If you grew up enjoying Buffalo chicken wings and spent any time away from Western New York, there’s a good chance you’ve experienced The Hunger. It’s often triggered by some poor innocent soul hearing you were from Buffalo, and just trying to be friendly.
“Hey, I know a place around here where you can get Buffalo wings,” they might say. Leaving you grasping for a response less acidic than “No, you don’t.”
After growing up outside of Rochester, Matt Reynolds found himself working for Reuters in Bratislava, Slovakia, a place with zero wing joints. Not even a Hooters.
In desperation, he started making his own wings, using airlifted Frank’s Red Hot and the best chicken wings he could find. He watched his friends’ faces light up as they finally got what he had been going on and on about wings. They understood what he had known seemingly forever: Buffalo wings are world-class.
One night, after wings and strong drink, Reynolds and some filmmaker friends hatched a plan. They would travel to America in search of the best Buffalo wings, with a panel of judges rating each stop. The cameras would roll as they homed in on the epitome of the iconic American dish.
“The Great Chicken Wing Hunt,” filmed in 2007, has its Buffalo premiere starting Friday in the Market Arcade Film & Arts Centre (639 Main St.) in conjunction with this weekend’s National Buffalo Wing Festival at Coca-Cola Field.
In the documentary, Reynolds leads a crew of die-hard wing lovers through 72 wing joints, stopping only to win a saucemaking contest at the Buffalo wing festival. The Slovak crew and his long-suffering Czech girlfriend, Lucie, tag along and ask sensible questions like: What kind of person eats chicken wings at 12 places in one day?
On their journey, the cameras capture moments that elevate the documentary from the realm of obsessive food porn and “reality” television to something approaching art.
When the crew reaches the end of the road, at Buffalo’s Anchor Bar, the questions they grapple with would engage wing lovers anywhere. When is a wing no longer a Buffalo wing? Does it have to be defined by Frank’s Red Hot and butter, or can a dramatically different sauce still be a Buffalo wing?
Must the Buffalo wing stay frozen in time and taste to stay true to itself, or can it evolve without losing its greatness?
The answers Reynolds and gang arrive at may outrage some viewers. But there’s no doubt they put in the hours, the indigestion, the indelible sauce stains. They earned the right to hold forth on wing wisdom.
Reynolds, who will host discussion sessions after screenings at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, took a few minutes to talk about the movie from his home in Flushing.
So this all started with a bunch of people hungry after drink. Like so many chicken wing stories.
I was making wings for my new friends, Slovaks and Poles, introducing a lot of people to wings for the first time.
There’s something about wings, they’re such a social, communal food, and they generate such enthusiasm in people. These parties became very popular events in my circle of friends in Bratislava, and one night late we were drinking and we thought it would be neat to have a wing tour of upstate New York. It went from there.
Beware the documentarian on the prowl for ideas.
They thought it was interesting how into wings I was, and the more they talked about it, the notion of wings being one of the first uniquely American foods to conquer the world. You can argue about pizza and hamburgers, but another argument is that those have roots in other places.
Even if you don’t think it’s that remarkable, 50 years ago these things were thrown out or sold for next to nothing, and now they’ve spread out all over the world.
You note in the film that each judge consumed approximately 400,000 calories in wings. Did the experience leave you with a different view of chicken wings? Do you still eat them as often?
I still like wings, I don’t eat them as much as you might think. When I’m not on a wing hunt, I don’t eat them all that often, because they’re not good for you. Also now when I eat wings, it’s related to the movie, so depending how I’m feeling about the movie that particular day, it can be a little bit of a chore. But I still like wings very much.
As the movie progresses, some common factors in the best wings emerge: fresh meat, not frozen. Frequently changed fryer oil. Butter, not margarine. What else?
That’s right. Of lesser importance, if you’re going to make an ultra-hot wing, don’t make it hotter by leaving out the butter. Butter carries flavor. And use fresh peppers, not extracts.
Taste is personal. So was this search personal, too?
I was born in the mid-’70s. I was part of the first generation that grew up eating wings all the time. They were a big part of my childhood. Through this crazy journey I did come to realize a sort of profound thing: Wings actually were a big part of my identity. Why? Maybe there weren’t a whole lot of other things to be proud of where I’m from.
When you make a documentary, especially a personal one, you’re always looking for those moments. Actually learning something about myself along the way.