The Evolution Of Buffalo Wings

The humble chicken delicacy has evolved from throwaway to game day, and now it’s available locally in a variety of flavors

The Buffalo wing is ubiquitous, especially at this time of year, when football is in full swing and NFL playoffs are set to begin. In fact, these handheld delicacies have become so common—appearing not only at game-day (or night) house parties but on tavern and restaurant menus— that most of us probably never give a thought as to how they originated, or what their future is.

The origin story has several versions, but most hew to the same basic facts: It was invented in 1964 and first served at the Anchor Bar, a restaurant owned by the Bellissimo family in—you guessed it—Buffalo, N.Y.

Her 1985 New York Times obituary credits Teressa, the Bellissimo matriarch, as the one “who invented the Buffalo-style chicken wing.”

One of the wing stories starts with Teressa’s son, Dominic, who had wanted something to eat for him and his friends on a Friday night shortly before midnight.

Says Dominic Bellissimo: “The true story is that I was tending bar, and a bunch of my friends were drinking. My mother, God rest her soul, was in the kitchen. I said to my father, ‘Let’s have some hors d’oeuvres.’ Dad said: ‘They’re all Catholic boys. They don’t eat meat on Friday.’”

The obit continues: “Dominic reminded his father that it would soon be Saturday. And, he recalled, ‘Dad told mother to come up with something.’”

Another story, this time from a 1980 issue of The New Yorker, cites a delivery mistake, wherein chicken wings were delivered to the bar instead of backs and necks, which were at the time used for spaghetti sauce.

Ms. Bellissimo’s husband, Frank, thought “it would be a shame to use the wings for sauce,” so he asked her to “figure out some more dignified end for the wings.”

All three Bellissimo family members have since passed away, so we can’t check the veracity of the stories, but the bottom line is that the City of Buffalo has celebrated its namesake dish on National Chicken Wing Day every July 29 since 1977.

National Chains Jump In

What followed their invention was a parade of national chains dedicated to the mighty wing, including Buffalo Wild Wings, Wings N’Curls in Florida, and Hooters, and then the adoption of wings as an appetizer at pizza chains like Domino’s.

The Buffalo-style sauce has also spiced things up in similar food categories, spawning a love for Buffalo chicken fingers, pizza and shrimp.

Wings have gained such renown that they’ve become a competitive eating circuit staple, at venues such as the now-defunct Wing Bowl in Philadelphia and the National Buffalo Wing Festival in Buffalo. 

Philly’s Wing Bowl was founded in 1993 by two sports-radio talk show hosts, WIP’s Angelo Cataldi and Al Morganti. It began solely as a radio promotion but quickly morphed into an officially recognized competitive eating contest. Held the Friday preceding the Super Bowl, the Wing Bowl became “part sport, part circus, and all entertainment,” according to the Wing Bowl website. After a successful yet controversial 26-year run, Cataldi announced in October that the event would come to an end.

A few hours north, Buffalo, N.Y., celebrates its namesake dish each September at National Buffalo Wing Festival. This two-day event attracts more than 70,000 people, who eat 25-plus tons of wings from more than 30 eateries around the world.

The festival highlight is the officially sanctioned wing-eating competition, which brings professional eaters from all over the world. This year, perennial favorite Joey Chestnut won by downing 206 wings in 12 minutes. Portions of the proceeds from the festival go to local charities like the Alzheimer’s Association and Meals on Wheels.

Football, with its party atmosphere, has spurred the wings love affair. Last year, the National Chicken Council projected that Americans would eat 1.35 billion wings during Super Bowl weekend, when the Eagles played the New England Patriots.

Local Buffalo Wings

Delaware jumped on the wing wagon early on. It’s not entirely clear who began the craze here, but one of the early stories begins in 1985 with a Buffalonian mother and son who were stationed at Dover Air Force Base and “pined for wings from Buffalo,” says John Martino, president and CEO of Wings to Go. Instead of waiting for wings to arrive, the duo took it into their own hands to establish the first Wings to Go store at the entrance to the base.

As demand grew, Wings to Go opened multiple locations in Wilmington and Dewey Beach and by 1989 it had begun franchising. In 1995 the original owners were bought out by a small group of investors who planned to rebuild the brand and expand its franchises. 

Martino started out as an investor and moved up to running the parent company in addition to opening his own store.

As for the origin of wings, he thinks the Anchor Bar story is “baloney,” and believes that the delicacy originated much earlier, as an African-American dish. A 1980 New Yorker article supports this theory. In it, writer Calvin Trillin acknowledged that an African-American man, John Young, established his restaurant Wings ‘N Things in Buffalo before the Bellissimos. These wings differed from Buffalo-style wings because they are left whole, rather than cut in half, and are breaded and tossed in a mambo sauce, which is more like a sweet and tangy barbecue sauce.

