This Is Hot Slaw. And Cleveland, Tenn., Wants You to Love It, Too.

This Is Hot Slaw. And Cleveland, Tenn., Wants You to Love It, Too.


A spicy, yellow dollop of cabbage slaw became Tennessee’s first official state food — then everyone had to learn what it was.

WHY WE’RE HERE

We’re exploring how America defines itself one place at a time. In Cleveland, Tenn., a side dish became the main event after it gained statewide recognition.


Emily Cochrane and Audra Melton attended the annual hot slaw festival in Cleveland, Tenn., and sampled many varieties of hot slaw.

Attend a barbecue, church potluck or summer dinner in the small city of Cleveland in eastern Tennessee, and somewhere on the table, there will be a dish of hot slaw. People here slather it on hot dogs, plop it on pulled pork or simply reach for a heaping spoonful.

The rest of the state — and most of the country — does not.

So when the State Legislature named hot slaw as Tennessee’s first official state food this year, born-and-raised residents elsewhere in the state were flummoxed. What was this dish that had vaulted over Moon Pies, the hickory smoked barbecue of Memphis and Nashville’s hot chicken?



The first thing to understand about a good dollop of hot slaw, its champions will explain, is that its heat has nothing to do with its temperature. It is all about spice: a tart smack of mustard followed by the slow burn of a jalapeño pepper.

But to call it spicy coleslaw is not quite right either.

“It’s uniquely its own,” said Brad H. Benton, whose family has a distinct place in Cleveland’s hot slaw lore. And to suggest it is merely a coleslaw variation, he added, “is like saying that vanilla ice cream and chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream and Oreo ice cream are all basically the same thing.”

The new recognition, conceived by parochial lawmakers as a way to boost a city known more for its manufacturing roots, has given Cleveland the chance to tell the story of how it came to love a shockingly yellow side dish.

“I brought some levity to an otherwise serious session,” said State Senator Adam Lowe, who sheepishly admitted he had not tasted hot slaw until after he started championing the bill, and another measure that crowned Cleveland the hot slaw capital of Tennessee.

Hot slaw’s origin point in Cleveland is widely accepted as the concession stand of the Star Vue Drive-In Theater. Owned and operated by Mr. Benton’s father, Cletus H. Benton, the drive-in was the place to be for a teenager in the 1950s.

“We used to go down and eat hot dogs and they always had the coleslaw,” Sue L. Chambers, 83, reminisced over a Diet Coke and barbecue sandwich recently. “It’s just an item that you would have, that you would expect to see if you lived around here,” she added.

No one knows for sure who first concocted the theater’s recipe. One theory is that it was a byproduct of Cletus Benton’s love of spice, one sparked by a childhood spent sampling the green peppers marinating in vinegar in his mother’s ceramic pot.

Brad Benton and his sister, Holly, said they remembered as children watching workers at the Star Vue run cabbages, onions and peppers through a buffalo chopper, a metal food processor that whirled and diced the vegetables. Then, after emptying condiments into a bowl, workers would massage the ingredients together, elbows deep in mustard and cabbage.

“It’s like seeing your grandmother make biscuits — it’s something special,” the younger Mr. Benton said.

The theater is long gone. But in a city of nearly 50,000, the recipe remains, circulating and morphing among Bradley County’s matriarchs, home cooks and restaurant owners.

Here’s what most people agree on: It’s typically a mixture of finely chopped cabbage, jalapeño or some other spicy pepper, onions, mustard, maybe some mayonnaise and salt. It should crunch, without the sweetness or softness of coleslaw or chow chow.

And you can serve it with just about everything.

“Hot slaw is like a Southern salt,” said Neeley Benton Cain, Mr. Benton’s 27-year-old daughter. “It just brings out the flavors.”

Everything else is generally kept private, rather than tip off a competitor or reveal a secret ingredient.

Ross Weaver, 35, recalled being taught the recipe as a teenager working in the restaurant his father bought, The Chef. “It was a big deal to me, just because it was a Cleveland specialty,” he said, adding, “Hot slaw is Cleveland.”

Mr. Weaver, whose father learned the recipe from Star Vue staff, would only acknowledge dropping onions from the base recipe at The Chef, which he now owns.

The proprietors of Fuzz’s Hot Slaw reluctantly conceded a mixture of peppers — it is on the label, in order to sell their product in grocery stores — but stopped short of saying more.

Even having the recipe might not be enough to duplicate a delicious batch. Donna Brown, the two-time victor of the city’s amateur hot slaw contest, said her husband explains away any disappointment from friends trying her recipe by pointing to a dash of her love as the real difference.

Hot slaw has manifested in other pockets of the country. For Sandy Hood and her family in Delano, Tenn., it is pool hall slaw — a canned mixture of horseradish, jalapeños, carrots, turmeric and hot mustard, named after the venue that typically served it. Gregory Gordon, who knew it from growing up in Alabama, spent months experimenting on a new recipe to sell in Nashville.

But, thanks to the Tennessee Legislature, Cleveland can claim to be the undisputed hot slaw capital, a designation that was celebrated recently at the fourth Hot Slaw and Art Y’all Festival.

Thousands of enthusiasts — and the occasional skeptic — flocked to the city’s downtown, where all food vendors had to serve a version of hot slaw. (Dessert stands were an exception.)

Chefs stood on a makeshift “Hot Slaw Row,” watching for the right response: an eyebrow raise at the initial bite of heat, the approving nod as the burn flourished.

“We didn’t have hot slaw in Southern California,” said Donna Midyett, 67, who moved to Tennessee at the height of the pandemic. Her conclusion, after sampling smoked brats with hot slaw and bacon, was that it was “not as spicy as I was expecting.”

The festival offers hot slaw makers, both amateur and professional, the chance to face off in competition, as judges dip Ruffles potato chips and dole out bragging rights from outside the Bradley County Courthouse. (The judging this year prompted a brief philosophical discussion, as one judge could be heard asking, “What is the original intent of hot slaw?”)

And an affinity for hot slaw is tested in the hot slaw dog eating contest. The winner this year, Michael Doolin from southeastern Kentucky, said his total of 14 dogs in 10 minutes was not his best outing, given the added challenge of the slaw’s heat and texture.

“You could taste the spice to it,” said Jasmine Bargy, 14, who had her first taste of hot slaw by guzzling seven hot slaw dogs during the contest.

It is unclear, however, how soon she will try some again.



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