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At 50, the Buffalo-style chicken wing has conquered the world

At 50, the Buffalo-style chicken wing has conquered the world

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Justin Chambers at Mawson Station by Justin Chambers

Saving every wing from chickens shipped to the polar cap twice a year, and hydroponic celery, Justin Chambers managed to serve Buffalo wings at the end of the Earth. (Justin Chambers)

Justin Chambers is the head chef at Mawson Station, an Australian research site in Antarctica. His job is feeding a small crew of scientists and staff who spend their days studying things like penguins and cosmic rays.

The ice cap allows a single major resupply a year, by ship. As he prepares the daily meals for 16 to 30 people, depending on the season, Chambers cuts the wings off every chicken he cooks and stashes them in his freezer. The base has a tiny hydroponic garden, capable of producing “token amounts” of vegetables. As it so happens, one is celery.

Twice in the last year, he wielded deep-fryer, butter and cayenne pepper sauce to conjure up the answer to his cravings and thus has been able to serve Buffalo-style chicken wings at the end of the Earth.

“I’m not sure if I’ve converted anybody yet,” he said in an email, “but that only means there is more for me.”

It’s a sentiment any wing lover can understand.

According to the Anchor Bar, Thursday will mark a seminal moment in popular culture: the 50th anniversary of the Buffalo-style chicken wing, its first public appearance after the thunderbolt of genius struck Teressa Bellissimo, of sainted memory, in the kitchen at 1047 Main St. That’s one of the versions, anyway. What is beyond dispute is that the Bellissimos struck gold in the common soil of an Italian red sauce joint. Cut them up for easier eating, into the deep fryer, blue cheese dressing and antipasto celery, and half a century later, a snack and a city are synonymous.

In a town notorious for failures, the Buffalo-style chicken wing is our world champion. Its crispy-skinned, lip-tingling pleasures are Buffalo’s most effective ambassador around the globe. If you’re the sort of Buffalonian who wears your civic pride on your sleeve, who still winces when you hear the terms “wide right” or “skate in the crease,” then “Buffalo wings” are sweet soothing balm. It’s one thing about Buffalo that makes people wish they lived in Buffalo.

Chicken wings have become the foundation of a multibillion-dollar industry. They are a staple of chain restaurant appetizer menus. In fact, they are a chain restaurant genre unto themselves – Buffalo Wild Wings, the largest of 20 chicken wing restaurant chains, has more than 1,000 stores and $1 billion in sales. They were on the itinerary when the world’s most powerful leader hit town – and got hit on. They are their own annual festival. Any news story about Buffalo is incomplete without a mention of the wing and any nationally broadcast sporting event is seemingly required to include footage of wings being tossed in sauce. The wing is so inextricably linked to the city that people have taken to arguing about whether it is even appropriate for people from Buffalo to call them by the internationally accepted “Buffalo wings.”

Sure, you can get good Buffalo wings outside of Western New York. It’s just that your chance of disappointment goes up. Way up.

Buffalo taverns have been trying to outdo each other for decades, having learned that if you invent a better chicken wing, fans will brave whatever Buffalo throws at them to get a double medium and a pitcher. That’s why asking people what their favorite chicken wing is remains a reliable argument starter at Buffalo parties, or wherever Buffalonians congregate online.

Buffalo wing fans share a common tongue, and can stand for hours at a party, beer in hand, and swap stories about the best wings they ever had. If no way to repair the deprivation is at hand, the hunger lingers.

Wherever expats gather, the subject comes up. In Nairobi, Kenya, fans trade notes online about who has the best Buffalo wing in town. In Moscow, Buffalo wings are no longer unusual, though they remain a minor novelty in Vladivostok, Internet commenters report.

It’s not just an American flavor any more. The chicken wing might be ours, but it belongs to the world now.

Special day

Teressa brought out the first platter at about 1 or 2 a.m. on March 6, 1964, a Friday, according to the Anchor Bar’s official history.

The Bellissimos weren’t the first Buffalo restaurateurs to realize the potential of chicken wings. John Young had opened Wings ’n Things on Jefferson Avenue in 1963. But his wings were breaded like Southern fried chicken, had drumettes and flats still attached, and were dressed in tomato-based sauce.

The Anchor Bar version’s easy-to-handle pieces, easier cooking and dead simple sauce of Frank’s Red Hot and butter turned out to be irresistible to customers and competitors.

