Buddhists describe nirvana as a state of bliss or peace. In Buffalo, it comes with a side of blue cheese dressing.
We all dream of the consummate, flawless, dare we say perfect chicken wing, and on Saturday, we set out to find it, traveling to a mecca that, even now, decades after the birth of our idol, attracts thousands of followers.
Here, at the National Buffalo Wing Festival, the wing is indeed king.
“This is the place to come,” said Matt Corona, co-owner of Boneheads Wing Bar in West Warwick, R.I. “This is the place where all chicken wings are tested.”
Buffalo is also where the wing’s most devoted disciples come to worship their deep-fried wonders, even if their tastes vary.
Wingman and I are no exception.
On this warm summer day, we came looking, searching for the quintessential wing, the kind of small but tasty morsel that forever quenches your thirst for a new standard, a new threshold of excellence.
“I’m open to any flavor,” said Willie Matos, winner of this year’s Amateur Creative Sauce contest. “As long as that flavor stays in your mouth the entire bite.”
Not surprisingly, there are as many perfect wings as there are wing eaters.
As Wingman and I made our way from booth to booth, tasting the fare at every stop, we found ourselves comparing notes with other followers, other believers.
“I like the flavor to linger,” said Adolphus Allen of Buffalo as he sampled the honey garlic and garlic Parmesan wings from RuChDa in Atlanta.
The look on his face suggested he might have come close to finding that one singular wing.
We looked at him with envy.
“It has to be sweet and spicy, and it has to be crispy,” said Thomas Harris, one of the cooks at RuChDa. “It also has to have just enough sauce. Not too much. Not too little.”
Wingman nodded in agreement, a smile peeking out from his sauce-stained lips.
There is no right or wrong recipe when it comes to the perfect wing, and yet it’s not uncommon for chefs to keep their ingredients secret.
Yes, they’ll acknowledge that Frank’s hot sauce is required and, of course, there’s almost always butter and garlic. But often, that’s as far as they’ll go.
Just ask Wingman. More than once, he tried to press a cook for ingredients, only to see them clam up.
It wasn’t uncommon to see my friend walk away, muttering under his breath, complaining about the absence of humanity in the wing world.
Soon though, it became clear to him, and me, that there are wings for followers of every ilk and persuasion.
There are French Toast wings. Breakfast at Tiffany’s wings. Wrong Side of the Road wings.
Wingman’s favorite? Ghost Face Killa from Arooga’s in Pennsylvania. He’s still wiping away the tears.
“Why did I do that?” he sputtered as he looked anxiously for a bottle of water.
Like all good revivals, the wing festival has its share of vendors hawking wing paraphernalia. There are hats, T-shirts and beer huggies.
And of course, there are wings of every imaginable flavor.
At Danny’s, the Orchard Park wing place, the specialty is the Tailgater.
“We add a spice that enhances your drinking capability,” said owner Dan Prenoveau.
Even the big names in wings turned out to pay their respects at the shrine of all things hot, medium and mild.
Scott Lowery, a Buffalo native and co-founder of the Wild Wings restaurant chain, was on hand and, like every other wing lover in attendance, couldn’t help but talk about his perfect wing.
Clearly, he’s thought about it.
“I’m a traditionalist,” Lowery said. “I like them small, no more than two bites per wing. The bigger they are, the more fat there is under the skin.”
Like a sign from above, the rains arrived in the afternoon, clearing much of Coca-Cola Field, home of the two-day festival, for a few dark, cloudy minutes.
And when it stopped, the crowds returned, a renewed eagerness to their search for that one ultimate wing.
And how do you know when you have it?
“You know right away,” said Paul Steinwandel of Derby. “You know it with that first bite.”