Buffalo wings are named after the town in western New York State where they were first created, not after beasts that once populated the American plains. Despite claims by Buffalo restaurant owner James Young that his breaded chicken wings with “mambo sauce” were the first Buffalo wings, most researchers give credit for that creation to Teressa Bellissimo at Buffalo’s Anchor Bar and Grill. It seems agreed that she first made the wings there on October 30, 1964, but beyond that fact, it is not easy to get a straight story from the Bellissimos, who own the Bar, about what transpired on that fateful day.
Frank, Teressa’s husband, claims that wings were mis-delivered, instead of the chicken necks and backs the restaurant used to make spaghetti sauce, and his wife made appetizers from the unexpected wealth. Teressa says that her son, Dominic, arrived home unexpectedly late at night with a bunch of his college friends and, pressed to whip up something fast, she used the only things on hand; chicken wings saved for making stock, deep fried, tossed with a cayenne sauce and served with the restaurant’s blue cheese salad dressing and celery sticks from the house antipasto. Dominic told Calvin Trillin in a 1980 article for the New Yorker that on a busy Friday night the restaurant’s Catholic patrons were spending lavishly at the bar. He wanted to offer them a treat at midnight, when they would be able to eat meat again, and his mother agreed that chicken wings were cheap enough to give away. It’s unclear who is responsible for the story that the Bellissimos were snowed in at the restaurant during a harsh winter storm, and Teressa cooked the wings, which normally would have been thrown out, to keep them from starving.
Whatever the case, deep-fried chicken wings have long been an American staple, especially in the South. Teressa clipped off the wing tips and separated what was left at the joint, creating what the industry now calls flats and drumettes (you may find these already cut up at your grocery under the title “party wings”). She deep fried them (unbreaded, James), then rolled then in a vinegar-based cayenne pepper hot sauce (marketing materials for Frank’s Redhot claim that it was the sauce she used) and the rest is history. Buffalo wings gained national prominence during the Buffalo Bills’ four consecutive appearances at the Super Bowl from 1990 to 1993, when all things Buffalo were the subject of numerous television broadcasts. By 2012, the National Chicken Council estimated that 23% of Super Bowl watchers ate wings, a total of 1.25 billion wing pieces, weighing 100 million pounds, enough to circle the Earth twice or go one quarter of the way to the moon.
There are now fast food franchises dedicated to wings. Wings N’ Curls opened in Florida the 1970s, and Buffalo Wild Wings was founded in 1982. Hooters began in 1983 and featured wings prominently on its menu, Domino’s reportedly spent $32 million advertising its wings roll out in 1994, and Pizza Hut followed right behind.
And there are wing-eating competitions, such as the Philadelphia Wing Bowl, held the Friday before the Super Bowl, and the National Buffalo Wing Festival. Many bars and restaurants hold their own competitions, challenging customers to eat an outrageous number of wings slathered with their hottest sauce, the prize being your picture placed over the bar and a free meal, if there’s anything left of your stomach. It was reported that a participant downed 337 wings in 30 minutes at the Philadelphia Wing Bowl in 2012. Buffalo, of course, celebrates its own “Chicken Wing Day” on July 29, and the Anchor Bar estimates that it serves more than 70,000 wings each month.
The flavor of Buffalo wings is now applied to other foods, including combination heroes, shrimp (see the recipe on this site for Buffalo grilled jumbo shrimp) and pizza. There are now Buffalo potato chips, produced by several companies, that feature both the taste of hot sauce and of simulated blue cheese. As they moved around the country, Teressa’s wings collected new names: In Maine they are called “B-wings”, in Connecticut and parts of Massachusetts they’re “Buffs”, in New Hampshire they’re “NY poultry jewels”, they’re “smokin’ Carolines” in Kentucky and Tennessee, “spicy turnips” in Missouri, and “far-away saucy boys” in Mississippi.
The ultimate result of Teressa’s creation is that the chicken wing, considered the least desirable chicken part fifty years ago, suitable only to discard or boil in stock, is now the most expensive part of the bird. And since each chicken has only two wings, the number of wings produced by the poultry industry is limited by the need to find markets for the other parts of the critter. Fear remains that, if things continue at the current pace, there may not be enough wings to meet demand at the next SuperBowl…