By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor
Serving traditional turkey on Thanksgiving and elegant prime rib on Christmas are American traditions, but chicken takes wing on Super Bowl Sunday (this year Feb. 4). During last year’s football championship game, more than 450 million finger-lickin’ wings, or 90 million lbs., were consumed, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Chicken Council (www.nationalchickencouncil.com).
Americans love to eat with their fingers — it likely reminds them of carefree childhood memories — and chicken wings offer the irresistible option of licking off the flavorful sauce. There is something for most people to like about Buffalo wings, and the food has spread rapidly from its origin in Buffalo, N.Y., becoming part of our national food culture.
A blitz by the chicken industry has led to growing chicken consumption in general. Americans eat twice as much chicken per person as they did in 1977, an amazing 88.6 lbs. a year (estimated for 2006) for every man, woman and child, according to the National Chicken Council. Most chicken Americans eat is still purchased at retail and cooked and eaten at home (some 58 percent), helped by the innovative, convenient cuts now available in supermarkets.
The most popular chicken menu item in restaurants during 2005 was Caesar salad with chicken (offered in 75 percent of venues), up 9 percent over the year before, according to Harry Balzer, vice president of The NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y. Other chicken favorites include chicken strips and tenders (on the menu in 50 percent of restaurants), chicken noodle soup (44 percent), grilled chicken breast sandwich (43 percent), grilled chicken breast and chicken wings (39 percent).
Although pop singer Jessica Simpson amused the fans of her MTV reality show Newlyweds when she passed on Buffalo wings, because “I don’t eat buffalo,” most consumers know Buffalo wings have nothing to do with American bison. Buffalo wings are chicken wing sections (called flats and drums), which are deep fried and coated in sauce. Although many sauces exist, the original “Buffalo” sauce was composed of only five ingredients: cayenne pepper, white vinegar, butter, salt and garlic.
Deep fried chicken wings are a staple of Southern cooking, but the idea of cooking wings in peppery hot sauce is attributed to Teresa Bellissimo, co-owner with her husband Frank of the Anchor Bar & Grill in Buffalo, N.Y. On Oct. 3, 1964, she invented Buffalo wings as a late-night snack for her son Dominic and his friends.
Legend is she was making chicken stock with wings and improvised the snack by sticking some wings under the broiler, sprinkled them with a hot sauce she concocted from a commercial base (Frank’s RedHot Sauce, now owned by Reckitt Benckiser) and served them with a side of celery sticks and blue cheese salad dressing. The boys raved about them, so the Bellissimos put “Buffalo Wings” on the menu the next day. Customers received them with enthusiasm, and a tradition was born.
The Anchor Bar, today a tourist destination, serves more than 36,000 lbs. of deep-fried (rather than broiled) wings per month, and the National Buffalo Wing Festival is held every Labor Day weekend in downtown Buffalo.
As Buffalonians retired to Florida, they brought their Buffalo wing recipes along. Edmund Hauck started Wings ’N Curls in 1975, the first chain of restaurants specializing in wings. A recipe and brief discussion in the New York Times Magazine by Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey brought Buffalo wings to a national audience in 1981.
The Hooters restaurant chain was founded in the mid-1980s with chicken wings central to the menu, including the notion of three levels of hotness in the sauce. Domino’s introduced them to the pizza-loving crowd in 1994. For the National Football League games on NBC that season, the company committed $32 million of advertising. Today, you find Buffalo wings on most restaurant menus.
From mild to suicidal
While original Buffalo-style wings are unbreaded, some restaurants and taverns bread them. If prepared correctly, the breading soaks up the hot sauce, intensifies the flavor and makes them less messy to eat. Speaking of sauces, wings are offered in hot varieties made with Cajun, Caribbean jerk spices or sweet and spicy flavors. Chili’s serves up “boneless wings,” a variation made of chicken breast meat tossed in wing sauce, making them easier to eat. And retail consumers have the option of purchasing products, such as McCormick & Co.’s Original Buffalo Wings Seasoning Mix, that take most of the work out of preparation.
Buffalo wing sauce can be made with a variable amount of heat or spiciness — hot, medium, mild — using the same sauce base. Hot wings are generally made with hot sauce, no butter. Medium wings have hot sauce and butter; mild have lots of butter and very little hot sauce. True aficianados huddle with the “suicidal” version — hot sauce with red pepper or some other spice.
Wings have gained such popularity and following that there are now even documented “best practice” eating techniques for wings. Originated by Greg Augustine of Indianapolis, instructions for his small bone twist and smash technique are as follows on his web site cluckbucket.com:
“Grab the wing portion without the nub; go to one end of the wing and gently separate the bones; stand the wing up on its end using the two separated bones as its stand; place your thumb, index and middle finger firmly half way down the wing, in a thrusting motion; firmly smash the wing down towards the surface (all the chicken and skin should be off the bone). Now place the entire piece of chicken in your mouth and enjoy. You’ve just completed the smash!”
So don’t fumble, forward pass the wings for that extra point. If your team is losing and the game seems hopeless, shout Hail Mary! and smash those wings. It may lead to a touchdown.