Nashville for LA.
The next day, I went on a strip mall crawl of Nolensville Pike, a road where Nashville’s many immigrant communities make their homes.
I ate a fantastic tlayuda at Frida’s, a Oaxacan shop in the back of a paletería neighboring a Kurdish banquet hall, and found myself wondering how they sourced the stringy Oaxacan cheese quesillo all the way in Tennessee. They sold tostilocos there, a snack I first tried in Tijuana from a vendor on the long wait to cross the border back into the U.S.
I tried Turkish coffee for the first time at the Kurdish restaurant Edessa’s, where saffron rice was called “yellow rice.”
I wandered through the four loosely connected Kurdish grocery stores and strip malls that formed Little Kurdistan. I found Southeast Asian-style crawfish boils, taco places called La Michoacana and El Tapatio, and even a strip mall called Plaza Mariachi.
I felt overwhelmed with deja vu. If you look at a Google Maps image of Nolensville Pike, the only way I’d be able to tell it wasn’t Los Angeles is because east of the Mississippi, the Carl’s Jr.'s are called Hardee’s.
That night, I tried Hattie B’s hot chicken sandwich, and found that I preferred the version at Howlin’ Ray’s. The reasons I left Nashville began to feel very trivial.
If you go to enough places and you look hard enough, eventually you realize that everything is everywhere, for better or for worse.
Everything is everywhere because educated young people in hip neighborhoods want the same things and signal the same preferences to the same algorithms. Because developers take that data and respond with a repetitive pastiche of midcentury modern furniture, reclaimed barn wood and industrial chic decor.
Everything is everywhere because immigrants try to re-create our homes no matter where we settle. We all need venues to get married in, tastes of home, grocery stores and places to buy quinceañera dresses, jasmine rice and khachapuri.
Everything is everywhere because every city falls in love with the story of its own relevance, true or not.
Everything is everywhere because places are not just places any more, they are also products. History becomes the next generation‘s vibes. East Hollywood’s beloved Cha Cha Chicken becomes Cha Cha Lofts. East Nashville’s historic Hunter Station becomes Hunter Station food hall.
When you grow up in an immigrant family, one of the first things you learn is that home is not something you’re just born with. It’s something you have to go looking for.
The drive brought my parents to America from Taiwan, first to Alabama, then to Michigan, and then to Tennessee. It sent us on pilgrimages into the Deep South looking for bags of rice and xialongbao and dim sum.
I was looking for home when I left Tennessee and went to UCLA, when I became a writer and a San Gabriel Valley reporter and later resident.
It’s also true, though, that I came back to Tennessee looking for home. And I did find it, finally.
It happened around 2 a.m. last week, in a parked car in front of a Waffle House waiting for a double order of smothered hash browns. I listened to the cicadas squall, breathed in the familiar, mossy scent of wet grass and damp concrete, and wondered what life in Tennessee would be like if I had never left at all.
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