Chicken Wings Take Flight

I was reading something that stopped me cold the other day – or stopped me hot, to be more precise. The least expensive part of any chicken, the part producers could barely give away a mere half-century ago, has become the single most expensive part.

That, just in time for July 4th, is the mystery and miracle of the chicken wing.

Sometimes it feels like chicken wings – the first time I heard of them, they were called “buffalo wings,” though even I was smart enough to know buffalos didn’t have wings – are the things that keep all-American sports bars in business, even more than sports. And between the wings-centric chains like Buffalo Wild Wings (or BW3, in my kids’ lingo, for reasons I’ll explain) and the populist menus at Applebee’s, TGIFridays and the like, chicken wings do tend to be everywhere we look.

Even pizza-centric concepts like Domino’s and Pizza Hut do a brisk business in the silly things, especially as each of the most popular sports moves into the playoff phase of its season. These days even soccer’s World Cup, long a huge deal everywhere but here, is likely to inspire millions of Americans to “take wing.”

As many have figured out by now, “Buffalo” in the context of chicken wings isn’t an animal wandering the Great Plains but a city in Upstate New York. And the wings in questions started out not as a recipe but a mistake.

Teressa Bellissimo (an Italian family name meaning “most beautiful,” no less) must have slipped up on the phone with her chicken guy, ordering chicken wings instead of the chicken necks her husband Frank used to make their “red gravy” for spaghetti. Since they’d both run the Anchor Bar in Buffalo since 1939 and it was now 1964, she figured she could call they guy back and, even if he grumbled a little, he’d come replace the wings with necks in the name of customer service.

Frank, however, told his wife not to bother: Just make something to give away to drinkers at the bar. Looking for the easiest way to get from Point A to Point B, and probably grumbling a little herself, Teressa deep-fried the wings without bothering to make a batter, doused them in hot sauce and served them with celery and blue cheese salad dressing.

People liked it. No, make that: People loved it. The Anchor being a bar, the Bellissimos initially loved that their “Buffalo wings” were hot enough with sauce to make people drink more. Eventually, people came to drink at the Anchor Bar BECAUSE it was Home of the Original Buffalo Wings.

The spread of wings was about what you’d expect, starting with other bars around Buffalo that felt they had to compete, and then with bars across “Upstate” (saying New York is unnecessary among the locals). As always, there came to be fan clubs that figured their favorite bar made wings even better than the Anchor, Duff’s being the best-known – if very local – example. People don’t go out for “Duff Wings,” now do they?

Calvin Trillin, the beloved journalist who called himself a “big hungry boy” in books like “Alice, Let’s Eat,” went to Buffalo to track down the story in 1980. And when Hooters debuted three years later, chicken wings were the heart of its menu. 

By the way, the original name of Buffalo Wild Wings was “Buffalo Wild Wings & Weck,” a reference to a Buffalo-beloved beef sandwich served on a German roll called “kummelweck.” Beef on Weck, this sandwich was called. According to all credible stories, the 19th-century bread became a fixture in Buffalo’s bars because it was sprinkled with caraway seeds and salt – and therefore caused bar patrons to drink more.

The “Weck” proved too local a reference and fell out of the Buffalo Wild Wings name – except for insiders who still call the place “BW3.” But I think we’re seeing a theme here.

SMOKED CHAMPAGNE HONEY MUSTARD WINGS

One key to the original popularity of “Buffalo wings” was the hot sauce that kept bar patrons drinking. We like hot sauce as much as the next red-blooded American, but we know there’s other interesting and soul-satisfying things to do with a chicken wing. The next time you want to pull out the smoker, here’s a notion that might not have crossed your mind.

¼ cup sugar

¼ cup kosher salt

8 cups water

12 medium chicken wings

Coarse-ground black pepper

1 cup Fischer & Wieser’s Champagne Honey Mustard

1 tablespoon brown sugar

3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 cup crushed salted pretzel sticks

Mix the sugar and salt with the water and use this to brine the wings for 1 hour in the refrigerator. Preheat your smoker (or backyard grill, preferably with soaked wood chips) to 275 degrees. Dry the wings with a paper towel, season with black pepper and set in the smoker until meat registers 165-170 degrees, about 1 hour. Turn the heat to high to sear all sides of the wings until golden and crispy, about 4 minutes more.

While wings are smoking, prepare the sauce by stirring together the mustard, brown sugar, vinegar, garlic powder and Worcestershire. Remove the wings from the smoker, toss with the sauce and sprinkle with crushed pretzels and more black pepper. Serves 4-6. 

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