Still, the wing didn’t become a sensation overnight. Calvin Trillin, in his 1980 New Yorker article “An Attempt to Compile a Short History of the Buffalo Chicken Wing,” noted that a search of Buffalo newspapers for the years following the invention turned up one article about the Anchor Bar. A long Courier-Express feature in 1969 did not mention chicken wings.

Other restaurants in town were catching on, though. Duff’s, in Amherst, started selling them in 1969. In 1977, the City of Buffalo declared July 29 Chicken Wing Day. As the official proclamation noted, “thousands of pounds of chicken wings are consumed by Buffalonians in restaurants and taverns throughout the city each week.”

The wing really had its closeup in the four-year period from 1990 through 1993, when the Buffalo Bills won the right to play in the Super Bowl an unprecedented four straight times. Each year, the national spotlight focused on the team and the city and, inevitably, the Anchor Bar and images of tossing, tossing, tossing in the obligatory chicken wing feature before the game, and time-out cutaways. Yes, the evening always ended with the Bills losing the game, but if you were an expat making Buffalo wings for friends, you knew you would at least have a wing to ease the pain.

How fitting that Buffalo wings are the undefeated king of Super Bowl snacks today, with Americans eating an estimated 1.25 billion wings that weekend. The big chains – Domino’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, even McDonald’s – all caught on. The American love affair with chicken wings had so permeated the culture by 1997 that a screenwriter named Marc Hyman made a Buffalo wing festival a minor plot device in a script.

“Osmosis Jones” was released in 2001 and sank without a trace, returning $14 million on a $70 million investment.

One of the people who didn’t see it was Drew Cerza. One day in March 2001, Cerza was taking the recycling out to the curb when he noticed a piece of trash that would change his life.

It was a copy of The Buffalo News in the recycling bin, the headline “Capitalize on Wing Legacy With a Festival.” Columnist Donn Esmonde called for someone to make the Hollywood version of a Buffalo wing festival real. As it happened, Cerza was a diehard wing disciple, spending many an afternoon at the Anchor Bar with a platter and a pitcher, while he was supposed to be studying at Bryant and Stratton.

After watching the movie and considering Esmonde’s idea, Cerza took the wing and ran, and pulled an event together for 2002. He’s been doing the National Buffalo Wing Festival ever since.

That gave Cerza a platform to preaching the wing gospel to every willing television camera in the land. He’s done the Today Show three times. On “The View,” he fed wings to Tori Spelling.

“I thought she was a vegetarian,” he said, “but the power of the wing converted her.”

WGRZ anchor Scott Levin called Cerza the Wing King and the name stuck. When Cerza goes full Wing King, he wears a red cape trimmed with white fur and a chicken wing hat.

“When I do the Today Show and things like that, it’s the Wing King. It just sounds good,” Cerza said. “They have no idea what my name is, but he’s the Wing King.”

The wing was king again when it became a part of the biggest story in the nation a couple of years ago. That was the day President Obama came to town for a photo op and a little glad-handing. He made a pit stop at Duff’s in Cheektowaga and while there, a Chaffee resident informed him that he was a “hottie with a smokin’ little body.” The comment was picked up in articles around the world and managed to supplant the real breaking news from the visit: politically, Obama might be too far to the right or left for some people, but when it comes to wings, he’s a medium.

A roadie cure

Perhaps the reason people talk so much about Buffalo-style wings is that, once you get a taste for them, it’s hard to shake. Chambers, the Antarctic chef, didn’t eat them growing up in New Zealand. He had his first taste during a stint cooking for Shania Twain’s Up! Tour in 2004.

“The other chefs I worked with provided the tuition needed to make these spicy sublime devils,” he said via email.

As can sometimes happen, his rock-and-roll tour lifestyle left him with a new habit: chicken wings. He also noticed they made fans feel better in strange lands.

“Whilst working around Europe in the same capacity, as a roadie chef, I frequently placed Buffalo wings on the menu for any American artist and their crew,” Chambers said. “They were always well received, and alongside a blue cheese dip and celery, staved off the homesickness that could have easily set in, in a culinary sense.”

In his Antarctic kitchen, Chambers fought his own battle against the deprivations of a 14-month-long stretch “down on the ice,” squirreling away chicken wings, one pair at a time, as the celery sprouts pushed toward the artificial lights.

“Once bitten,” the Antarctic chef observed, “these tasty morsels console a stomach and mind that have never known such delights.”

It’s powerful testimony that whether in a bleak wasteland of rock and ice, or Antarctica, wings make you glad to be alive.


The Buffalo News: Food & Drink

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