It’s important to note that before the chicken wing gained popularity, it was a “throwaway food,” says Martino. Wings have followed the same path from undesirable to delicacy as other throwaway foods, like scallops, mussels and, yes, lobsters.

Steve Torpey, owner of Stanley’s Tavern on Foulk Road, remembers this humble beginning for the savory favorite first hand. “Chicken wings were a complete by-product,” he says.

Torpey also vividly recalls the first time he heard about Buffalo-style wings. “It was the early 1980s, maybe 1984. My former partner told me about ‘Buffalo wings,’ these fried chicken wings tossed in butter and sauce and served with blue cheese that he had eaten at a tailgate,” says Torpey. “I blew him off immediately.”

Not long after, Torpey gave the chicken wing a second chance. A year later, Stanley’s was selling an ever-increasing number of wings. At its peak, the sports bar sold 86,000 pounds of wings in one year.

“At the time, wings were extremely inexpensive to buy,” says Torpey. “We ran a lot of two-for-one and 25-cent wing specials.”

Stanley’s has maintained its longstanding wing tradition and has offered two-for-one Buffalo wings during all NFL games this season. (Be sure to order your wings in advance for your Super Bowl party.)

Like any good team, Stanley’s has a game plan for Super Bowl Sunday: “We have three cooks just to cook wings and five helpers to bag to-go orders,” says Torpey. “Buffalo wings are not just a fad anymore. They’re now an American staple.”

From Fried To Smoked

Wings have evolved over the years to become a food category of their own. When they started out they were fried and served Buffalo-style. Nowadays, it’s almost a sin to offer just one style of wing. As Martino says about Wings to Go: “We’re a sauce company, not a chicken company.” Nineteen wing flavors are testimony to that statement.

While sauces are one component of a good wing, what about the way they are cooked? Two Wilmington-based restaurants have brought smoke into the equation.

One of them is Market Street’s Merchant Bar, which has stocked its bar food menu with dishes you can’t really find elsewhere.

Says co-owner Andrea Sikora: “Variations on chicken wings will never be wrong. We have tried to create a menu at Merchant Bar that’s very unique, with dishes like our crispy lamb meatballs and smoked duck moo shu.”

To complement these dishes, Merchant Bar serves not one but two smoked chicken wings—dry rub and Korean BBQ—both served with celery and blue cheese.

A bit further down Market Street, 218 Grille’s specialty is smoked meat, including its smoked chicken wings, which are served in a variety of flavors—hot and mild, BBQ, and BBQ jerk, and more exotic flavors like sesame ginger, Thai coconut curry, and mesquite dry rub.

Just in time for football season, owner Darril Guilford has added two new flavors: sweet teriyaki and garlic parmesan.

Says Guilford, “I decided to focus my menu on chicken because it’s a universal food for many cultures. I wanted to offer something special with great taste, so I incorporated unique flavors to appease anyone who enters through our door.”

Delivery from 218 Grille is now available and can be ordered online or by calling 397-8667. Make sure to order early on football game days, Super Bowl and New Year’s Eve, which are the most popular times to order wings.

And wing lovers should mark their calendars now for next year’s National Chicken Wing Day on July 29. Most of the large wing chains like Buffalo Wild Wings offer deals on this holiday. Or, if you’re like me and have a hankering for a chicken wing now, try this recipe:

Janice Okun’s Buffalo Chicken Wings

Makes 24 wings

• 24 chicken wings
• salt and pepper
• 4 cups peanut, vegetable or corn oil
• 4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter
• 2 to 5 tablespoons Frank’s Louisiana Red Hot Sauce
• 1 tablespoon white vinegar
• Blue cheese dressing
• Celery sticks

1. Cut off and discard the small tip of each wing. Cut the main wing bone and second wing bone at the joint. Sprinkle the wings with salt, if desired, and pepper to taste.

2. Heat the oil in a deep-fat fryer or large casserole. When it is quite hot, add half of the wings and cook about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the chicken wings are golden brown and crisp, remove them and drain well.

3. Add the remaining wings and cook about 10 minutes or until golden brown and crisp. Drain well.

4. Melt the butter in a saucepan and add two to five tablespoons of the hot sauce and vinegar.

5. Put the chicken wings on a warm serving platter and pour the butter mixture over them. Serve with blue cheese dressing and celery sticks.

— Recipe from The New York Times, Aug. 30, 1981, nytimes.com/1981/08/30/magazine/food-winging-it-in-buffalo.html

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