“Funky Chicken” Is a Franchise Just Waiting to Happen 

One evening last week, I was driving west on Poplar just past Mendenhall when I saw traffic backed up for a block, choking off all movement in the right lane. I thought it must be a multi-car, chain-reaction accident. It was dark, but I didn't see any blue flashing lights. I was concerned that I'd be the first on the scene and be required to help, but when I drew closer I saw the reality. A convoy of vehicles was backed up in one of the most heavily traveled streets in Memphis, waiting to go through the drive-in window to get one of those damn Chik-fil-A chicken sandwiches.

This battle of the chicken sandwiches between Popeye's and Chik-fil-A is baffling to me. Popeye's chicken is the hot "Cajun" variety, while Chik-fil-A donates to organizations like Exodus International, an "ex-gay" therapy group, and the Family Research Council, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has deemed a hate group, so they can kiss my ass regardless of how their chicken tastes.

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Without delving into antiquated racial stereotypes, Memphis should be a chicken city, not because of race but because of region. We're Southerners, and everybody, vegans and vegetarians excepted, loves their fried chicken. Some of my earliest memories are of eating Sunday "suppers" at my grandfather's house, consisting of fried chicken and butter beans. As a child, I ate drumsticks and thighs, but when I grew to be a man, I put away childish things and switched to breasts and wings, the juicy parts.

So in a chicken-enamored city like Memphis, how did we allow Nashville to claim the rights to some aberration called Nashville "Hot" Chicken? What's next, Nashville-Style Bar-B-Q? I could eat fried chicken six days a week and rest on the seventh, but unfortunately, my ZIP code seems bereft of chicken that isn't "hot and spicy." I feel as if I'm living in the middle of a chicken desert.

I never got the whole "hot" chicken thing. That's why I don't go to Popeye's. Hot "Cajun" chicken is just a bastardization of the real thing. A couple of years ago, word of mouth was all about Gus's. I heard about all these flavors bursting in your mouth and how people could not get enough of it. So I bought some with great anticipation and after the roof of my mouth was set aflame, I tossed the rest. If you want your chicken hot, do what my wife does — fry it in the usual way and put hot sauce on it like a normal person who was raised here. That way, your chicken isn't saturated with chili powder, or whatever the hell they use, and you can heat it to your palate.

I like my chicken fried and extra crispy, which brings KFC to mind. I kept going there and asking for breasts and wings extra crispy, and they'd always say, "Can you wait 15 minutes while we fry up another batch?" I said, "It's dinnertime. Don't you people sell chicken here?" For a while, I thought I'd solved the problem. I skipped the drive-thru, went in, and found a kindly counter-person. When she promptly delivered my order, I tipped her, considerably. She looked shocked as if it never happened before. I asked her just to remember me, and consequently, I received fresh, crispy chicken every visit and tipped her each time because doesn't the word "tips" mean "to insure prompt service?"

I was living in a fool's paradise however because one day she wasn't there anymore and I was once again asked if I minded waiting 15 minutes. So, I've given up on KFC.

A colleague of mine once told me, "Church's Chicken is the shit." Maybe so, maybe not. I used to drive to Bartlett just to get some Mrs. Winner's chicken. The intersection of Sycamore View and Summer Avenue was like a chicken paradise with every franchise represented, but Mrs. Winner's was the juiciest. One day, I drove the distance only to find my Mrs. Winner's had turned into an Exxon, and I refuse to buy chicken from a gas station.

I've always loved Jack Pirtle's chicken, but the closest one is a good drive away. When cable TV was still in its infancy, I had a ritual. Every Saturday, I drove to Pirtle's on Highland, got a mess of chicken, took it home, and dined while watching Georgia Championship Wrestling. I even learned to walk up to the window, bypassing the long drive-thru lines. But they took Georgia Wrestling off the air, and I moved away, making my trips to Pirtle's difficult. I'm told on good authority that the best day to get Pirtle's chicken is Thursday when they change the grease. And besides, Cordell and Tawanda Pirtle are lovely people. Every other chicken joint near me is a chain, so we've been getting our yardbird from Superlo or Kroger, each having their own taste, but not like home-cooked.

We haven't tried Uncle Lou's, balking at the "sweet and spicy" slogan, or Hattie B's Hot Chicken, a carpetbagger franchise from Nashville. We have yet to try out Joes', who advertise their chicken is marinated in secret sauce for 24 hours. Do me a favor. Rub some salt and pepper on it, add some flour, and drop it in a skillet of sizzling Wesson cooking oil, which is manufactured in Memphis. Keep your "hot and spicy" and "Cajun styled." Just serve me up some good old Southern fried chicken, like the kind they serve at the Loveless Motel in Nashville.

If I had the funds, or if someone would like to back me, a stretch of Summer Avenue is begging for a decent chicken joint. My idea, pending copyright, is to approach the first family of Memphis music, Vaneese and Carla Thomas, and ask permission to use their father's name. Then I'd start a chain of down-home restaurants and call it "Rufus Thomas' Funky Chicken." We could decorate the place with Rufus' stage outfits. People would come from all over the world just to see his hot-pink short-pants getup. The chicken would just be gravy. "You'll flap your arms and your feet will start kickin' when you eat Rufus Thomas' Funky Chicken. Now, did you heard me?"

Randy Haspel writes the "Recycled Hippies" blog.

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