Nashville, Tennessee

The Chicken and the Egg: A Breakup Story

By Jennifer Justus

I doubt eHarmony would have called us a match.

He had been a vegetarian for 15 years. I’m a food writer, who 15 minutes into our first date told a story about killing a farm chicken by taking a knife to its throat. Not exactly my best first impression.

But I didn’t know at the time that he was a vegetarian, and he didn’t know City House was my favorite restaurant when he suggested it. So despite our differences, the courtship took off in a sizzle like bacon fat on a hot pan. Within a couple months, he had even made a declaration that went beyond changing Facebook status: He wanted to eat meat again.

“If we don’t work out,” he warned, “I’ll be standing outside your house like John Cusack in 'Say Anything.' But instead of holding up a boombox, I'll be holding up a ham.”

Then he followed that bold statement with another one. He didn’t just plan to eat any old meat to break his streak. He wanted to start strong and with another favorite – Nashville-style hot chicken.

That’s when the record scratched.

Nashville hot chicken —  in its purist form — is no joke. Cooks have been frying up the bird in Music City for decades and caking it in a brownish-red cayenne paste until it looks like a rock from the surface of Hell. I’ve seen it bring burly, lifelong meat-eaters to a whimper. And when I took Chef Thomas Keller to Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack on assignment, I watched in terror as a tear rolled down his cheek. Then he went in for another bite.

Hot chicken, I figured, is a lot like love. It hurts. But once you taste it, you can’t help but go back.

As legend goes it originated, after all, when the scorned lover of Thornton Prince III created a dish to burn the man who had come home late a time too many. She meant it to be revenge. Instead, he loved it. Prince developed his own recipe and eventually opened Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, which has been a staple as it moved from various locations across the city spawning spin-offs and homages. Celebrity chef and Nashville native Carla Hall will soon serve hot chicken at her Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen in Brooklyn, for example, and even KFC recently launched a “Nashville Hot Chicken.”

But my new beau wouldn’t settle for anything less than the original, so as we scooted into a booth at Prince’s, I worried that he was biting off more than he could handle. I suggested he just have a taste of mine. But he wanted his own bird, and he took it down to the bone.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, really. His approach to the chicken was how he came at our relationship — all-in from the start.

“It’s like in 'When Harry Met Sally,'” he told me, dropping his second ’80s movie reference of the relationship. “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”

I still wasn’t so sure. I’d just gotten out of a decade-long relationship. I wasn’t looking for anything serious. So he tried to distract me from my fear with food. He hosted hot sauce challenges for the two of us and cooked late-night, “Chopped”-style snacks from what he could forage from the fridge. Despite our culinary backgrounds, we bonded quickly over food from the beginning. And before the chicken — came the egg. The morning after our first date, my phone buzzed early with a text:

I’m going for eggs. I can go with or without u (prefer with)

I didn’t join him that morning, but I did many times later for eggs with jalapenos for breakfast or poached in spicy tomatoes with garlic and oregano for dinner. I learned that he likes his scrambled. I prefer fried. We graduated to eggs ordered at Waffle Houses on road trips.

He graduated, too, from eggs to chicken to beef. I watched him eat his first steak after 15 years, and I can positively say I've never witnessed such a physical reaction to a food experience.

After taking a few bites of steak, his eyes began to water. He removed his glasses and fanned himself and spoke of his childhood. He noted that his teeth might be watering, and he proclaimed himself high. And then he asked (while lifting a forkful to his mouth): "When can I eat steak again?"

"You're eating it now," I reminded him.

From that night forward, we instituted a monthly steak night, and named them like Playboy centerfolds:

  • The April Steak (filet at The Palm)
  • The May Steak (a ribeye on the grill at home)
  • The June Steak (a New York strip at Sportsman’s Grille)

We were having a blast. I was smitten – and petrified. Now that he had me, I couldn’t have been more worried that a man I never intended to seriously date would up and fly away. I had been part of a marriage unraveling. Now he was here, and it was all too unexpected. Deep down, I figured I didn’t deserve him. That throwing in the towel on a marriage means you don’t get a second chance in the ring.

I asked a therapist about my clingy state of panic. “So what I’m hearing you say,” he said, his Sedona style and voice like a trickling brook, “is you feel fear, and you want that fear to go away?”

I gave him a bobblehead “yes.”

“Can’t help with you that,” he said.

Fear, suffering, pain – on some level – will always be there, he told me. We just have to learn how to live with it. Go boldly and trust. Eat the hot chicken, in other words, and deal with the consequences if and when they come.

Of course that didn’t change things instantly, which is what makes this a break-up story. My man broke up with vegetarianism, and I’m still trying to break up with my insecurities in love and in life. I’m looking to stop chasing the illusion of steady ground. Taking it all one breakfast at a time.

As it turns out, I’m the one playing John Cusack. Not because my love has left me, but because he could, and I need to be OK with that. I’m not holding a boombox or a ham either — just a single egg, trying not to squeeze too hard.