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JOHN YOUNG STAKES HIS CLAIM TO THE CHICKEN WING

No one knows for sure who invented the wheel.
No one knows who invented the clothespin.

And no one is 100 percent sure who came up with the Buffalo chicken wing, either. Some great inventions have a tendency to remain anonymous.

Of all the inventions in the world, however, a recipe's origin may be the most difficult to trace. There's no great Culinary Court of Last Resort to make a theory official.

Many people believe the wing was invented in Buffalo's Anchor Bar late on a Friday night by the late Teressa Bellissimo.

But there is at least one other story.

"I am the true inventor of the Buffalo chicken wing," insists John Young, a soft-spoken, courtly gentleman who lives with his wife of 38 years, Christine, on the city's East Side.

Young admits that Teressa Bellissimo was the first person to cut the wings in half before frying and the first to serve them with celery and blue cheese dressing. But the original concept, he says, was his.

"It hurts me so bad that other people take the credit."

True, John Young has received precious little notice in the past 30-some years.

Despite some mentions in the famous Calvin Trillin New Yorker magazine piece in 1980, despite a proclamation from the Common Council on April 12, 1982, crediting him as the originator, few official sources mention Young's part in the wing epic that has seen the skinny chicken parts become a staple snack all over the United States.

Wings turn up in such places as Osaka, Japan, and Sydney, Australia, too. Often -- but not always halved -- and served with blue cheese dressing and celery.

Young, 62, says he has been selling chicken wings since 1963. He operated various restaurants in the area. But in 1964, he opened Wings and Things at 1313 Jefferson Ave. at Utica -- "it should be a historical site."

That restaurant made a sensation.

"The day we opened, people fell out of the sky!" Young says. "I was selling 10 wings -- whole -- for $1 then, and people were lined up around the corner like they were going to a rummage sale.

"And I had only three deep fryers."

John Young knew quite a lot about chicken wings by the time he came to Buffalo in 1948. He was 13 years old, had been born and raised on a four-acre Alabama farm, one of 14 children. And wings had been an important aspect of poor people's diet in the South since before the Civil War.

"The Black Family Dinner Quilt Cookbook" (Wimmer House), compiled by Dorothy Height and the National Council of Negro Women Inc., speaks of "the pigs' feet, intestines or chitterlings, jowls and ribs, chicken feet, necks, backs, wings and organ meats" that slaves were forced to cook with.

"The skill which made such leftover odds and ends the nourishment for hard laborers is a unique distinction of soul food," the book continues. "Slaves cooked with their whole heart, doing their best with sparse ingredients."

When Young was a boy, the food situation was tight. "We raised all our own chickens and pigs," he recalls.

"But we children seldom got the top-shelf cuts. My mother was very religious -- the breast and the thighs went to the preacher."

Once he came north, Young started work at the old Colonial House restaurant chain and with small restaurants of his own.

But then he talked with a boxer named Sam Anderson who traveled a lot. And the rest is culinary history.

"He told me that there was a restaurant in Washington, D.C., that was doing a good business with wings," Young says.

"And I decided to specialize."

Those were the glory days. Eventually, Young was serving up wings from five different locations. Celebrities came to to see him -- everyone from the Buffalo Bills' Cookie Gilchrist to George "Hound Dog" Lorenz watched Young dip the uncut wings in Golden Dip breading to protect them as they fried.

He used no butter -- just the famous (and forever secret) Mambo Sauce, which he kept boiling on the stove like a "pot of lava."

It is a tomato-based sauce that Young describes as "highly seasoned" rather than "merely hot." But there are other adjectives.

"The lip-smacking, liver-quivering sauce (that) titillated our taste buds down to our toes," said Council President James W. Pitts. (Pitts remembers going to Wings and Things after a Friday night session in the Dellwood Ballroom.)

No longer in the restaurant business, Young still thinks of bottling the sauce. Why?

"Anybody can do wings, but if you don't have the Mambo Sauce, you don't have anything."

Young left town in 1970, returned, then left again. "My brother Paul carried on the family tradition, and still does at a place called A Meal for a Steal at the corner of Jefferson and Ferry."

Meantime, of course, the Buffalo chicken wing took off. And so did confusion. Ivano Toscani, manager of the Anchor Bar, insists that the wings were invented and first served by the Bellissimo family in the Anchor Bar in 1964.

"Teressa used to keep wings on hand to make stock, and this time they were larger than usual so she thought they were too beautiful to waste. She chopped off the tip and cut them in half and fried them and served them with sauce, with celery," Toscani says. "I don't know whether there was blue cheese dressing then, however."

Young, on the other hand, insists that the place didn't serve wings regularly until 1974.

There's no question who gets most of the credit in the annals of culinary history, however.

"Mrs. Pataki (New York's first lady) just recognized us as the birthplace of the Buffalo chicken wing," Toscani pointed out. And even John Mariani, in his "Dictionary of American Food and Drink," gives credence to the Anchor Bar story.

Who will ever know the whole story? Don Will of Will Poultry remembers selling wings to Young in the '60s, but "I couldn't guess the quantities," he says. (Young has records that say there were a lot of them.)

And attorney Robert J. Tronolone, who has known the family for 18 years, says there is no doubt that Young was selling wings in the early '60s -- "but whether they were 'Buffalo style,' we'll never know."

Meantime, Young continues to speak up.

"I have eight grandchildren and I want their respect," he says firmly. "I want them to know what their grandfather did."

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